Burned-out Russian tank
Burned-out Russian tankiStock

The West is impressively united in its admiration for Volodymyr Zelensky, but we are much less good at paying attention to what he is actually saying — and also what he is not saying. To give one example: critics of the British Government are hysterical about its failure to admit more refugees. (So is the Israeli left about their government, ed.)

They may or may not be right. But nobody has pointed out that in his memorable address to Parliament this week, President Zelensky never actually asked the British to take more refugees. Is it possible that he sees that as primarily the responsibility of the EU, which is much closer, much larger, much richer and hence much more capable of absorbing millions of Ukrainians than the UK?

Before anyone accuses me of a callous indifference to the humanitarian imperative to rescue Ukrainian civilians from the Russian onslaught, let me be clear. Of course Britain can and will accept much larger numbers in the weeks to come. But to compare this country’s record to that of Poland, as the Polish opposition leader and former EU official Donald Tusk did in a bad-tempered tweet, is simply unfair.

Not only do Poles and Ukrainians share a border which is notably porous even in normal times, but such close cultural and linguistic affinities that neither regards the other as foreigners, rather as cousins. Theirs is a little like the relationship between the British and the Irish (or the Israelis for non-Jewish Ukrainians,ed.) Within living memory, Lviv and much of western Ukraine was part of Poland; even before the war there was a large Ukrainian community in Poland. Poles know that once hostilities cease, most refugees will return across the border. Poland’s spontaneous and munificent open border policy is based on a mutual and reciprocal understanding of hospitality.

None of this applies to Britain. Ukrainians who come here are likely to settle and stay permanently. The best way for us to help the majority of refugees is with financial support for Poland, which is coping with their accommodation now, and for Ukraine, which will have to resettle those who have lost their homes later.

We should be as generous as we can, but the security concerns that have been pooh-poohed by critics are not insignificant.

Britain is the only country in Europe to have been targeted with chemical weapons by the Russian military, whose intelligence services would doubtless welcome the opportunity to embed agents in this country. It would be extremely foolish to ignore threats by senior figures in the Kremlin, who treat the UK as second only to the US on their list of enemies. Indeed, we should assume that a second Salisbury-style attack, perhaps larger and deadlier, is highly likely. (and Israel? ed.)

It has somehow escaped the notice of the self-loathing British pundits that Ukrainians, including their President, generally admire and are grateful to Britain. A poll there this week shows that the UK is more admired than either the US or the EU and that Boris Johnson is the second most popular politician in Ukraine after Zelensky himself. Ukrainians know that their armed forces would not have been able to resist the Russians so effectively but for British help in training and arming their troops.

So commentators who make a living out of denigrating their own country should pipe down about the British record on Ukraine. To take one example: the Times columnist David Aaronovich writes today (behind a paywall) that “as countries go Germany has a big heart. Sweden has a big heart. Britain has a big pocket.”

Really? Let’s not forget about the respective records of these three countries during the last major European war. Not only did Germany start that war by invading Poland jointly with the Soviet Union, but it could not have prolonged the bloodiest conflict in history for six years without the invaluable supply of iron ore from neutral Sweden, which continued until almost the end. As Churchill put it, Sweden “ignored the greater moral issues of the war and played both sides for profit”.

More recently, it is no accident that both Germany and Sweden, like most European countries, have elected large anti-immigrant parties to their parliaments, whereas Britain has never had any significant parliamentary representation of the far-Right. Opinion polls confirm that the British are the least xenophobic nation in Europe; the proof of this is that London is far more cosmopolitan than any Continental capital.

Rather than obsess about our ranking in some imaginary European humanitarian contest, we should listen to what Zelensky is saying about his own country’s needs. He keeps reminding us that the threat to Ukraine is not just of conquest but of genocide. He told Sky News yesterday that unless the Russians were excluded from the Ukrainian skies, Ukraine would “lose millions of people”. Coming from the leader of a people who have endured genocidal war on their soil, we should take this warning seriously.

A careful study of the very incomplete data on casualties that we have suggests that Zelensky is not exaggerating. After just two weeks of war, the military losses on both sides must be running into many thousands. The Ukrainians estimate that the Russian army has lost more than 12,000 dead and up to 18,000 wounded; the Pentagon puts their dead at about 6,000. But the Ukrainian losses will have been on a similar scale. The Russians claim to have destroyed nearly a thousand Ukrainian tanks and armoured vehicles, for example. If there is a full-scale Russian assault on Kyiv, we can expect a pitched battle, with tens of thousands of dead on both sides.

The really shocking news, though, is that the main Russian effort in the second week of the war has been directed at urban civilian targets. The shelling of the four besieged cities of Kharkiv, Mariupol, Chernihiv and Sumy has been stepped up and the casualties now being inflicted are huge. In Mariupol, where the maternity and paediatric departments of a hospital were hit yesterday, the official death toll is now well over 1,100. But this is not counting those who are dying of hunger, hypothermia and disease. These were what killed the vast majority of those who died in the siege of Leningrad, 1941-44, estimated at more than 750,000.

Another deeply disturbing development this week has been the deployment of more lethal Russian weapons against civilians. First there were reports of cluster bombs, which cause horrific injuries; now the use of vacuum (or thermobaric) weapons has been confirmed by US intelligence. The Russians may be running short of missiles but they are switching to greater use of artillery and to the kind of munitions used in Chechnya and Syria to raze entire cities, terrorise populations and cause maximum civilian deaths. Humanitarian considerations evidently no longer enter the calculus of an army under orders to win victory at all costs.

It is horribly easy for a modern army to kill huge numbers of civilians. If the carnage continues — and on the present trajectory it is only likely to increase — within a month Ukraine may well have lost 100,000 killed and wounded by enemy fire, as well as growing numbers dying of hunger and disease. Were this war to drag on into the summer and beyond, basic arithmetic tells us that Zelensky’s prophecy of millions dead could be proved all too accurate.

That is why he is placing so much emphasis on military assistance rather than humanitarian relief. Both are important, of course, but the British are best placed to help Ukrainian forces to halt, defeat and eventually expel the Russian invaders. At present, they are still losing ground, especially on the southern front. The “Berlin airlift” of equipment to Ukraine is impressive but must be stepped up. As I wrote here at the outset of this campaign, the lesson of Ukraine is: give Zelensky the tools and he will finish the job.

Daniel Johnson is the founding Editor of TheArticle. For two decades he was a senior editor, editorial writer and columnist for The Times and the Daily Telegraph, before leaving to set up Standpoint magazine, which he edited for 10 years. He contributes regularly to Daily Mail, Wall Street Journal, Commentary, New Criterion, National Review and other papers, magazines and websites.@DANBJOHN| @DANBJOHNSON

TheArticle aims to be "a website which helps you make sense of the news through free access to exchanges of ideas, rather than echo chambers of prejudice. We have no ideological agenda and we promise never to tell you what to think. Our aim is simply to preserve the integrity of the free press in this country by embracing nuance and complexity – and showing the world in all its shades of grey. To read TheArticle is to see a story from every angle with no abuse, no extremism - and proper editing."