Last Friday, 24th February 2023, marked the first anniversary of Russia’s renewed offensive against Ukraine. Now in its ninth year, the broader war Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, unleashed in 2014 has fundamentally changed Europe’s geopolitics and swept away many old cobwebs. The collapse of the European state system into a greater ‘postmodern order’, which Sir Robert Cooper, then Deputy Secretary for Defence and Overseas Affairs in the Cabinet Office, heralded in 1998, was a false prophecy. Likewise, Europe is not ruling the 21st century, as Mark Leonard, then Director of Foreign Policy at the Centre for European Reform, argued it would in 2005. And for all the inflated talk of a ‘Zeitenwende’ by Olaf Scholz, Chancellor of Germany, Berlin’s response to Russia’s aggression – while better than sometimes depicted – is hardly that of a ‘grown-up country’, to use John Kampfner’s description of Germany in 2021.
What does Russia’s renewed assault mean for the United Kingdom (UK)?
First, if any country among Europe’s most significant has become more strategically mature, it is Britain. For all the talk of the UK’s decline and withdrawal from European security after Brexit, His Majesty’s (HM) Government has led the Euro-Atlantic response to Russia’s renewed aggression by arming Ukraine and taking active measures to deter the Kremlin from attacking allies and other partners. Though there is still a long way to go to secure a Ukrainian victory, the success of the UK approach has vindicated those in the British diplomatic and strategic establishment who have long favoured pushing back against Putin.
After his first invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and the resulting annexation of Crimea, a fierce debate emerged between those supportive of the French and German policy of appeasement and those favouring more active measures. While the UK did not support the flawed Normandy Format and Minsk agreements, it did not diverge too far from the approach taken by Germany and France. Instead, HM Government sought a halfway house: unlike Berlin and Paris, the UK launched a military mission – Operation ORBITAL – to train over 20,000 Ukrainian Armed Forces to enhance Ukraine’s strategic resilience; but like France and Germany, Britain would not supply Ukraine with modern weapons to deter Russia, fearing, like them, that this could provoke the Kremlin.
Russia’s attempts to use a biological substance to assassinate Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018 changed HM Government’s strategic calculus. The UK started to adopt a more forceful approach towards Russia under Theresa May, though Boris Johnson took this further. While she denounced Russia as an aggressor, the Integrated Review of March 2021 described the Kremlin as a ‘direct’ and ‘acute threat’. HMS Daring was also ordered into the Black Sea in April 2021 to challenge Russia’s illegitimate claims over waters surrounding Crimea.
The war has largely confirmed the Integrated Review and the Defence Command Paper’s focus on maritime power, long-range strike, and ‘active deterrence’.
Second, and in turn, Russia’s aggression has justified HM Government’s more assertive policy towards the Kremlin: despite some failures after 2014, the UK’s stance since mid-2021 has been almost pitch-perfect. Not only did HM Government begin to publicly condemn the growing dependency of Germany and other countries on Russia’s oil and gas – which saw payments into the Kremlin’s coffers of some €1 trillion (£882.4 billion) between 2012 and 2021 – but it also released intelligence in an attempt to derail the Kremlin’s war plans. Moreover, the speed and scale of the British provision of arms to Ukraine – the most extensive after the United States (US) – has had a tangible impact on the ground, a point Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine, made during his visit to London in February 2023. Indeed, not only was the UK’s dispatch of Next-generation Light Anti-tank Weapons (NLAW) critical in helping Kyiv to repulse the invader last February, but subsequent British actions encouraged other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies to enhance their own commitments – most recently with the establishment of Operation INTERFLEX and the Tallinn Pledge to provide modern battle tanks, tracked heavy artillery, and other advanced weapons.
Third, the UK’s response has strengthened its hand among allies and partners. Joe Biden, President of the US, looks favourably at British efforts. At the same time, Fumio Kishida, Prime Minister of Japan, agreed in a joint statement with the UK that security between the Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic regions was ‘indivisible’. On the European front, NATO allies and European Union (EU) partners have flocked to Britain, particularly those in the so-called ‘Three Seas’ region, between the Baltic, Black and Adriatic seas. After the Kremlin launched its so-called ‘special military operation’ against Ukraine, the UK reinforced its position in Estonia. It also offered Finland and Sweden security assurances after they decided to join NATO. With British forces dispersed across the northern and eastern flanks of NATO, with particularly dense concentrations in Estonia and Poland, allies know HM Government has the means and, given its response to Russia’s aggression, the will to escalate to the highest level in the event of a Russian attack.
Fourth, just as Russia’s renewed offensive has united the Ukrainian people in their will to resist, it has also drawn the British people together, irrespective of the deep fissures which opened during the 2010s. Although Ukraine was not well-known to most of the UK before 2022, the country is now much better understood due to the Ukrainians’ stoic resistance. Britons even connect the Ukrainians’ situation with their own in the early 1940s, compounding their support for Ukraine’s cause. Most Britons identify Russia as the aggressor and Ukraine as the victim; a majority also want Ukraine to win, even if this prolongs the fighting.
Finally, the war has largely confirmed the Integrated Review and the Defence Command Paper’s focus on maritime power, long-range strike, and ‘active deterrence’. Since February 2022, there have been calls for the UK to focus more on strengthening the British Army – even at the expense of other services, such as the Royal Navy. Johnson’s testimony to the Defence Select Committee in the House of Commons in November 2021 came in for particular scrutiny. Just three months before Russia’s renewal of hostilities, he stated: ‘We have to recognise that the old concepts of fighting big tank battles on European land mass are over…’ Though widely condemned after the Kremlin’s renewed offensive, the former prime minister was not wrong. The UK will never again fight tank battles on the European continent; in the nuclear age, nuclear powers cannot go to war with one another, at least in the traditional sense.
In March, HM Government is expected to publish the so-called ‘refresh’ of the Integrated Review, which has been cooking for some months, at least since Liz Truss ordered it during her brief reign as prime minister during the autumn. The refresh is expected to provide more insight into the worsened strategic environment the Kremlin (and others, such as the People’s Republic of China) have brought into existence since early 2021. It will also provide a way forward for the UK.
What should this be? Although the Ukrainians have heavily degraded Russia’s army, the Russian Navy and Russian Air Force remain primarily intact; therefore, with its maritime-centric approach, much of the original Integrated Review remains correct. If change is required, the refresh should explain how British power will be used to plug power vacuums, especially in the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific theatres.
If Russian aggression teaches British diplomats and strategists anything, it should be that ‘vacuum wars’ can be prevented. Britain may still need advanced armour, but not necessarily for itself. Within NATO, such capability can be better generated if the UK works with continental allies such as Poland and Germany to ensure they procure and operate enough, leaving the British Armed Forces freer to focus on naval, air, cyber and long-range fires. Beyond NATO, British partners, such as Ukraine, need an armourer; HM Government ought to power up the British defence-industrial base to assist them. As the UK’s response to Russian aggression has shown, the Kremlin is not invincible. By training partners’ forces and deploying military equipment to enhance their resilience, it may even be possible to deter aggressors from trying to exploit power vacuums.
James Rogers is Co-founder and Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy.
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