Costs and casualties are rising but Kyiv warns that the conflict with Russia is becoming normalised in people’s minds, at home and abroad


Civilians are evacuated from the city of Lysychansk in the eastern  region of Donbas.
Civilians are evacuated from the city of Lysychansk in the eastern region of Donbas. Photograph: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

Ukraine’s war with Russia is heading towards its fifth month amid increasing local concern that dwindling media attention could lead to a gradual loss of western support just as Moscow is making slow but steady gains on the frontline.

The anxiety reflects a growing normalisation of the conflict in which large parts of the country feel distant from the war in eastern Donbas – as it becomes clear that casualties are mounting and economic costs soaring. “It’s a very real threat, that people get tired psychologically,” said Lesia Vasylenko, an opposition MP with the liberal Holos party.

International media coverage has dropped markedly in the past two months, she added, and “as that number goes down further, there’s a very high risk of the support from the west going down”.

Ukraine has become increasingly dependent on western help as the war has continued, both in terms of weaponry and humanitarian support, and will need international aid money to help rebuild towns and cities destroyed by the Russians in the early phase of fighting. Its treasury is bare.

Russia, meanwhile, appears close to taking the shattered Donbas city of Sievierodonetsk, after a failed counterattack by Ukraine’s forces.

Ukrainian medic tends to an injured serviceman close to the front near Svitlodarsk.
Ukrainian medic tends to an injured serviceman close to the front near Svitlodarsk. Photograph: EPA

After weeks of silence about casualties, key Ukrainian presidential advisers have admitted in the past week that as many as 150 are being killed in fighting every day and 800 wounded.

Weapons supply remains top of the list of Ukraine’s demands. This week Kyiv admitted it had all but run out of Soviet-standard stocks. There is frustration with the pace of supply, and criticism of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government for not devolving operational decision making further down the chain.

Two military commanders, who asked not to be named, told the Observerthat for all the president’s international achievements, not enough had been done to tackle the military’s post-communist bureaucracy, and that supplies of some key equipment, such as encrypted battlefield radio, were short.

Complaints include a lack of practical unit-level information-sharing with the west or points of contact to help with weapons training. There is also an absence of ways to find out what equipment might be available, and a need for practical help with the logistics transfer from munitions hubs in south-east Poland.

They even wondered if there was a relative lack of urgency on the part of the country’s leaders. “It would be better if Kyiv was under threat,” murmured one, arguing that some of the pace had gone out of the war effort once it was clear the Russian assault on the capital had failed in April.

A missile attack on a railway yard in a distant eastern suburb last Sunday was the first strike on the city for over five weeks. Air raid sirens go off periodically but nobody in the relatively busy capital reacts. Danger seldom follows – and there is a fatalism that, if a missile does strike, nothing much could be done about it.

Scratch the surface, and the story is very different. An estimated 7 million Ukrainians are internally displaced, according to the UN, and while many people have lost loved ones, the city is also full of everyday stories like Yana’s, an IT worker whose house near the border east of Kharkiv was overrun by Russian soldiers on the first day of the war.

It took the 31-year-old and her mother until this week to get back to Kyiv, where they can stay with an aunt, first via her brother’s in St Petersburg, Russia, and then, when they were confident “there would be something to return to”, back to their homeland via Estonia. But their house remains in occupied territory and it is unclear what condition it is in.

There are more ominous reports about the situation in the occupied territories, where Russia has been trying to issue passports and where this week some officials in Zaporizhzhia were indicating there were plans to hold referendums on whether the territory should join Russia

Tamila Tasheva, permanent representative of the president of Ukraine for occupied Crimea, has also been monitoring the situation in neighbouring Kherson, taken by Russian forces in the first days of the war. She believes there have been 600 cases of imprisonment and torture in Kherson province since the war began, and “maybe one or two million people deported” from Ukraine to Russia by the invaders.

A woman flies the Ukrainian flag on top of a destroyed Russian tank in Kyiv.
A woman flies the Ukrainian flag on top of a destroyed Russian tank in Kyiv. Photograph: Natacha Pisarenko/AP

Those closer to the president are more philosophical about waning media attention – as long as western politicians do not lose focus, and unity among Nato allies remains relatively strong.

Oleksiy Arestovych, a high-profile military adviser to the president’s office, said media fatigue was unavoidable as the conflict drew on. “It was inevitable that the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard trial garnered more views and likes than the war. People are getting weary and tired, but we couldn’t care less. You don’t have to talk about us at all. Just give us the weapons,” he told the Observer.

But there was a real sense of relief in Kyiv circles that Boris Johnson survived Monday’s no-confidence vote. Zelenskiy said that victory was “great news” on Tuesday.

The president looked obviously pleased on Friday as he greeted Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, on his surprise visit. Wallace was there to discuss how the UK “will continue to meet Ukraine’s needs as the conflict enters a different phase”, the Ministry of Defence said.

“The thing that Ukrainians dreaded most was the possibility of the no-confidence vote for Boris Johnson leading to a change of government,” added Vasylenko, who has an informal role as a link to British politicians. “Any change of government means time for reshuffling and attention away from Ukraine,” added the MP, who is due to travel to the UK next week.

Ukraine’s military tactic seems to amount to fighting hard and taking high casualties to slow down the Russian attempt to capture Sievierodonetsk and the rest of the Donbas region while hoping that newly promised western weapons – such as multiple rocket launchers from the US and UK – will allow its embattled forces to take back territory lost to the invaders.

President Zelenskiy continues to state Ukraine’s case across the globe, this time via video link in Singapore.
President Zelenskiy continues to state Ukraine’s case across the globe, this time via video link in Singapore.
Photograph: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images


Meanwhile, there is particular frustration with Germany for being slow on weapons supply and France for appearing to be more willing to engage with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Arestovych focused on Germany, where six weeks after the Bundestag voted overwhelmingly to send heavy weapons to Ukraine, nothing has been received. Howitzers are expected later this month and Gepard mobile artillery in July.

The anxiety is that slow supply is preventing Ukraine from winning. “If we had all the weapons the Germans had been talking about, we would have kicked out the Russians, Kherson would have been liberated,” Arestovych said – before going on to describe Olaf Scholz’s government as “disgraceful” and accusing the chancellor of trying to engage in a flawed balancing act aimed at not hurting the Russians excessively.

Others worry that such fighting talk is over-optimistic. It is unclear what difference, if any, the latest batch of longer-range artillery will make, and substantially more western military help could be needed.

Vasylenko said she feared that Russia may be able to “wear out the international attention towards Ukraine” if an attritional war drags on, and so gradually “push the world into some sort of peace agreement” that would amount to a greater partition of the country.