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Comment: the invasion of Ukraine one year on

Comment: Britain and the invasion of Ukraine one year on

Published on: 17 March 2023

One year on from the invasion of Ukraine, Dr Martin Farr analyses the role Britain has played in the response.

One year on from what its progenitor deceptively designated merely a 'military operation', a historian cannot help but reflect on other invasions that mutated into wars; when bringing the boys back home in time for Christmas became the following Christmas, and then any Christmas. Suggestions even in March 2022 that the fighting may go on into the summer seemed to many alarmist; as alarmist as fanciful predictions two months earlier that Russia was intent on invading a sovereign European state. Yet we may not be even halfway through the course of this cataclysm, particularly not if the restitution of the territory taken by Russia in 2014 serves as the Ukrainian war aim, as President Volodymyr Zelensky, and the more hawkish of western military and political figures, have maintained it ought to. There is a very good chance this will not be the only anniversary of the war.

It is not to detract from the fortitude and endurance of Ukrainian soldiers, or the privations and suffering of Ukrainian civilians, to qualify them. To suggest out that President Putin's special military operation may have been just that, concluded in days with a rally in Kiev – as it would still have been known – but for western support for Ukraine. That support – intelligence, arms, and training – came in a structured fashion after Russia's initial invasion, of Crimea, eight Februaries earlier. Through its Operation Orbital, Britain took a lead in 2015, though it was really only doubling down on policy towards Russia more generally since the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in London nine years before. Support also came in hurried, yet still tardy, fashion after the Russian push for more of Ukraine, in 2022. Thus was Germany to pivot, with its vaunted Zeitenwende. To shift from providing helmets, and prompting ridicule, to co-ordinating an international force of main battle tanks was to reverse sixty years of foreign and defence policy. It also effectively committed Germany to the role (and thereby displace Britain) of becoming NATO's biggest European funder. It is no diminution of Ukrainian fortitude and suffering that a significant reason this became a war rather than what President Putin intended is because it became a confrontation between 'the West' and Russia. It is NATO's first full war as a de facto belligerent (its first as a belligerent – Kosovo, in 1999 – shares traits with this). This has elevated to being a conflict that neither side could even be seen – much less afford – to lose.

Britain's response

Several aspects of the Russo-Ukrainian War are remarkable from a British perspective. None was more so than the fêting of Zelensky as he addressed the UK Parliament on 8 February 2023; only that of Nelson Mandela, in 2008, has even come close. There is a near-total absence of political dissent – in any of the three parliaments – about Britain's political support of the Ukrainian government and military support of the Ukrainian army. Such opposition as there is, is confined – and its representatives make the point that it has been confined – to the margins. That so serious an undertaking has brooked so little argument is material to those critical of the manufactured consent and groupthink they discern. Nevertheless, support, inside or outside legislatures, for the war may fray, and an escalation which would involve British troops (officially) in theatre is almost impossible to imagine. Less so the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, as the next head of NATO, and Ukrainian membership a step closer.

The British response, and, insofar as Britain was indeed at the vanguard of the western alliance, its influence, was framed by the personal diplomacy of the Prime Minister. In Boris Johnson's personal account Ukraine is likely to stand as the only agreed-upon credit. Yet it is also typical of Johnson that he did nothing that any other Prime Minister would have done. Indeed, nothing that the putative next Labour Prime Minister would have done (what the consequences may have been for Labour had Jeremy Corbyn still been leader when Russia invaded is a question it will fortunately never have to answer). Embraced by an opportunist, Zelensky soon became the lightning rod for Johnson, and a moral crusade for an administration otherwise defined by depravity. As Prime Minister she did not have time to speak to very many, but Zelensky was the first leader Liz Truss called once in 10 Downing Street. From an initially instinctively more hesitant position, Rishi Sunak has quickly realised Ukraine's significance for his party and his government.

A wider view

The consequences of its heavy involvement in the war have extended to Britain's external relations. The Windsor Framework, which replaced the Northern Ireland Protocol (a more characteristically Johnsonian policy), was facilitated by the general improvement in UK-EU relations which required a Prime Minister, unlike either of his two predecessors, actually to be trusted. Then what should be an annual event – a Franco-British summit – has just taken place (after five years) with the warmest of words and an obvious chemistry between a President and Prime Minister with more personally in common than not.

No event since 1945 – even 9/11 – has affected so much so suddenly. For Britain, among other things, Ukraine has required the hasty redrafting of 2021's Integrated Review of defence and security, under-appreciating as it did, as can now be seen, the Russian threat to stability in Europe. Historically defence reviews often misjudge the horizon they scan, as did the IR, with heavy armour heaving into view once more. The prominence of the Pacific as a theatre endures – and whether China is a 'challenge' or a 'threat' – and the Franco-British summit was immediately followed by the AUKUS summit of Australia the UK and the US. For once the reality of a supposed British triumph, as announced in September 2021, exceeded what was promised. Canberra's decision to build submarines with Britain points to an international ledger in 2023 that offers some substance to post-Brexit self-image of Global Britain.

But there are dangers in such self-absorption. Voting at the United Nations General Assembly reveals that there is something to the Russian claim that the war is no animating cause for the 'global south'; indeed, that it should be in the interests of the developing world that Russia resists western imperialism. But in their often studied ambiguity, members of the global south may actually (and perfectly rationally) want to use their position on the war as leverage with both sides. Consistently the view is expressed that a ceasefire could be a satisfactory, or even desirable, conclusion to the hostilities. Russia and China assiduously cultivate good relations with countries in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, such as Brazil, India, and South Africa. Britain may have offered the latter the first state visit of the reign of Charles III but has less in its arsenal of brazen blandishments than does Russia. In preventing Russia winning the war, the West may yet be deceiving itself that it is sufficient, rather than merely necessary.


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