The war in Ukraine as a test for “Global Britain”
The United Kingdom has been one of the most prominent supporters of Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24th. There is a broad elite consensus behind the UK’s hard-line position towards Russia and strong public backing for its support for Ukraine. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been eager to emphasise Britain’s leading role in providing military and diplomatic support to the country, seizing the opportunity to try to shift the national conversation away from a series of domestic scandals.
While Johnson has now been forced out of office, his successor is likely to maintain the UK’s strong backing for Ukraine. But like many incumbent governments, the ruling Conservative party may ultimately suffer political losses following the sharp rise in the cost of energy and food precipitated by the war.
The UK’s active and vocal support for Ukraine during the war is built on several years of close bilateral diplomatic and security cooperation. Since 2015, London has provided non-lethal equipment and training to the Ukrainian military as part of “Operation Orbital” and conducted joint naval exercises in the Black Sea. In 2016, the UK and Ukraine signed a 15-year agreement on closer defence cooperation.
However, the extent to which British support to Ukraine exceeded other European countries prior to 2022 should not be overstated. In the years after the annexation of Crimea, the UK rejected several requests from Ukraine for lethal military aid. Michael Fallon, the UK Defence Secretary from 2014 to 2017, has recently stated that senior ministers blocked arms supplies at the time out of fear of provoking Russia.
In January, as the UK and US started to warn publicly about the risks of a Russian invasion, London began supplying lethal military equipment to Ukraine for the first time. That support expanded after Russia’s full-scale invasion, including long-range rockets, next generation anti-tank weapons (NLAWs), Brimstone short-range missiles, and Mastiff armoured patrol vehicles. By early April, according to Michael Clarke, former Director General of the Royal United Services Institute, the UK had sent its entire stock of NLAWs to Ukraine. In an illustration of the close military cooperation between Britain and Poland, the UK has also committed to supply Challenger 2 tanks to Poland. This will enable Warsaw to supply its Soviet T-72 tanks to Ukraine.
The UK has also joined the European Union and other G7 countries in imposing unprecedented economic and trade sanctions on Russia, as well as freezing the assets of prominent Kremlin-linked officials and businessmen. This marked a major reversal for a country that has long been a favoured destination for Russian oligarchs looking to invest, and in some cases hide, their wealth offshore. For years, Russia’s mega-rich were attracted by the combination of stable property rights, light-touch financial regulation, and a steady supply of lawyers, bankers and accountants eager to help them protect their assets. In 2019, the UK parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report highlighted that the country’s openness to Russian investment provided “ideal mechanisms by which illicit finance could be recycled” through what it called the “London laundromat”.
While almost all economic and financial ties between Russia and the UK have now been severed, it remains unclear to what extent the war will change the country’s broader relationship with offshore capital. In response to the war in Ukraine, the British government expedited the adoption of the Economic Crime Act. This is intended to increase the transparency of property ownership and help tackle illicit financial flows. But transparency campaigners, while broadly welcoming the move, have noted that illicit financial flows can only be tackled if the new powers are accompanied by sufficient resourcing for law enforcement. It remains to be seen whether the government will continue to engage with the problem of corruption and offshore wealth beyond sanctioning Russian oligarchs.
While the UK has taken a prominent role in providing military support to Ukraine, its response to the humanitarian crisis caused by the war has lagged far behind other European countries. Britain is the only country in Europe to have continued to operate a visa regime for Ukrainian citizens since the start of the war. Ireland, which like the UK is not in the Schengen zone, lifted its visa requirements for Ukrainian citizens the day after Russia’s invasion.
London has created a resettlement scheme that is in principle open to all Ukrainian refugees. But in practice, the design of the scheme imposes significant constraints on the number that will actually apply. There have also been widespread reports of backlogs in the issuing of visas by the authorities. As a result, as of May 24th, just 37,400 Ukrainian refugees had arrived in the country under the government’s resettlement schemes. This was only slightly higher than the number of arrivals to Ireland, a country with a population 13 times smaller than the UK. According to the UNHCR, over 6.7 million people have fled Ukraine since the start of the conflict.
The war in Ukraine is the first major international crisis that Britain has faced since it left the EU in early 2020. While Brexit exposed deep divisions regarding its relationship with Europe and place in the world, this crisis has been characterised by broad elite and public unity regarding the UK response. Following the rancour and division of Brexit, the UK has rebuilt some of its international standing and sought to strengthen bilateral relationships with some EU states, most notably Poland.
But behind the appearance of consensus, the conflict nevertheless illustrates the incoherence in the country’s foreign and security policy. The war has made clear that for all the talk of “Global Britain”, London’s primary security and foreign policy concerns lie in Europe. Yet the UK’s 2021 Integrated Security Review, while recognising Russia as a key security threat, made almost no reference to the EU and advocated greater investment in power projection in the Indo-Pacific.
Britain is currently seeking to simultaneously expand its security cooperation in Europe, provide extensive military aid to Ukraine, and maintain a “persistent presence” in the Indo-Pacific, all while cutting troop numbers. At the same time, even as it works with EU partners to support Ukraine’s sovereignty, the UK has continued to threaten to abandon parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol. This move would throw the country’s relationship with major EU states into crisis.
As one of the signatories to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, the UK has a particular responsibility to uphold Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Yet in 2014-15, London played almost no role in the failed Minsk Process, which aimed to bring the fighting in the Donbas to an end. That has changed since Russia’s full-scale invasion, and the UK is likely to seek a more prominent role in any eventual negotiations on the future of Ukraine and European security. But to do so effectively, it will also need to resolve the contradictions in its own relationship with Europe.
Editor’s note: this text has been updated from the original print edition to reflect the fact that Boris Johnson has since resigned.
Alex Nice is a researcher at the Institute for Government based in London. Prior to this, he worked at The Economist Intelligence Unit as regional manager of the Europe department and at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) as coordinator of the Russia and Eurasia Programme.