Ukraine is in the news again. According to some estimates, Russia has deployed approximately 80,000 troops on the Russian-Ukrainian border in Crimea and close to the Donbas region. Most Britons may know little about Ukraine, but the country’s geostrategic significance has grown. This is because Russia, designated by the Integrated Review as the ‘most acute direct threat’ to the United Kingdom (UK), as well as to the country’s North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies, appears to be using Ukraine to expand its power and test its military effectiveness. It should come as no surprise that Britain’s more exposed and smaller allies on the eastern flank of the alliance – countries British troops have been forward-deployed to guard as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence – are especially alarmed.
In part because of this security context, Ukraine matters to the UK. For one, Ukraine is a friendly country located on NATO’s eastern frontier in Europe; for another, it acts as a geopolitical bulwark. If Ukraine is strong and capable, then Russia will be less able to exploit the vacuum between itself and NATO. A weakened Ukraine, however, will only embolden Russia and encourage it to apply pressure elsewhere. Finally, although its own political development since the 1990s has been rocky and complicated further by systemic corruption and ongoing issues over the rule of law, Ukraine aspires to be a functional democracy.
For these reasons, the British Government stepped up its support for Ukraine after Russia illegitimately wrested control of Crimea in 2014 and intervened militarily in the Donbas region, where the Kremlin has fermented a civil war that has killed at least 13,000 people and displaced 1.5 million more. The UK led the way by providing Kyiv with a package including military, political and economic assistance.
Starting in 2015, Britain established Operation ORBITAL to enhance the fighting effectiveness of the Armed Forces of Ukraine through extensive training. So far, this programme has helped train over 18,000 troops. In addition, the UK has continued to provide limited arms sales and financial support for Ukrainian infrastructure, including a £1.25 billion package to help revitalise the Ukrainian Navy. Britain has also sent Royal Air Force warplanes to partake in NATO’s Black Sea Policing mission and deployed Royal Navy warships to the Black Sea to make its presence felt. Meanwhile, British paratroops have been deployed to Ukraine to take part in exercises with the Ukrainian Ground Forces.
Diplomatically, Britain has worked to coalesce a group of allies and partners within NATO and beyond to stiffen the Euro-Atlantic community’s resolve in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine, particularly in the Donbas region. In particular, London has promoted the monitoring of Russian activities in Ukraine through the Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and pushed the G7 to condemn the Kremlin’s ongoing military interference.
Critics allege that British support for Ukraine is both unwarranted and dangerous: unwarranted because Britain has little vital interest in Ukraine; dangerous because Russia – a significant power with a far more extensive nuclear arsenal – supposedly has ‘vital interests’ there. According to these critics, any increase in support for Ukraine would be escalatory and inflame tensions with Russia, raising the risk of nuclear war. Some international relations scholars like John Mearsheimer even assert that the US and the UK have provoked the Ukrainian crisis in 2013-2014 with the enlargement of NATO and the promise to Ukraine that it would eventually join.
These arguments are hokum. First, Britain has a stake in the territorial order in Europe. If countries that defy international law can unilaterally seize territory without consequence, then deep insecurity would swallow up the European continent, as had been the case in the darkest moments of the twentieth century. To this effect, both Russia and the UK were signatories to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which paved the way for Ukraine to renounce the nuclear weapons stockpile it inherited from the Soviet Union in exchange for guarantees regarding its territorial integrity. That Russia has more nuclear weapons should not matter here. The UK has them, too. If Russia were to escalate to the nuclear level over the Donbas, then it would be putting its own cities at risk just as well. Besides, there are many steps on the ladder of escalation before nuclear war becomes likely.
Second, the notion that the so-called balance of interests favours Russia gives undue license for Russia to behave as it pleases. With respect to the Donbas, it is hardly self-evident that Russia has ‘vital interests’ there. This region was never part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in the Soviet era. Its residents have never truly self-identified more with the post-communist Russian state. They, too, voted for Ukrainian independence, a point not lost on Russian President Boris Yeltsin at the time. If we concede that Russia has ‘vital interests’ in the Donbas just because ethnic Russians live there, then we would also be conceding that Russia has ‘vital interests’ in Estonia and Latvia, where sizable communities of Russian speakers live.
Third, critics largely overstate the role played by NATO in stirring tensions between Ukraine and Russia. Besides the fact that this argument is predicated on the dangerous assumption that Russia should have a veto over Ukraine’s destiny as a sovereign state, it is empirically wrong. NATO enlargement to include Ukraine was largely a moot issue in 2013. It had been since 2008 when Kyiv’s application for a Membership Action Plan was rejected due to German and French opposition. Indeed, the alliance was severely hamstrung at the time by operational disagreements in Afghanistan, chronically low defence spending, and a messy experience in Libya. In 2013, the issue at hand was Ukraine’s negotiations with the European Union for an Association Agreement. Russia applied extraordinary economic pressure on Ukraine for it not to sign; the Kremlin wanted Ukraine to join the then-proposed Eurasian Economic Union.
So rather than waiting, Britain should respond to Russia’s renewed military build-up near eastern Ukraine in a robust manner. It should foster even closer coordination between the G7, over which it currently holds the presidency, as well as the group of countries in NATO – such as the US, Poland, the Baltic states, especially Lithuania, and Romania – which have a more realistic understanding of Russian intent. It should step up military assistance for Ukraine while explaining to Kyiv that this support cannot be used for offensive operations against Russia, even to retake Crimea. And it should make clear to Russia the consequences of a renewed spring offensive: further Russian assets will be seized, further sanctions will be applied, and further support will be given to Ukraine, including anti-armour and anti-air weapons.
Ukraine may be distant to the British home islands, but it is – through NATO – adjacent to allies that the UK has pledged to defend, all the way up to the nuclear level. It is true that many Britons have not been to Ukraine; it is a relatively poor country whose elites have often failed to reduce corruption or to deliver a better standard of living for the Ukrainian people. But Ukraine is now central to British geostrategic interests: it is the gatehouse of Europe. Unless the UK and its allies help close down the portcullis, Europe will be harder to defend.
Dr Alexander Lanoszka is an Ernest Bevin Associate Fellow in Euro-Atlantic Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He is also an Associate Professor in International Relations at the University of Waterloo. James Rogers is Co-founder and Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy.
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