Military briefing: how the UK took a vanguard role on arms for Ukraine

Standing in Westminster Hall, the oldest building in Britain’s parliament, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy displayed his usual skill at coining a compelling phrase: “We have freedom,” the Ukrainian president told UK lawmakers. “Give us wings to protect it . . . Wings for freedom!”

It was a typically eloquent plea, this time for fighter jets, a longstanding item on Kyiv’s wishlist of western military aid. It was also effective: almost immediately afterwards, Downing Street said defence secretary Ben Wallace was exploring what jets Britain might be able to give to Ukraine.

The announcement on fighter planes is just the latest instance of Britain taking what Kyiv views as a vanguard role in providing military aid, which is then followed by similar actions from other allies.

Sometimes the British help has been militarily significant, as with the infantry basic training, which the UK expanded to thousands of Ukrainian troops last year. Sometimes it has been more diplomatic, as with the modern battle tanks the UK pledged in mid-January.

The UK’s decision last month to send 14 Challenger 2s, although not a militarily significant number, set a precedent that was followed by a German-US agreement to send their own main battle tanks, the Leopard 2 and the M1 Abrams. This week, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands said they would also supply 178 tanks of the older Leopard 1 model.

“British aid has been both symbolic and real,” said Ben Barry, a former British army brigadier at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank in London, who cited the modern anti-tank missiles that Britain was first to send to Ukraine in large quantities in January 2022, before Russia launched its full-scale invasion.

“But all sides to this conflict are trying to shape a narrative — and the UK has been doing that as much as anyone else,” Barry added.

Part of Britain’s hawkish military approach can be seen as opportunistic and for domestic audiences. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who is struggling to boost the UK economy amid a season of industrial action, may be seeking to take a leaf out of his predecessor Boris Johnson’s book, who is still feted in Ukraine for the role he played in galvanising international support.

“Johnson gets the credit on Ukraine: he outlined a clear position at a time when . . . other European countries were wavering,” said Sir Peter Ricketts, UK national security adviser from 2010 to 2012. “In that sense there is pressure on Sunak not to appear on the back foot and to maintain the UK’s position as a leader on this issue.”

Some of the stance is for broader international purposes, as post-Brexit Britain seeks to portray itself as a defender of global freedoms and a country that still “punches above its weight”, as former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd put it memorably in 1993.

“There is no doubt that Britain has played an important leading role when it comes to Ukraine,” said a senior European defence official.

But a large part of Britain’s hawkish approach rises above day-to-day politics and is institutionally embedded in the British army, Ministry of Defence and intelligence services, which, alongside the US, were the first to warn of Russia’s invasion.

Defence officials cite the fact that Sunak’s first trip abroad as prime minister was to Kyiv with Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, head of Britain’s armed forces. “It’s a long trip, so you can be sure that Sunak and Radakin spent some quality time together,” one said.

Zelenskyy, playing to his audience in his Westminster address on Wednesday, acknowledged the role the UK had taken. “You extended your helping hand when the world had not yet come to understand how to react,” he said.

However, Britain’s desire to help is sometimes outmatched by its ability to do so, as its armed forces are riddled with shortages and gaps in its operational capabilities after decades of post-cold war spending cuts.

The Eurofighter Typhoon jets that Britain might send to Ukraine are a case in point.

According to military analysts, the UK fleet is already overstretched and short of spares; nor are the jets designed to be operated from short or rough runways, as in Ukraine.

Sending Typhoons “would be an almost purely symbolic gesture that would come at a major cost to RAF frontline readiness”, said Justin Bronk, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in London.

That is not to discount the importance of much of the lower-profile military help that Britain has sent to Ukraine — totalling more than €4bn, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, and second only in absolute terms to the US, which has provided €23bn of military aid.

One example of that is the unspecified “long-range capabilities” that Downing Street also pledged to Zelenskyy on Wednesday, before the Ukrainian president headed to Paris. He is also expected to attend an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday.

The US and other allies have so far declined to provide long-range missiles that could be used to hit targets on Russian territory, fearing this could lead to an escalation of the conflict.

“The optics of this visit are incredibly good for Sunak and for the UK,” said John Kampfner, executive director of the UK in the World Initiative at Chatham House. “Ukraine is the one area of policy where Britain has a good story to tell at a time of continued strife with the EU and the worst-performing economy of the developed world.”

Another example are the 600 Brimstone “fire and forget” missiles, which can destroy enemy armour 20km away, that the UK agreed to provide last month.

As concerns grow that Russia is set to mount a huge spring offensive, one Ukrainian defence adviser said the missiles would make a greater difference to the war effort than the more politically charged tanks that Kyiv’s allies have also pledged to send.

“The Brimstones are more effective in helping us to survive this phase,” the adviser said.

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