That contribution has taken the form of deployments of military staff to train the Ukrainian military; supplies of defensive weaponry, including anti-armour missiles, as well as non-lethal supplies, such as helmets and body armour. The successes of the Ukrainian army to date suggest the importance of the UK’s contributions to training.
The adverse impact of domestic politics on UK foreign policy
This bilateralism mirrors other western countries’ support to Ukraine and is anchored in multilateral workings within NATO, the G7 and also the EU. With some early signs evident that the UK Government sees the necessity of working with the EU on foreign policy matters, the unifying consequences of Russia’s actions thus extend to the UK. However, the shadow of Brexit still shows in terms of a governmental unwillingness to amplify this aspect. In the context of Russia’s war on a sovereign state in Europe, the Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s erasure of the EU in her headline tweet about a day in which she attended the European Council, NATO and the G7 meeting, was telling. This impression was further heightened by MP Steve Baker calling on the Government not to allow the war to prevent them triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Later came Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s comparison of Brexit (as exemplifying the British desire for freedom) with Ukrainian armed resistance to the Russian invasion. At a time when full solidarity with western and European values and actors are undeniably the order of the day, these examples say much about the UK Government’s priorities when it comes to self-interest versus national, European and global security. They further suggest the lessons of the Russia Report have not been learned.
The imperatives for change are profound. The swirling claims that Boris Johnson ignored a UK security services warning about making Evgeny Lebedev (owner of the Evening Standard and son of a former KGB officer) a peer, have added to long-existing pressure for a clamp-down on Russian interests in the UK to address the damaging stigma around the ‘London Laundromat’. Again, this harks back to the 2020 UK Parliamentary report that highlighted the tensions between Downing Street’s prosperity agenda and national security. In fact, one expert at RUSI suggests that “no one at a senior level of government” cared about the problem until the war in Ukraine.
As part of the response to Russian aggression, the UK Government promised to take non-military action including economic measures. The UK has made much of the robustness of its response in terms of restrictive measures, but did not initiate the agreed sanctions as swiftly as did the EU and US, allowing those such as Roman Abramovich time to move key assets. There has been criticism of the UK sanctions regime too, for suffering from insufficient budgetary allocation and numerous loopholes that potentially still allow bypassing of the measures. Relatedly, however, the Government has at least finally acknowledged that it must do something to end the use of British courts by “corrupt oligarchs and Putin allies”, with the Secretary of State for Justice, Dominic Raab, setting out his proposal to tackle the use of Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation (so-called SLAPPs).
Leveraging partnerships as an important tool of UK strategy
Without invoking the spectre of a new Cold War, it is clear we are witnessing the division of Russia (perhaps others) from the West and this division is built as much on values as it is on military lines. As such, the UK must give thought to how its other relationships can be turned to better effect, something that will require utilising soft rather than hard power reflexes. An obvious focus is the Commonwealth, as recognised in the IR, spoken of as “an important institution in supporting an open and resilient international order”. Of the 35 states that abstained in the historic March 2 vote of the UN General Assembly, 9 (Bangladesh, India, Mozambique, Namibia, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Uganda) are Commonwealth members, 2 were absent, meaning that 43 Commonwealth states voted against Russia, “deploring” its “aggression” against Ukraine. With Russia increasingly active on the African continent, the UK would do well to tend more carefully to its relationships there. If the Commonwealth is to be better utilised, however, the UK will have to overcome the twin legacies of imperialism: distrust of and resentment towards the UK, and the resultant continued attachment to Russia. The former will be dependent on the ability of the UK to transition fully from empire and Brexit and there is unfortunately little evidence of the country’s ability to do that.
A more promising endeavour in relational terms is the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) which has been a key coalition bringing together the UK, the Baltic states, Netherlands, and Nordic countries. The JEF met on 14 March to coordinate delivery of weapons and other materiel to Ukraine. All apart from Iceland have supplied weapons, and the JEF can act without the need for consensus. Like the Quad in Indo-Pacific, and the AUKUS, this is another ad hoc grouping that reflects the need for flexible partnerships rather than relying on more restrictive alliances in an increasingly multipolar or multiplex world.
Preparing the ground for strategic stability
As difficult as it may now be to envision a more positive scenario, ways forward must simultaneously be focused on in order to prepare the ground for the “strategic stability” so desperately needed in Russia-UK-NATO relations. Without suggesting any justification for Russia’s war in Ukraine, it is the case that Russia is not the only state that bears responsibility for the near total dismantling of the INF Treaty and other nuclear arms control agreements. The international system has been seeing the revival of the doctrine of “extended deterrence”, first discussed in the late 1990s. This concept suggests that the very fact of possessing a powerful nuclear-strike capability plays a decisive role in resolving any international problems. Vladimir Putin has regularly hinted at his readiness to press the nuclear button - in 2014 he suggested he was on the verge of putting Russian nuclear forces on standby were Ukraine to attempt to retake Crimea. Now, in 2022, fears of nuclear escalation have again been raised, as Russia has suggested that Western assistance to Ukraine represents an existential threat which could trigger a nuclear response. As one of the five Nuclear Weapons States under the NPT, the UK bears a special responsibility for European security, although as some have pointed out, those most vulnerable to the Russian threat, i.e. Central and Eastern European NATO members, have low levels of faith in the UK deterrent and worry about the UK's conventional capabilities.
France, the UK and USA must now consider what the possibilities are, agree a unified position and utilise whichever channels – including other actors - are open to them to bring Russia to the negotiating table on this. Any such negotiations must be separate from those designed to end the war. Admittedly, therefore, the time may not be ripe for such an initiative for some time to come but the UK and its nuclear power allies should be ready to seize the opportunity when it arises.
Cyberspace must not be forgotten either. The forms that the cyber threat takes is well-documented and, as with the nuclear arms treaties, the UK must continue to work with partners to manage such threats. For now, there seems to be hesitancy regarding whether a Russian cyberattack on Ukrainian infrastructure for example, could elicit a response from Western powers, one that would target Russia. This could run the risk of escalation, although the UK Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, has been more bullish than his US counterparts about a robust response, noting that “the best part of defence is offence” and drawing attention to the strengthening of the UK National Cyber Force.
The IR demonstrates that the Government is thinking about cyberspace in longer and societally-directed scales too, but serious questions arise about the shape of its attempts to build resilience and about what is at risk of getting lost.
The need to construe values broadly
Given the seriousness of the threat posed by Russia, it is understandable that any state might deliver policies that are overly securitised, allowing the perception of threat to obscure sight of the totality of what needs protecting. However, any contradictions in relation to such securitisation give cause for concern about what is deemed worthy of protection and what is not. The Government’s proposed Online Safety Bill is a case in point, having been rightly criticised for failing to balance the need to protect citizens and democracy. Its presence also further begs the question of why equivalent legislation was not planned earlier on to tackle the Russian kleptocracy in the UK. Any democratic backsliding plays into the “whataboutist” hands of the Kremlin. Ultimately, reflexivity is needed if the UK (and the West generally) are to project their values credibly. This is a skill the West once had, but is one the UK at least, seems to be losing. It is also an increasingly glaring absence from the IR.
Dr Maxine David is a Lecturer in European Studies at Leiden University. She is a Foreign Policy analyst, specialising in Russian and EU foreign policy. She is co-editor and contributor to The Routledge Handbook of EU-Russia Relations. Structures, Actors, Issues (2021).
Dr Natasha Kuhrt is a Lecturer in International Peace and Security in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Her research expertise is in Russian foreign and security policy, Eurasian and Asia-Pacific regionalism, international law and norms of intervention.