On Ukraine: Same war, new dilemmas

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Thousands of civilians, including many children, were waiting to be evacuated to safety in the Kramatorsk railway station in eastern Ukraine on Friday morning when two missiles, later reported to be cluster weapons that are banned under international law, exploded in their midst. At least 50 people died, and more than 100 others were injured. A message in Russian on the surviving casing of one missile read “For the children”. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, understandably described the attack as the action of “an evil that has no limits”.

Even amid so many other horrors in Russia’s war on Ukraine, the Kramatorsk attack stands out for heartless brutality. It is a week now since Russian forces began to retreat after their invasion stalled around Kyiv. During that time, reporters have filed horrific revelations of the carnage and destruction that the defeated Russians left behind them. Evidence from places such as Bucha, Irpin, Hostomel and Borodianka, in all of which Ukrainian civilians appear to have been summarily murdered, has appalled the civilised world. War crime charges rightly seem certain to be brought against Russia. Now the crimes of Kramatorsk must be added to the charge sheet.

The past 10 days mark an important change in the dynamics and location of the Ukraine war. But it is not a simple or conclusive change yet. Ukrainian resistance, aided by western weaponry and technology, has secured a notable military victory by forcing the Russians to retreat. Kyiv is, for now, able to come back to a kind of life; a few refugees have begun returning from the west, and western leaders, including the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, have travelled there to show solidarity. Russian troops have now left the Sumy region in the north-east. Ukraine has also regained control of its border with Belarus.

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But the war itself is far from over. Moscow’s forces are regrouping in the east, following Russia’s decision to make the Donbas region its primary focus. This is somewhat easier territory for them logistically and politically. It heralds a further assault in Mariupol, fresh offensives in Donbas (of which the missile attack on Kramatorsk station is part) and against Odesa, all of which will stretch Ukrainian supply lines and resources. As a result, President Zelenskiy has increased his calls for further western military aid.

After a week like the last one, he has morality more than ever on his side. He is also likely to feel less pressure to seek a compromise peace deal. Yet by making these appeals, the Ukrainian president has helped to trigger a new and intense phase of debate in the western democracies about how far they are really willing to go in supporting Ukraine militarily. This has exposed genuine differences about real dilemmas. The Czech Republic has supplied Soviet-era tanks, Poland is considering following suit and Slovakia has sent air defence systems. The US, Britain and France are more cautious, yet all of them have been quietly and incrementally crossing the military threshold they adopted in February that only defensive support would be given. Some in the west, including the Commons defence select committee chair, Tobias Ellwood, want them to go further.