Analysis | Russia’s deadly attacks see Ukraine call out a Western double standard

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For Ukrainians, the double standard is glaring. Officials in Kyiv watched Saturday as a barrage of Iranian missiles and drones targeting Israel were intercepted both by the Jewish state’s sophisticated missile defense system and the combined efforts of a coalition of Western and Arab partners. U.S. batteries on the ground in the region, warplanes and naval destroyers whirred into action to thwart an assault on a non-NATO ally, ensuring that Iran’s strike caused minimal damage. Britain, France and Jordan stepped in to help too.

And then the Ukrainians considered their own predicament, locked in more than two years of a full-blown war with their larger, invading neighbor. Away from the front lines, Russia has launched wave upon wave of relentless, indiscriminate drone and missile attacks on Ukrainian cities, hitting shopping areas, power plants and residential blocks.

“The whole world saw that Israel was not alone in this defense — the threat in the sky was also being eliminated by its allies,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said after the weekend’s events. “And when Ukraine says that its allies should not turn a blind eye to Russian missiles and drones, it means action is needed — a bold one.”

Zelensky had further reason for frustration Wednesday after Russian cruise missiles hit the downtown area of the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv. The strike — one of the deadliest single attacks carried out in recent months by Russia — killed at least 17 people and injured more than 60 others. “This would not have happened if Ukraine had received enough air defense equipment and if the world’s determination to counter Russian terror was also sufficient,” Zelensky wrote on Telegram. “There needs to be sufficient commitment from partners and sufficient support to reflect it.”

In the aftermath of the attack on Chernihiv, which is close to the Russian border, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba lamented that his country lacked what was so readily provided for Israel. “These innocent people would not have been killed or injured if Ukraine had sufficient air defense capabilities,” Kuleba wrote on social media. “Three days ago in the Middle East, we saw what reliable protection of human lives from missiles looks like.”

A Russian missile attack killed more than a dozen people in Chernihiv, Ukraine, on April 17, according to local officials. (Video: Reuters)

With a vital tranche of U.S. aid still stalled in Congress, Kyiv is desperate for help. Its artillery units face acute shortages of shells. Its exhausted battalions grapple with a lack of fresh recruits. And its political leaders issue pleas to the West for more fighter jets and missile defense systems to cope with Russia’s aerial onslaughts.

Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, is among the places bearing the brunt of these attacks. Some 30 miles from the border with Russia and once almost captured by Russian forces, Kharkiv has endured a spike in Russian bombardments since the end of last year. “The city has been on the receiving end of more ballistic missiles than at any time since the start of the war. Drone assaults have become more frequent: they fly faster and higher, and have a carbon wing-coating that makes shooting them down harder,” noted the Economist.

Russia has also been able to dispatch warplanes to drop payloads of Soviet-era glide bombs over the city. Ukrainians understandably want help to counter such attacks, which have this year in the region killed dozens of civilians and targeted civilian infrastructure, including power plants. “We need that support to prevent Kharkiv being a second Aleppo,” Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov told Britain’s Guardian newspaper, likening his city’s ordeal to what befell the Syrian metropolis a decade ago.

The odds are not in Ukraine’s favor. A report published Monday by the Institute for the Study of War noted that Israel’s successful defense against Iran’s attack “underscores the vulnerabilities that Ukrainian geography and the continued degradation of Ukraine’s air defense umbrella pose for Ukrainian efforts to defend against regular Russian missile and drone strikes.”

Then there’s the uncertainty about what may come from the West. In Washington, efforts by U.S. lawmakers to push through a spending bill on Ukraine gained traction Wednesday. In Europe, senior German officials announced an initiative to rush air defense equipment to Kyiv’s forces. “We and our partners around the world must now be just as resolute in our defense against Russian terror from the air,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said ahead of the Group of 7 ministerial meeting on the Italian island of Capri. “Stronger air defenses are a matter of life and death for thousands of people in Ukraine and the best protection for our own security.”

Still, Western officials are wary of providing Ukraine the same sort of cover they muster for Israel, including scrambling their own fighters to intercept missiles. “If you want to avoid an escalation in terms of a wider European war, I think the one thing you do need to avoid is NATO troops directly engaging Russian troops,” British Foreign Secretary David Cameron told Britain’s LBC radio station. “That would be a danger of escalation.”

Other European diplomats feel Ukraine’s outrage more keenly. “During Iran’s attack against Israel, some Western countries contributed to protecting Israeli skies as an important act of solidarity,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told Politico. “Kyiv keeps requesting the same type of protection from the same group of countries for more than two years now. I am sure that Ukraine will raise an argument that if one non-NATO country has been provided with air defense when attacked by a hostile adversary, why should Ukraine be treated differently? Given the dire and urgent situation that Ukraine now faces, that argument is rather convincing.”

On Wednesday, Zelensky reiterated his desire for such solidarity. “Our Ukrainian sky and the sky of our neighbors deserve the same security,” he said. “And I thank everyone who also perceives our need for security as a need for equal security for all, because all lives are equally valuable.”

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