Wednesday briefing: Stalled aid, soldier shortages and dwindling weapons as Ukraine hangs on

<span>Soldiers training in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine.</span><span>Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images</span>
Soldiers training in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine.Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

Good morning.

As soon as Iran launched its aerial attack on Israel, western allies coordinated a rapid, united military and diplomatic response. The US, Britain, France and others intercepted more than 300 Iranian drones and missiles. Closer to Europe, however, a country facing significant aerial bombardment from Russia has not been able to rely on a similar level of assistance from its allies.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the Ukrainian president, has long feared that the crisis in the Middle East centred on Israel’s war in Gaza would shift focus and, crucially, resources away from Ukraine. Two years since Russia’s invasion, Ukraine is struggling with munitions shortages, as a $60bn aid package has been held up for months in the US House of Representatives.

To understand how Ukraine’s position in the war has changed in recent months I spoke with Dan Sabbagh, the Guardian’s defence and security editor, who is in Kharkiv. That’s right after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Smoking | The House of Commons voted by 383 to 67 in favour of the prime minister’s plan to make it illegal for anyone born in 2009 or later to buy tobacco products in the UK. However the result, voted against by 57 Tory MPs – including Kemi Badenoch, a likely future leadership contender, and five other ministers – underlined the depth of division within the party even over Sunak’s flagship policies.

  2. UK news | One in every 52 children in Blackpool are in care compared with one in 140 across England, leading to calls for more to be done to urgently tackle the widening north-south divide, brought on by “decades of underinvestment”.

  3. Weather | Heavy rains have hit the United Arab Emirates, flooding major highways and disrupting flights at Dubai international airport, in what the government has described as the largest amount of rainfall in the past 75 years. Within one day more than 142mm (5.59in) of rain had soaked the desert city of Dubai, which is normally the average amount it gets in a year and a half.

  4. Israel-Gaza war | Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking to trap the west into a total war across the Middle East that would have incalculable consequences for the region and the world, Iran’s top diplomat in the UK has said.

  5. Foreign policy | Labour wants to draw closer to Europe on key foreign and security issues by frequently attending meetings of the monthly EU foreign affairs council. The move, which is likely to trigger Conservative claims that Labour is prepared to abandon an independent foreign policy, builds on a pledge by Keir Starmer’s party to try to negotiate a new security pact with the EU after the 2024 UK election.

In depth: As Kyiv’s position deteriorates, the Kremlin increases pressure

There is a real sense of frustration in Ukraine about a perceived double standard in US support for Israel. “The view among some is that if Britain, America, Jordan and all these other countries are willing to shoot down drones to help out Israel, why can’t they do something similar for us when we’re facing this all the time?” Dan Sabbagh says. According to Ukraine’s permanent representative to the UN, Russia has launched 1,000 missiles, 2,800 drones, and 7,000 guided aerial bombs since January. Though Ukraine has called on its allies to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine since the start of the war, Nato has refused as it could lead to a direct war with nuclear-armed Russia. Zelenskiy says that when it comes to Ukraine, “rhetoric does not protect the sky”.


Frontline under pressure

For some time, the situation in Ukraine was considered to be a stalemate, but since January, Kyiv’s position has been deteriorating. Russia has been “simultaneously increasing pressure on the frontlines and conducting an increasingly ruthless campaign against civilians principally by attacking power stations and knocking out electricity supplies”, Dan says.

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, has been particularly badly affected, with all three major power plants left severely damaged. “Russia is trying to conduct a slow-motion siege of Kharviv to make it less and less attractive for people to live here,” he says.

Russia has also been battering away at the 600-mile frontline. In February, Ukrainian forces withdrew from Avdiivka, marking Moscow’s biggest victory since capturing Bakhmut in May 2023. Zelenskiy said this defeat was a result of dwindling supplies and the US failure to approve its aid package.

After the withdrawal, Oleksandr Tarnavsky, a Ukrainian army commander, said the troops had to retreat as Russia was “advancing on the corpses of their own soldiers” and had “a 10-to-one shell advantage”. Russia did lose a significant number of troops – about 17,000 may have been killed according to Ukraine, an indication of the volume of casualties the Kremlin is willing to tolerate.

“Ukraine’s commander in chief, Oleksandr Syrskyi, acknowledged that Russia has stepped up its offensive since its election,” Dan says. “He said that Ukraine was coming under more and more frontline pressure, which is a very candid admission and not the sort of thing generals normally say.”


Arms shortage

Ukraine has been direct about the potential consequences of its arms shortage: it will lose the war if the situation does not change. For months, the US Congress has refused to pass $60bn in aid, leaving Ukraine to fight with severe ammunition shortages. “An isolationist mindset has gripped a meaningful proportion of the Republican party, which has prevented any progress in getting aid to Ukraine,” Dan says. This week there seems to have been progress, but there is still no guarantee the bill will pass. By contrast, most European countries have been eager to do more for Ukraine but have much smaller militaries than the US.

The Ukrainian government has reported shortages of all types of weapons: long-range missile systems, mortar shells, fighter jets, bombers and even bullets. Russia is estimated to be firing at least five times as much artillery as Ukraine.

