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Back to the future?: the return of David Cameron and Ukraine

The return of former British Prime Minister David Cameron to frontline politics has surprised observers at home and abroad. Taking up the position of foreign minister, the veteran politician will now oversee the country’s ongoing support for Ukraine. Such a role will undoubtedly be overshadowed by his failure to deter Russian aggression in 2014.

November 28, 2023 - Niall Gray - Articles and Commentary

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba together with the newly appointed Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom David Cameron in Odesa, November 2023. Photo: Press release by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine.

The recent reshuffle in the British government was shaping up to be a somewhat predictable affair. Responding to dismal polling compared to their Labour rivals, the ruling Conservative Party seemingly set out to make a choice between “defeat – or annihilation” at next year’s election. This was made all the more pressing by the actions of then Home Secretary Suella Braverman, whose controversial statements surrounding pro-Palestine protests posed a personal challenge to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Despite this, another story connected to foreign affairs would come to dominate that cold morning of November 13th. At around nine o’clock, the United Kingdom’s former leader David Cameron entered Downing Street to the shock of journalists on the ground. Rumours quickly spread that he had been offered the role of foreign minister, an especially unique decision given ongoing events in both Gaza and Ukraine. Indeed, the second of these flashpoints will come with substantial personal baggage, with Cameron still in the top job when Russia first set out to challenge Kyiv’s sovereignty one decade ago.

Questions are now being asked as to where this unlikely return came from in the first place? After all, the former prime minister has certainly been the quietest of his small cohort. Having left parliament seven years ago, Cameron even had to be made a member of the House of Lords in order to oversee legislation. This reality represents the first time a peer has taken on the role of foreign minister in over forty years. Such exception appears to speak to now Lord Cameron’s personal feeling of duty to both party and country. His first interview appeared to confirm as much. However, could such practicalities perhaps obscure reasons directly related to his time as prime minister? Famously retiring to a renovated shepherd’s hut to write his memoirs, alongside some ventures in business and the charity sector, the new foreign secretary had a great amount of time to deliberate on his decisions in government. Much of this period was clearly spent reflecting on the Brexit vote that ultimately brought about his political demise. Cameron has even written that his regrets surrounding the divisive referendum “would never leave”. As a result, a chance to make right the mistakes of the past, particularly in relation to Europe, likely appeared irresistible to the veteran politician. The relevance of this outlook to Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine is subsequently difficult to ignore.

Reflections on the past

Such a direct interest in Kyiv’s struggle is not without precedent. For instance, the former prime minister emerged from obscurity to personally deliver supplies to Ukrainian refugees in Poland last year. At the same time, a great deal of Cameron’s aforementioned memoirs are dedicated to direct discussion of the conflict’s origins. Beginning with a section on Anglo-Russian tensions following the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the former prime minister plots out his own attempts to overcome such division. This interest appears to lie in his experience as “a student of Cold War history; I knew what Russia was capable of.” A breakthrough trip to Moscow to meet President Dmitry Medvedev in September 2011 was therefore followed by a similar charm offensive with Putin. It goes without saying, however, that this success was not replicated with the current Russian president. An awkward exchange over Cameron’s gap year visits to Yalta and Kyiv at the G8 would set the tone for future meetings. Nevertheless, the British leader ploughed on with engagement while he ramped up attendance at events such as the pivotal Eastern Partnership summit in November 2013. Of course, the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was expected to confirm Kyiv’s European aspirations at this meeting. Such disparity shows the former prime minister’s attempts to deal with a growing disconnect between diplomatic procedure and reality. With the benefit of hindsight, it could even be said that Cameron was now coming face to face with Moscow’s subversive norms. This is exemplified by the limited line of communication that was kept open following the invasion of Crimea and Donbas. Consisting of four phone calls, these exchanges were characterised by the prime minister’s attempts to reign in Putin and his actions. A demand was even made that any referendum in Crimea should adhere to the same standards as that in Scotland in 2014. Of course, such requests were ultimately met with an obfuscation so characteristic of the Kremlin. As Cameron wrote in his memoirs, “It was as if we were sitting at the same chessboard but playing two completely different games.”

So, what does this all mean for the new foreign minister’s brief today? While well placed to build on his personal experience of Russian aggression, it must be remembered that Cameron is inheriting a situation fundamentally different to that of 2014. This is perhaps best seen in Ukraine itself. The country’s successful resistance to Moscow’s full-scale invasion has endowed it with an unprecedented form of agency on the international stage. This contrasts with the troubled era under Yanukovych, who Cameron supposedly identified as a “Soviet-style puppet” many years before the Maidan protests. Due to this, he will need to quickly get used to working with a Zelenskyy administration whose very existence refutes the mistakes of the past. Closer to home, he will also need to adapt to a hawkish aid strategy originally forged by his age-old rival Boris Johnson. Such generous help in the form of weapons and other equipment has placed Britain among the most enthusiastic supporters of the beleaguered nation. In spite of a change in leadership style under Sunak, this support shows little sign of slowing down. A recent government press release even noted how London is planning to further help protect infrastructure over the winter. Such promises are no doubt a relief for a Ukrainian government now fighting for attention in light of the ongoing war in Gaza. Pressure to maintain this approach will subsequently come in the form of a foreign policy elite closely wed to Johnson’s pioneering approach. With his old nemesis recently sniping from the side lines over aid, Cameron will clearly have to take decisive action to shake off any doubters.

