Making social science accessible

24 Feb 2023

UK in the world

Richard Whitman outlines the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on UK foreign, security and defence policy, highlighting the UK’s role as a major European responder to Russian aggression.

Today marks one year since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. One year on, what have been the military, diplomatic and domestic political implications for the UK?

Russia’s war on Ukraine has undoubtedly had a significant impact on the prominence of the role played by the UK in European security. Notwithstanding the ongoing difficulties in its relationship with the EU, the UK’s response to the war has re-established its role as a key security actor. Through its diplomacy and the level of its military support for Ukraine, the UK has been one of Europe’s foremost participants in the coalition responding to Russia’s war of occupation. This has been despite the UK changing Prime Minister twice since Russia’s offensive against Ukraine last February.

UK military support

The UK has styled itself as the foremost European supporter of Ukraine. It has been the second largest provider (after the US) of military assistance to Ukraine since February 2022, committing £2.3 billion last year and the same amount for 2023.

Military support for Ukraine has been a heightened policy priority for the UK since 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support of the separatist war in Donbas. Operation Orbital, launched in 2015, was initially a programme providing non-lethal military support to Ukraine and operating on the basis of ‘training the trainer’ to facilitate a cascade of knowledge through Ukraine’s armed forces.

The UK-Ukraine security and defence relationship was put on a more formalised basis in March 2016 when there was the co-signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on closer defence cooperation (for a 15-year duration). During a state visit to the UK by President Zelenskyy in October 2020 there was the signature of a bilateral Political, Free Trade and Strategic Partnership that included enhanced defence cooperation.

Support for Ukraine corresponded with the hardening perception of Russia as a major threat to UK security, given greater impetus by the Novichok poisoning in Salisbury in March 2018. This position was stated unequivocally in the 2021 ‘Integrated Review’ where Russia was designated ‘the most acute direct threat’ to the UK’s security.

Since February 2022, the UK has unilaterally provided weaponry that has expanded from the provision of anti-tank weapons to include artillery, specialist munitions, long range multiple launch rocket systems, air defence weapons and armoured fighting vehicles. It was also the first nation to commit to providing Ukraine with main battle tanks with the announcement last month to provide 14 Challenger II tanks.

The UK hosted the nine-nation Operation Interflex battlefield training programme for Ukrainian soldiers which has committed to training 10,000 Ukrainian personnel within 120 days. The UK has also recently pledged to begin training Ukrainian fast jet pilots.

Building support for Ukraine

The UK’s broader diplomatic effort of support for Ukraine has also been orientated towards building and coordinating international assistance to Ukraine. In February and March 2022, it hosted donor conferences and was instrumental in the establishment of the International Donor Coordination Centre matching donors with Ukraine’s military requirements.

The UK’s broader response has also been conducted through NATO (with Britain responding to the Alliance’s response by taking on additional military commitments including extra NATO air policing and increasing the size of its deployments to NATO’s enhanced forward presence (eFP)).

All major aspects of the UK’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been conducted in close coordination with the United States. Membership of the G7, the main venue for coordinating Western sanctions against Russia, and its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, have also placed the UK in a position of diplomatic prominence on the war on Ukraine.

The UK, as a non-member state, has obviously not been a participant in the EU’s policies in support of Ukraine, including granting candidate status for EU membership. The EU and the UK have been in strong political and diplomatic alignment on the response to Russia’s war on Ukraine. And, (despite the ongoing dispute over the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol), the EU sanctions regime imposed on Russia and the supply of military equipment to Ukraine through the European Peace Facility (EPC) has required direct close EU-UK coordination.

The UK has also been credited with demonstrating greater clarity of policy and a more substantial commitment of resources than France and Germany, who are normally expected to provide European leadership. An indication of the UK’s ability to lead on support for Ukraine with like-minded EU nations was the Tallinn Pledge made by the UK and eight EU member states on 19 January. This committed the participants to delivering main battle tanks, heavy artillery, air defence, ammunition and infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine.

UK domestic political impacts

The war on Ukraine has also impacted directly on the evolution of a post-Brexit foreign and security policy for the UK. The cross-party support for Ukraine in the House of Commons was demonstrated symbolically in Zelensky’s speech to both houses of parliament. The Labour Party has provided the government with wholehearted political support. In recent speeches and statements, the Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy has affirmed the Labour Party’s alignment with the broad parameters of current government foreign policy (excepting its policy on EU relations).

The war has also had an impact on the debate on current and planned future defence budget of the UK. As Prime Minister, Liz Truss suggested last autumn that the UK’s defence expenditure would be raised to 3% of GDP (from the current 2%). However, Rishi Sunak has been reluctant to commit to raising it to this level, despite backbench pressure. Labour have followed the government in committing extra resources to defence if it wins the next general election.

Under Sunak’s premiership there has been continuation of the policy of strong material and diplomatic support for Ukraine demonstrated by his two predecessors. Broader UK messaging on foreign policy has, however, subtly shifted with the noticeable demise of references to Global Britain.

Nevertheless, the UK’s role as a major European responder to Russian aggression, the primary threat to European security for the foreseeable future, appears to be cemented.

By Professor Richard G. WhitmanSenior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe.

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