The Czech prime minister, Petr Fiala, confirmed he has signed contracts for the first 180,000 of 300,000 ammunition rounds for Ukraine, and Germany said it will send a Patriot missile defence system. It will be the third Patriot that Germany has supplied, with each newly produced system costing about $1.1bn. Though this is progress, Zelenskiy has said they need 25 of the US-made Patriot systems.


Not enough people

At the start of the war, Ukraine’s military was inundated with volunteers ready to fight for their country. Two years on, the picture is very different with Ukraine facing a soldier shortage. In December, Zelenskiy said Ukraine needs 450,000 to 500,000 extra soldiers to resist Russia this year. Though he has since walked this figure back, Ukraine’s parliament still passed a new mobilisation law that is trying to compel more people to fight. “The problem is everyone who wanted to join has probably already joined,” Dan says.

The bill initially had a number of draft-dodging penalties that have since been dropped because of significant public backlash. “Under the previous rules, any man under the age of 27 would not be sent to the frontline,” Dan explains. “This new legislation will drop that down to 25 because they need to expand the pool of people available.”

Ukraine’s struggles do not, however, necessarily mean that Russia is having huge victories. The frontline has not moved significantly and Moscow is battling its own internal political quagmire. “Life in Kharkiv is going on. The streets are busy and mostly people are just going about their day,” Dan says. “They are resilient but the war is not going well for Ukraine.”

What else we’ve been reading

  • Liz Truss’s book tour continues apace, with a collection of bizarre, borderline delusional utterances coming from the short-term occupant of No 10. But can you identify the real Liz from the fake? Martin Belam’s quiz will put you through your paces. Toby Moses, head of newsletters

  • Single people are sick and tired of swiping on dating apps and yearning for a real meet cute. For the Atlantic (£), Faith Hill writes that though people are idealising “romance that doesn’t involve the internet – the kind that’s physical and visceral, and that finds you”, they also seem less willing than ever to risk rejection and tolerate ambiguity. Nimo

  • Whatever happened to Kamala Harris? The first female vice-president of the US suffers from a lack of fans – Arwa Mahdawi looks at why that might be. Toby

  • Sirin Kale investigates what happens when flooding destroys communities in small, rural British towns and asks why more is not being done to protect those most at risk. Nimo

  • Anyone who’s seen the documentary Blackfish is unlikely to have a positive view of killer whale trainers, so it is fascinating to get the perspective of those still working with orcas, who feel that the film misrepresented what they do. Toby


Football | Kylian Mbappé’s double helped PSG stun Barcelona 4-1, 6-4 overall in their Champions League quarter-final after Ronald Araújo’s first-half dismissal. Two quickfire goals gave Borussia Dortmund a 4-2 win and a 5-4 aggregate victory against Atletico Madrid in their quarter-final.

Football | Midfielder Bernardo Silva believes Manchester City’s attempt to claim a historic second consecutive treble and become arguably the greatest club team of all time is “an inspiration”, with the team a possible 12 matches from achieving the feat.

Paris 2024 | Old rivals LeBron James and Stephen Curry will headline a USA Olympic men’s basketball roster loaded with some of the best players of the last 10 years, including four NBA MVPs – James, Curry, Kevin Durant and the current holder of the title, Joel Embiid – according to ESPN.

The front pages

“Tory divisions exposed as Sunak smoking ban moves a step closer” – that’s the Guardian’s splash this morning while the Daily Mirror imagines the “Cig-free generation” to come. But could it be stubbed out – “Leadership hopefuls defy Sunak over smoking ban” reports the Daily Telegraph. It looks like a giant smoke on the front of the Financial Times but the main picture is actually a downed Iranian missile for a story about the strike on Israel; while the splash is “Powell warns US inflation ‘taking longer’ to hit target” (than an Iranian missile?). “Victory for the bravest headteacher in Britain” says the Daily Mail while the Daily Express gives us a bit more detail: “‘Victory for all schools’ as prayer ritual ban is backed”. “Strict head’s praytime win” – like playtime, geddit? Naturally that’s the Metro. “Police look at multiple allegations over Rayner” reports the Times. The i leads today with “Sunak gives Netanyahu a warning from world leaders”.

Today in Focus

Liz Truss and her plan to ‘save the west’

Liz Truss is back – kind of. The former PM of just 49 days has published a book, Ten Years to Save the West. Guardian political correspondent Eleni Courea and breaking news correspondent Martin Pengelly discuss her seeming lack of regret

Cartoon of the day | Martin Rowson

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Stuart Heritage is completely and permanently bald. “So bald,” he writes, “that my children have taken to calling me Egg.” Heritage, who is squarely middle-aged, admits that when his “stupid floppy milquetoast hair” began to thin in his 30s, he tried chemicals and comb-overs. Now he is embracing male pattern baldness and has discovered that, while going bald is awful, being bald is … not too bad.

Hair or lack thereof is a trivial concern, he says, though baldness can affect self-esteem and spur an unconscious bias. (German researchers found that men with a full head of hair were invited far more often for job interviews than their bald counterparts.) Now that he’s on the other side, though, he is embracing his new look, he writes in this feature ahead of his forthcoming book, aptly titled Bald: “I find myself wishing I had committed to my baldness long before I actually did. This is mainly because I’ve realised that bald men are everywhere, and nobody cares.”

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day. Until tomorrow.