Making up for lost time?

Perhaps it was this pressure that motivated such a quick response on the part of the foreign secretary. On the first day of entering office Cameron was already discussing Ukraine with his US counterpart Antony Blinken. While the need “to help Ukraine prevail against Russia’s war of aggression” was mentioned near the end of a short associated report, this talk appeared to act as a clear statement of intent. For instance, the former prime minister was soon spotted on the ground in Ukraine for his first official trip abroad. This visit was focused on face-to-face talks with Zelenskyy, as well as his Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. Available footage from Cameron’s first meeting with the president in Kyiv shows him stressing that “I wanted this to be my first visit.” This was quickly followed by a promise of comprehensive support “for however long it takes”, as well as an interesting aside to praise Johnson’s previous diplomatic efforts. These compliments are notable considering his adversary’s leading role in the 2016 Leave campaign that banished him to the political wilderness. A trip to Odesa alongside Kuleba to discuss defence on the Black Sea then rounded off this pioneering trip. Interestingly, Cameron’s presence in the strategically placed coastal city marked the first time that a British representative has visited the area since the beginning of the war. Overall, these efforts appear to have been warmly received by Zelenskyy. The Ukrainian president even took the time to mention the visit’s importance now that “the world is not focused on the situation on our battlefield”. Away from the headlines, it is also interesting to note how the British foreign minister’s difficulties in 2014 were not discussed by either party. This not only reflects a Kyiv administration eager to court favour with its friends but also a former prime minister on board with London’s policy outlook. Due to this, Cameron will likely use his diplomatic experience to maintain and strengthen pre-existing partnerships.

Strengthen appears to be the key word here given his subsequent visit to Moldova. Occurring directly after his engagements in Ukraine, the foreign secretary’s stopover was likely planned as a statement regarding London’s approach to the region as a whole. Of course, the visit comes at a pivotal moment for President Maia Sandu and her pro-western government in Chisinau. While the country recently secured official status as an EU candidate state, it has also faced heated local elections so often defined by the East-West divide. This situation appeared to be at the top of the agenda during discussions, with “Russian hybrid aggression” noted by a Foreign Office statement as a key issue. In a rather ironic sense, Britain’s new focus on Moscow’s regional threat appears to have encouraged a thorough reassessment of a traditional outlook often defined by Russocentrism. Having abandoned any notion of cooperation with Moscow, London is now more appreciative of the local realities connecting capitals such as Chisinau and Kyiv. It is worth remembering that Cameron’s trip built on the work of his predecessor James Cleverly, who also visited Tbilisi as part of this diverse approach. Similar topics such as corruption and reform were discussed during this engagement in the spring. The former prime minister has already shown an awareness of such interconnectedness in his memoirs, stating after the Russian invasion of Georgia “Where next? Ukraine?” The situation on the ground will now give the foreign secretary the chance to turn words into action, with further regional visits likely to follow.

In conclusion, it appears that the ghosts of the past will play little to no role in Cameron’s new position as foreign minister. Rather than representing a threat to the consensus established in February 2022, the former prime minister actually appears to embody the gradual shift in establishment thinking over the past decade. While attempting to work with Russia whilst in Downing Street, it seems that Cameron has always maintained a widely shared suspicion of the Kremlin’s intentions. As he declared in his writings, “For Putin, lying was an art form.” Due to this, his new position will give him the chance to finally give voice to this now more tangible outlook, with London’s approach no longer held back by diplomatic niceties. This departure from rhetoric shows a man keenly aware of the changing mores of the British establishment. It could even be said that he was effectively born and raised in these institutions. Cameron’s time as the UK’s foreign minister may be short lived. The unique circumstances of his appointment, as well as the polls for next year, appear to confirm as much. However, it is likely that he will have great personal motivation to make right the mistakes that occurred on his watch in Ukraine one decade ago. In his resignation speech in parliament in July 2016, the former prime minister famously declared that “I was the future once.” It is not every day that you get a second chance.

Niall Gray is the copy editor and proofreader of New Eastern Europe. He is also an AHRC-funded History PhD student at the University of Strathclyde and a CWAR Fellow at the Wilson Center.

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