After Ukraine, Part I – Sleepwalking into crisis: Britain, Russia and the Ukraine

By Michael Jones:

David Cameron meets  Vladimir Putin in Moscow, September 2011. PA copyright (CC 2.0)
David Cameron meets Vladimir Putin in Moscow, September 2011. Photo: Number 10, PA copyright (CC 2.0)

Britain’s Defence secretary Michael Fallon said in February that the Russian Leader Vladimir Putin presented as much of a threat to Europe as ISIS[i]. It seems strange that to assert the seriousness of the threat from Russia – a major nuclear-armed power in Europe – Fallon had to compare it to a rebellion on another continent. Fallon was suggesting that people were seriously underestimating Russia’s power and misunderstanding its nature.

This is suggestive of both how the crisis in Ukraine arose and why our reaction to it has been so muted. The House of Lords said as much in a new report, stating that Britain, NATO and the EU had “sleepwalked” into the crisis with Russia in the Ukraine. Britain (as well as NATO and the EU) has consistently misread Russia’s perceptions and actions, and even now they seem confused over how to react to the Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine and the subsequent confrontation.

Fallon’s comparison of Russia to ISIS reflects the relatively minor attention this war in Europe has received in Britain. With the exception of the downing of MH17, the Ukraine conflict has generally garnered less media or public attention than ISIS or the threat of terrorism at home. Parliament has debated the subject several times but action has been limited to sanctions in line with the US and EU, sending one company of non-combat troops and a large amount of high-flying but ultimately hollow rhetoric.

Why the lack of interest? 

The reason for this seems to be that Britain has had more immediate problems. It is easy to forget that seven months ago Britain came close to splitting up, which would have thrown the government, economy and military of Britain into uncertainty and crisis. Thus, for most of 2014, while the Ukraine crisis blew up into civil war, Britain was not sure if it would make it to Christmas in one piece (it did, unlike Ukraine). Britain could hardly commit to radical sanctions or military pressure when it was not sure if its treasury and armed forces would be split with an independent Scotland.

The haunting figure of the Londoner “Jihadi John” personifying the “Islamic State” (IS) on our TV screens hooked our attention and dominated debate. Horror reminiscent of the dark ages in a country we recently invaded, with large numbers of our (erstwhile) countrymen running enthusiastically to join in was hard to ignore. IS has not only stolen the headlines with its sweeping conquests and brutal TV executions, but it has provoked a serious debate about the role of extremism within the West. Radical Islam seems to be a brutal and terrifying enemy that is hard to understand and is at work amongst us, an impression fuelled by the Charlie Hebdo and Copenhagen attacks.

Finally, in the face of economic crisis, potential dissolution and domestic terrorism, Britain’s public has become reluctant to sanction actions abroad and the government has been duly circumscribed. The 2013 defeat in Parliament of David Cameron’s proposed intervention in Syria has made government reluctant to commit forces abroad; indeed, we have fewer aircraft fighting IS than Denmark. This all suggests that Britain’s government is preoccupied and its people unwilling to act.

Britain is involved, whether we like it or not. 

With all of these distractions and weaknesses, perhaps conflict in Ukraine is a troublesome irrelevance. But Britain is involved, whether we like it or not. Britain is an EU and NATO member state, both of which are being challenged by Russia. Even without NATO and the EU, we are one of the three guarantors of the Budapest Agreement of 1994, which promised Ukrainian sovereignty would be inviolate in return for abandoning the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the USSR.

The UK supported NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, with seemingly little consideration of what the implications would be. NATO expansion brought with it Article V of the NATO treaty, meaning that an attack on one state is an attack on all. Britain is therefore bound by treaty to defend the states of Eastern Europe as much as it is bound to defend the Falklands. Russia’s consistent and vocal opposition to this expansion should not have left us under any illusions about what might happen. The states of Eastern Europe that joined NATO expected the protection of NATO’s Article V, because they did not want to be treated like Ukraine. Despite seeking and accepting these numerous responsibilities, we seem surprised that they should cost us anything. Sleepwalking is an apt description.

