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The drivers of Britain’s military assistance to Ukraine

About one year ago, on 17th January 2022, Ben Wallace, the British Defence Secretary, announced the delivery of several thousand next generation light anti-tank weapons (NLAWs) to Ukraine along with paratroopers that would train Ukrainian forces on how to operate them. This provision of military assistance took place in the backdrop of a massive military build-up that Russia had begun the previous year. In the month ahead, the United Kingdom (UK) continued to send more of the British-Swedish anti-tank weapons. When Russia finally launched its fateful full-scale invasion of Ukraine on the 24th February 2022, the NLAW quickly became a symbol of the effective resistance that the Ukrainian Armed Forces put up to defend Kyiv and other major cities. 

Yet, the NLAW only foreshadowed more defence assistance that Britain would soon give to Ukraine. The UK stepped up its support in early March with its announced provision of Starstreak anti-aircraft missile systems. By August 2022, Britain would also give M270 multiple rocket launchers, M109 155 millimetre howitzers, armoured vehicles, Brimstone-1 missiles, Mastiff protected patrol vehicles, and various unmanned aerial vehicles, making it one of the biggest supporters of Ukraine in terms of monetary value. Symbolising the strength of the UK’s support to Ukraine has been the close relationship that Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian President, has had with each of the three British Prime Ministers who were in office over the course of the calendar year.

What explains Britain’s military assistance? Why is the UK among Ukraine’s biggest providers?

Any country typically weighs a set of strategic, economic, and risk considerations when deciding whether to give military assistance to an ally or partner, how much of it, and in what form. A strategic motivation can be grounded in a shared sense of threat and a joint desire to defeat or to complicate the activities of an adversary. An economic justification could be tied to maintaining the viability of local industry. Risk considerations could turn on whether the military assistance would be used appropriately, or whether it would fall into the wrong hands. 

Ever since Russia began its war against Ukraine in 2014 – when it seized the Crimean peninsula and subsequently destabilised the Donbas – all three of those considerations were at play for His Majesty’s (HM) Government. 

In reverse order, risk considerations did figure prominently in British decisions to provide, or rather not to provide, military assistance early in the war. The Ukrainian Armed Forces had been hollowed out during Viktor Yanukovych’s corrupt presidency, and so several volunteer battalions of uncertain quality had to take the lead to fight against Russian proxy forces. Yet, worries about misuse and weapon diversion would attenuate with time, not least because of reforms made by the Ukrainian defence ministry and the training program that the UK oversaw with Operation ORBITAL.

Defence inputs, simply put, generate defence outputs, and Britain was better positioned than most NATO allies – especially those in Western Europe – to react to Russia’s military build-up and subsequent full-scale invasion of Ukraine because of that sustained investment. 

Economic considerations would come to encourage Britain to increase its support for Ukraine. In 2020, the two countries signed a Memorandum of Intent that aimed at reconstituting Ukraine’s naval capabilities. Elevating the stature of this agreement was the Memorandum of Implementation that, among other things, announced the joint production of eight missile warships, with Babcock International being the main British industry partner on the project. This deal fit the UK’s plans to revive its shipbuilding industry, as signalled in its 2017 National Shipbuilding Strategy, which was refreshed in March 2022. 

Over time, however, strategic reasons arguably had an even greater impact on HM Government’s decisions to provide military assistance to Ukraine. Russian activities that infringed upon British and allied interests expanded and became more brazen. Aside from relentless disinformation campaigns and election interference across the Euro-Atlantic, Russia used Novichok in a targeted assassination attempt in Salisbury; undermined the maritime rule of law in the Black Sea with spoofing and harassment of seafaring vessels; stepped up its incursions into North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) airspace in the Baltic region; and upset arms control agreements like the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. In view of this behaviour, Britain’s 2021 Integrated Review unequivocally affirmed that ‘Russia will remain the most acute direct threat to the UK.’

Because the global security environment was worsening, in part because of Russian deeds, Britain continued to invest significantly in its own military. The UK was one of the few NATO members to have met its pledge to spend 2% of its gross domestic product on its defence. 

Critics often allege that the 2% threshold is meaningless because NATO members can contribute significantly to Euro-Atlantic security in non-military ways. Yet, NATO members’ spending on operations and maintenance – that part of the defence budget dedicated to ensuring a high level of readiness – is indeed a significant predictor of military assistance to Ukraine throughout 2022. Defence inputs, simply put, generate defence outputs, and Britain was better positioned than most NATO allies – especially those in Western Europe – to react to Russia’s military build-up and subsequent full-scale invasion of Ukraine because of that sustained investment. 

No part of this should invite self-congratulatory complacency. What could have most influenced the provision of military assistance to Ukraine in 2022 might matter less in 2023. Ammunition, whether for air defence or for ground operations, will grow in priority, especially as Ukraine aims to both liberate more territory and defend itself against Russian missile and drone attacks. Some analysts charge that Britain has grossly inadequate ammunition stores. Although this criticism can be unfair – Britain naturally would attach less priority to artillery than Russia by dint of its geography and military practice, especially after the Cold War – Britain may have to reconstitute parts of its defence industrial base to continue servicing Ukraine’s needs.

Lt. Col. Jordan Becker is an active-duty officer in the US Army. Dr Alexander Lanoszka is an Ernest Bevin Associate Fellow in Euro-Atlantic Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy and Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Waterloo. This text reflects the authors’ views only, and does not reflect any official US government position.

The conclusions in this article have been drawn from ‘The art of partial commitment: the politics of military assistance to Ukraine’, a study by the authors in Post-Soviet Affairs. Read it here.

Embedded image credit: AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky (CC BY-SA 2.0 cropped)

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