The war against Ukraine and the Integrated Review

It has been well over a year since Her Majesty’s Government published its Integrated Review[↗]. Released in March 2021, the document sought to develop a vision for Britain in the world and set objectives and priorities for the coming decade.

Forward planning documents always rely on some art of prediction and inevitably become challenged by unforeseen events. This has been true of many such papers in the past; the 1990 Options for Change[↗] Defence Review was published a week before the start of the Gulf War, whilst the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review[↗] was published months before the Arab Spring.

Less than a year after the release of the Integrated Review, the global context changed dramatically when Russia re-invaded Ukraine[↗]. Since then, the Ukraine crisis has become a primary focus for security, defence, aid and diplomatic efforts, leaving significantly less bandwidth to focus upon other areas identified in the policy paper.

Integrated Review resilience

However, resource drain aside, the Integrated Review has proved remarkably resilient in unplanned circumstances, proving particularly strong in three areas:

Firstly, the policy paper made it clear that the run up to 2030 would see a change in the nature and distribution of global power. This would mean a move away from the focus on terrorism and insurgency – which has dominated the agenda since the 9/11 terrorist attack – and back towards state conflict. Whilst it may not have specified conventional state military operations, it did anticipate that there would be ‘systemic competition’ between states due to geopolitical and geoeconomics shifts, and in determination of international rules and norms.

The subsequent war against Ukraine has compounded these ideas and highlighted the shifting tectonic plates of the global world order. In particular, the fissure between the states who align more closely with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia and those who do so with the United States[↗] (US) and Europe[↗] have been laid stark in their response to Russia’s aggression. Even more interesting has been the silence by some states[↗] who wish to hedge their bets and remain non-aligned[↗] in an increasingly bipolar[↗] world.

Secondly, whilst the Integrated Review identified the PRC as a ‘systemic competitor’, Russia was named as ‘the most acute threat’ to Britain’s security. It was also considered that Russia would extend its activities around the edges of Europe and seek opportunities to weaken the international order.

In fact, Russia has long been of growing concern for Britain. British relations with Russia have been strained since the 2018 poisoning of the Skripal’s[↗] in Salisbury, and British forces have been thinking about how to fight the Russian state since the 2014 invasion[↗] and annexation of Crimea. 

In addition, Britain had been concerned specifically about the threat to Ukraine. The military had been working with Ukrainian forces since 2015 to build capacity and resilience against the Russian threat through Operation Orbital[↗] and the United Kingdom (UK) had supported Europe’s Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission[↗], which had been in Ukraine since 2014.

Thirdly, the Integrated Review emphasised that Britain could not achieve its global ambitions on its own. Whilst the UK benefits from global leadership opportunities and expertise, it is limited in capabilities and reliant upon alliances to achieve large-scale international objectives.

This has proved significant in relation to Ukraine. Whilst Boris Johnson, currently Prime Minister, took a strong leadership role in the crisis, Britain’s relationship with the US and Europe (even amongst political difficulties over Northern Ireland and Brexit), as well as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and Five Eyes alliances, have been fundamental for achieving objectives.

Rethinking required

Nonetheless, despite the Integrated Review demonstrating considerable foresight in these areas, there is now a challenge to adapt in response to recent events. 

In particular, energy[↗] and food security[↗] have moved up the long list of priorities. Sanctions on Russian energy supplies[↗] (which in 2021 formed 4% of gas, 9% of oil and 27% of coal imports to the UK and totalled some £4.5 billion) has forced governments to fumble for short term alternatives and speed up the shift to renewables in the long term. 

Similarly, the global reliance on Ukrainian crops[↗] has highlighted the issue of food security. In 2019 Ukraine was responsible for 42% of the world’s sunflower oil[↗], 16% of its corn and nearly 10% of global wheat supply. Millions of tonnes of grain crops (44.7 million in 2021[↗]) are exported annually. Many countries at risk of famine rely on this supply[↗] each year.

Beyond these immediate issues, the global context has also changed.

Changes in global context

Russia is now weaker than it was before. Not only has Russia revealed itself to have less military strength than most anticipated, it has also been reduced further as a result of losses in the conflict, the tightening of sanctions[↗] on equipment and its diminishing economic capability. Russia’s economic strength has dwindled due to the cost of the war, sanctions[↗] and the crackdowns made on Russian[↗] investment and organised crime. 

At the same time, continental Europe has focused upon increasing its defence and security. States are promising to spend more in these areas (with Germany[↗] looking to invest $100 billion (£83 billion) into its armed forces), the European Union (EU) is looking to strengthen its defence capabilities[↗] and NATO members have accepted new applications from Finland and Sweden to join the alliance.

The increased European commitment to defence may free up Britain to push forward with its Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ in the future. This policy was a driving force behind the Integrated Review but has had to be relegated for the moment. Nonetheless, it is intended that by 2030 Britain will be the European partner of choice in the region for the US, and a stronger continental Europe will allow Britain to divert resources in this direction.

However, a broader review of the policy towards the PRC is needed. Whilst the PRC may be emboldened by the removal of any threat stemming from its Russian neighbour[↗], and be richer from Russian economic reliance[↗] on Chinese goods, it has equally witnessed its most useful ally[↗] become weak. There may be further concerns in Beijing about how the war against Ukraine will impact Western tolerance for autocracy as well as highlight the pitfalls of direct military operations, especially in relation to the South China Sea and in Taiwan[↗]. Consequently, it is worth challenging Britain’s existing approach to the PRC.

There is also a need to rethink the current approach to deterrence[↗], particularly within NATO.

One of NATO’s core policies has been that of deterrence; of nuclear, conventional and hybrid threats. The Integrated Review highlighted that NATO deterrence was particularly focused upon Russian activities and that NATO and the EU sought a number of ways to dissuade Russia from using force. Whilst some argue that deterrence succeeded in limiting the war to the Ukrainian borders and against the use of nuclear weapons, it is clear that other measures have failed and will need rethinking.

Action needed

Finally, the Integrated Review emphasised a significant shift in the British approach to international relations. In particular, it stressed that the UK would take a more active approach; moving from defending the global world order to shaping a new one.

Whilst the response to Ukraine has supported Britain’s ambitions to be ‘a force for good’, support open societies and defend human rights, these remain defensive actions. But the war has shaken the global order, providing a small – and reducing – window of opportunity for change.

If the ambitions stated in the Integrated Review are to be realised, concrete moves need to be made in this period of transition.

Dr Louise Kettle is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham.

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