OPINION - Electro-magnetic curtains and glide bombs mean Western aid may be too late for Ukraine

Ukrainian emergency services work to put out a fire after a Russian attack (AP)
Ukrainian emergency services work to put out a fire after a Russian attack (AP)

These are desperate and difficult days in Ukraine as Russian force seize more villages in what looks like the beginning of a major summer offensive. Towns, cities, power plants and transport hubs are hammered by waves of drones, and new, highly effective cruise missiles.

Western allies, the US in the lead, followed by the UK and European allies, have pledged new packages of aid, ammunition and weaponry. They have all been spooked by the sudden wave of success of the Russian forces — though they should have seen this coming. They are riding to the rescue rather like the cavalry in the third reel of a traditional Hollywood Western.

But can the cavalry make it in time, this time? Can they stop retreat turning to rout as Russia tries finally to seize the entire Donbas region? Can Ukraine avoid defeat this summer?

Can the cavalry make it in time, this time? Can they stop retreat turning to rout?

The focus of the fighting is on the city of Chasiv Yar. If it falls, the way is open to the transport hub of Kramatorsk and to Kharkiv. Kharkiv, along with Kyiv and Odesa, remains a main strategic objective of Putin’s war.

In the past two days, Ukraine’s commander-in-chief Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi has confirmed retreat from three towns north and west of Avdiivka, abandoned after months of some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. He described conditions as “difficult” and said more troops had to be diverted to Kharkiv.

The US and Britain are rushing cruise missiles to Ukraine, including more UK and French air-launched Storm Shadows, and the American ATACMS, ground-launched missile, which has long been requested. It can strike up to 90 miles behind the main frontlines.

They are likely to be targeted on the strip of coast along the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea where Russian forces are building a new railway to supply Crimea. This is needed because the land links over bridges like the Kerch are deemed too vulnerable to Ukraine missile strikes.

Russia is gaining the upper hand by innovation with its own new air launched version of Storm Shadow, the Kh-69, and glide bombs — both launched from bombers still deep over Russian territory. They have also mastered the use of electronic jamming devices to confuse Ukraine’s drones and artillery. A British cyber expert said: “Often the drones and artillery are meeting an electro-magnetic curtain.”

Cyber techniques, including scary autonomous drones, are under constant development in Ukraine. But 21st century technology often fails in 19th century trench warfare conditions, as the New York Times comments. Ukraine is desperately short of soldiers, shells and missiles.

It is going to be a desperately hard slog for Ukraine’s forces and their allies this summer, and maybe next.

Robert Fox is the Evening Standard’s defence editor