The crash of a Russian plane with Ukrainian prisoners of war on board has once again shown how delicate the situation between the two countries that have been at war since February 2022 is. Russia says Kyiv downed the plane, which had 65 Ukrainian soldiers, in Belgorod, a Russian border town, that has seen repeated Ukrainian shelling in recent months. Kyiv has slammed Russia for spreading propaganda, but has not ruled out its possible role in the downing. The incident comes at a time when Ukraine’s troops are struggling to keep up the fight on the front line amid Russia’s incremental advances. Russia, which suffered humiliating setbacks in 2022, has since retaken the battlefield momentum. Last year, Ukraine’s top general said the counteroffensive, which began in June 2023, aimed at recapturing Russia-held territories in the south and east, had failed. Russia has made territorial gains in the east, capturing Mariinka and making advances towards Avdiivka and Kupiansk. With its huge losses on the battlefield, Ukraine’s generals are calling for the mobilisation of up to 5,00,000 soldiers — which would be hugely unpopular. Worse, the changing mood in Washington has sent an alarming message to Kyiv.
Volodymyr Zelensky’s government has vowed to uncover the truth behind the plane crash. If it has been downed by a Ukrainian missile, it would pose a political challenge to Mr. Zelensky. But a bigger problem he is facing is the future of the war. Until now, he has put up a brave face, saying Ukraine would fight until victory — which is, recapturing all the territories Russia has taken. While Russia’s annexation of Ukraine regions and its war are a violation of international laws, Ukraine does not seem to have a practical path towards victory. Israel’s war on Gaza, which has the Biden administration’s full support, has also distracted global attention from Ukraine. If Donald Trump, the U.S. Republican leader, is re-elected in November — he has vowed to end the war in days — Ukraine could come under heavy pressure. The war cannot be sustained without uninterrupted support from the U.S. and its NATO partners. When pressure increases on the battlefield, what Ukraine is doing is to carry out missile and drone attacks inside Russia. Ukraine’s possession of advanced weapons, supplied by the West, has enhanced its fire power. Last week, a fuel export terminal on Russia’s Baltic coast came under attack. There is suspicion, deep mistrust and misinformation on both sides, which could lead to more violence and accidents. Russia, Ukraine and NATO should take a more practical assessment of the progress of the war and be ready for talks, instead of continuing an endless war which is hurting all sides.