The Council on Geostrategy’s online magazine

About | Contributors | Submissions

British leadership and supporting Ukraine in 2024

The optimism which surrounded Ukraine and its prospects in its ongoing war with Russia in early 2023 has now dissipated. Pessimism has become pervasive. Although Russia is likely not going to be in a position to seize large swathes of territory in the months ahead, its receipt of large ammunition stocks and ballistic missile capabilities from North Korea have allowed it to continue offensive operations. Its hold on southern Ukraine remains well-fortified, having successfully defended against a much heralded Ukrainian counteroffensive throughout the second half of 2023. 

Worse, the strategic attention of many North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) members has shifted, including that of the United States (US) and even the United Kingdom (UK). Hamas’ brutal surprise attack on southern Israel on 7th October 2023 put the spotlight back on the Middle East. A series of brazen attacks on international shipping by Houthi rebels operating from Yemen has compounded attention on the region. At the time of writing, the UK and US have, after much hesitation, decided to launch air strikes on Houthi positions in retaliation, stirring fear that the entire region could become engulfed in even more violence. Their foreign policy priorities now confounded, both allied states are slated to have elections this year. The spectre of Donald Trump’s possible return to the US presidency looms large.

What is to be done? This challenge, to a certain extent, has been self-imposed. Before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, many NATO countries had done themselves no favours by leaving their militaries chronically underfunded, thus constraining what military assistance they could provide in a timely and effective manner. Several countries remain unwilling to provide Ukraine with long-range strike capabilities, as in the case of the US with supplying further ATACMS and Germany with Taurus air-launched cruise missiles.

However, despite the turmoil roiling the Middle East, Britain continues to show leadership among NATO members with regards to Ukraine. 

The visit of Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, to Kyiv on 12th January was not only significant for symbolically reasserting Britain’s continued support. His address to Ukrainian parliamentarians came with the provision of £2.5 billion in military assistance in 2024-2025 and the signature of the UK-Ukraine Agreement on Security Cooperation, which formalises bilateral cooperation in multiple areas of security and defence policy. Most notably, this new agreement contains a consultation provision, as Part VIII provides that ‘in the event of future Russian armed attack against Ukraine, at the request of either of the Participants, the Participants will consult within 24 hours to determine measures needed to counter or deter the aggression.’ As the first G7 country to strike such an agreement, Britain is clearly showing leadership among Ukraine’s partners within NATO.

Yet more could still be done. Another step to be taken could be to expand work on the trilateral initiative with Ukraine and Poland. This trilateral was first announced exactly one week before Russia launched its full-scale invasion and so was quickly overtaken by events. Interest in the trilateral has since waxed and waned, in part because internal political dynamics in Poland ahead of that country’s parliamentary elections in October 2023 complicated cross-border relations with Ukraine. Although Polish domestic politics remains highly partisan, the change of government creates a new opportunity to rejuvenate the trilateral format and ensure its effectiveness.

Led by Donald Tusk, the new Polish Government has signalled its intent to improve ties with Ukraine after controversies over agricultural goods damaged bilateral relations over the course of 2023. He has promised to ‘loudly and decisively demand the full mobilisation of the free world, the Western world, to help Ukraine in this war.’ Unfortunately, Hungary and many Republicans have so far muffled such a rallying call in the European Union and the US, respectively. Even within Poland, Tusk has had to confront protests from truckers and farmers who had until late December effectively mounted and supported a blockade on Ukraine. Poland has also largely exhausted what legacy Soviet equipment it can provide.

Still, Britain and Poland are ultimately of one mind about the need for Ukraine to be as fully armed as possible in order to make strategic victory over Russia as likely as possible. If the US becomes unreliable in its assistance to Ukraine, then the trilateral initiative could help anchor Ukraine’s foreign policy and defence security cooperation as an equal partner within the broader Euro-Atlantic community. 

The questions raised by authors of the Council on Geostrategy’s Primer on the initiative from February 2023 remain pertinent. Cyber and energy security and strategic communications are but a few possible vectors of that cooperation, as per the original Joint Statement made on 17th February 2022. But expanded ammunition production and defence industrial cooperation should receive priority in light of Ukraine’s present wartime needs.

The UK may yet have to step up and occupy an even greater position within the Ukraine Defence Contact Group if Republican opposition continues to thwart US military support. Within that body, Britain should continue to pressure Germany on the provision of long-range strike capabilities to Ukraine while recognising the impressive stock of ammunition and equipment which Berlin has laudably provided thus far. Yet, the Nordic and Baltic countries arguably have views on Ukraine which are even more aligned with the UK, particularly as they continue to announce their own military aid packages. Individually, their relative small size places a constraint on what they could provide, but there may yet be opportunities for uncovering potential economies of scale.

The bottom line is that 2024 need not be so gloomy as often projected. Wars that last as long as the one which Ukraine has been fighting against Russia are hardly linear. In the modern British experience, its most successful wars unfolded with many twists and turns as well as many dark hours. Through strong effort and a sense of purpose optimism can be restored.

Dr Alexander Lanoszka is the Ernest Bevin Associate Fellow in Euro-Atlantic Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy and Associate Professor in International Relations at the University of Waterloo. His most recent book is Military Alliances in the Twenty-First Century.

Join our mailing list!

Stay informed about the latest articles from Britain’s World

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *