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A new European triumvirate: Plurilateralism in action

On 21st January 2022, Liz Truss, the British Foreign Secretary, spoke at the Lowy Institute in Australia, preliminarily announcing the formation of a new ‘trilateral’ group including the United Kingdom (UK), Poland and Ukraine. This came as Britain continued to bolster its support for Ukraine against a potential new Russian offensive with the delivery of around 2,000 light anti-tank weapons. 

This is on top of Operation ORBITAL, which saw Britain training 22,000 Ukrainian troops, just as it has been supplying £1.7 billion of financial and technical support for the reconstruction of the Ukrainian Navy, which was decimated when Russia seized Crimea in 2014. The UK will supply Ukrainian with two minehunters, eight missile craft and partake in the development of Ukraine’s new frigate programme.

As Boris Jonhson, the British Prime Minister, visited Kyiv on 1st February, media speculation grew as to the new triumvirate’s purpose. Dymtro Kuleba, the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs, issued a statement on Facebook in response:

A new format not tied to local geography is a union of countries that share common principles, strive to strengthen security and develop trade, ready for concrete action. Warsaw, Kiev and London have not only a realistic awareness of Europe’s security threats and a strategy to counter challenges from the Russian Federation, but also a great potential for trilateral cooperation in the fields of trade, investment, energy, in particular renewable[s].

This British, Polish and Ukrainian attempt to intensify cooperation comes at an optimal time – just as Russia’s unruly kleptocracy has amassed over 100,000 troops, armour and artillery on Ukraine’s eastern frontier, with the threat to invade. As Map 1 shows, this new arrangement makes sense for a plethora of geostrategic reasons, not least because it will facilitate British strategic support to two key countries in Eastern Europe.

Map 1: The geopolitics of the British-Polish-Ukrainian triumvirate

For the UK, it demonstrates the continued British commitment to Euro-Atlantic security in the face of an adversarial Russia, in ways beyond the traditional and – in the case of Ukraine and other non-North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) states – arguably ineffective security arrangements. In particular, it will reassure Britain’s Eastern European allies and partners that the leading European military power is deeply committed to deterring Russian aggression, just as it confirms to the United States (US) that the UK remains an indispensable ally.

The formation of the new triumvirate also proves that membership of the European Union (EU) is not a prerequisite for a deep and lasting national commitment to the defence of Europe; in fact, insofar as the UK has not felt bound to follow an EU-agreed stance – normally at the lowest common denominator – it liberates British foreign policy, making it more agile and effective, while simultaneously throwing down the gauntlet to the EU to do better. As such, it confirms that ‘Global Britain’ and the Integrated Review are becoming a reality in Europe, and that the UK will not jettison its Euro-Atlantic commitments in favour of an Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’.

For Poland, the new triumvirate boosts Polish influence and further binds Britain to the Eastern European theatre, insofar as it provides a counterbalance to growing German and French power. For Ukraine, it confirms the country’s Euro-Atlantic orientation and helps it take its rightful place as a large, sovereign European power – not a periphery of Russia. At the same time, it allows both Kyiv and Warsaw to reach beyond the formal multilateral structures they have joined or aspire to join, one of which no longer includes the UK as a member.

Beyond its immediate geopolitics, the triumvirate is significant because of its ‘plurilateral’ character; that is to say, it marks a move on the part of the UK, Poland and Ukraine to complement the formal multilateral structures in Europe, such as NATO and the EU, with more agile and flexible arrangements which are better suited to modern geostrategic requirements. 

This is further evidence of the UK determination to form new plurilateral groupings to reshape the international order: the Joint Expeditionary Force with the Baltic and Nordic states and AUKUS with Australia and the US serve as recent examples. Likewise, it reinforces Ukraine’s determination to create what Kubela has called ‘mini alliances’ with like-minded countries given that NATO and EU membership remain unlikely for the foreseeable future.

The British-Polish-Ukrainian triumvirate is still in the making, but if properly realised it could – to play on Lord Ismay’s famous dictum – serve as a flexible framework to pull the British in, raise the Poles and Ukrainians up, and keep the Russians out of Eastern Europe.

James Rogers is Co-founder and Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy.

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