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Comment: Britain and the war in Ukraine

Comment: Britain and the war in Ukraine

Published on: 4 April 2022

Dr Martin Farr discusses how British responses to the Russian invasion of Ukraine have been both uniquely of their time – of 2022 – but also observe some well-established norms.

War between states in Europe is no longer common. The Integrated Review of 2021 sought to bring foreign, development, defence, security, and intelligence policy together in a way not attempted before, reflecting the both the interconnectedness of the twenty-first century world, but also of Global Britain: Britain’s new, non-geographic, foreign policy. It made most of the strategic threat of China, but much of the tactical threat of Russia.

Not long after the British Army finally was fully withdrawn from the continent after what we may come to call Cold War I, it might need a greater footprint than leading one of four NATO battle groups for Cold War II. The likely increase in defence spending (not least to stay ahead of a re-arming Germany to remain NATO’s second biggest contributor) is another challenge for a government struggling with a post-pandemic inflationary crisis.

That government was also struggling with a post-Brexit foreign policy: the re-casting of Britain’s place in the world. The war has provided an opportunity to – using a term from the 2019 constitutional crisis – ‘double-down’: anti-Russia, pro-America (Secretary of State Tony Blinken has said of the British ‘we and our teams are in almost constant contact’); to convene – the Joint Expeditionary Force – and to repair some of the damage with the EU – and with the French and the Germans in particular – Brexit wrought.

The war may prove to be transformative for Boris Johnson, offering scope for his strengths in a way that domestic policy – or even the basic standards expected in the conduct of his office – do not. Volodymyr Zelenskyy has highlighted Johnson of all world leaders as being his most valued, thereby added to the politics of personality on which the government rests. Certainly the war provided a distraction – how long ago, how trivial, talk of cakes and parties now sound (more than about those though that scandal was).

The war has also offered Keir Starmer, with his invocations of Attlee and Bevin, the chance further to recast Labour (the party may never have recovered had Jeremy Corbyn been leader at this hour). The extra-parliamentary left (and right) has endeavoured to make something of Russia having been provoked by NATO expansionism, but without salience.

Britain has led. That the Ukrainian army has done so well is due in at least part to Operation Orbital, the British training of it since 2015; lethally effective aid has flowed in anticipation of the invasion that British intelligence correctly predicted; calls for the suspension of SWIFT were indeed that, Vladimir Putin the inadvertent whipper-in of the recalcitrant; the BBC has been buttressed as global news network of record, and resumed short wave radio broadcasting in the region.

But there has also been failure. Ignoring the many warnings Putin himself began to issue in 2014 with his first invasion; the pitifully late and limited Economic Crime Act; the effective freedom of the city of London enjoyed by Russian kleptocrats; the ‘Breaking Point’ flavour of the initial response to refugees. And, most damningly, that we are here at all: that Putin was not deterred from invading. Perhaps he would never have been. But when the bodies are finally buried, that is a question that will be exhumed. 

Dr Martin Farr is Senior Lecturer in Contemporary British History


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