In terms of concrete action, Britain has joined EU sanctions against Russian banks, energy and defence companies, although the government policy states it has merely left its economic relations with Russia “under review”[ii]. British troops help form the NATO Rapid Reaction Corps, which has drilled in Poland and the Baltic states, while the RAF and the Royal Navy intercept Russian ships and jets near the UK.

Britain did unilaterally send 75 troops to Ukraine to help train the government forces, a move that no other EU states matched. But this was a gesture, nothing more, as it was too late to affect the training standards of troops already engaged in combat and the ceasefire of February has effectively created a frozen conflict already.

These lacklustre actions mean that at home and abroad we are perceived to lack the will to act. A growing chorus of generals, politicians and journalists are drawing attention to our underwhelming reaction. Generals are using the menace of Russia as an argument to stop or reverse defence cuts. So far in this election campaign, none of the UK’s main parties have pledged to maintain the commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence required of NATO states. This has drawn warnings from our American allies and will not have been missed in Moscow.

The Prime Minister was notably absent from the Minsk talks and has generally allowed Angela Merkel and Obama to lead the Western diplomatic efforts. Politicians have talked tough on Russia but musings about cutting Russia off from the SWIFT banking mechanism were quickly silenced by Medvedev’s claim that this would be an act of war. Russia has achieved escalation dominance and they are prepared to do more in Ukraine than we or our allies are prepared to do to prevent them.

The implications of sleepwalking.

The implications of this are considerable. Our actions here will affect our interests globally. First, Russia has redrawn European borders at gunpoint, a move that we have not prevented (although NATO also did this in Kosovo in 2008). The fact that the UK was unable to prevent the violation of the Budapest Agreement means that our ability to uphold our obligations will be called into doubt. This will mean our enemies show less respect for our interests or those of our allies. Our allies will view the UK as a less credible ally and think twice before admitting us to the negotiating table. If Russia feels emboldened by our weakness and NATO is indeed undermined by Russian actions, the security of the UK will be undermined because the reliability of NATO as a pillar of UK security will vanish.

The second issue is nuclear weapons. As Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons based on the promise of the protection of its sovereignty in 1994, what message does that send to Iran, North Korea and other would-be nuclear powers? Arguably it shows them that a nuclear weapon is more necessary than ever, that their sovereignty can be violated without it. This impression was exacerbated by the US-led invasion of Iraq. Powers like Israel and Pakistan are nuclear states that, despite many threats, remain intact; while non-nuclear Ukraine and Iraq have both suffered invasion. The logic behind nuclear non-proliferation will be irrevocably damaged.

What can the UK do?

It is easy to highlight problems and not proffer solutions, and clearly the UK has made some efforts in Ukraine which other states have not. It is extremely unlikely the UK would ever fight a war over Ukraine, whatever its treaty obligations. But what can the UK do?

First, the crisis in the Ukraine has taught us that we need to think carefully about taking on burdens we cannot support, specifically in terms of the implications of signing up to treaties and expanding alliances. Renewing our commitment to spending 2% of GDP on Defence would improve the means to act and signal to the rest of the world that we are not shirking our responsibilities.

Second, we should play Russia at its own game. Since Russia has violated the Budapest accords by invading Ukraine, we could, in turn, stop adhering to the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997. This Act stated that there would be no permanent NATO bases in Eastern Europe, only temporary deployments. Estonia’s president has called for NATO troops to remain in Eastern Europe on more long term deployments in violation of the act. By stationing troops in Eastern Europe for as long as Russia is in Ukraine, the UK and NATO would show that they are prepared to support and honour their obligations to their allies and that Russia would not be able to hide behind treaties if it was itself reluctant to honour them.

Whatever the wisdom or morality of NATO and EU expansion, and whether or not we have provoked Russia, the damage to UK-Russia relations is done and Russia cannot be appeased. We are now bound to support our allies. We cannot salvage our failure to keep to the terms of the Budapest Agreement by withdrawing from Eastern Europe, acknowledging a Russian sphere of influence and thereby forsaking our NATO responsibilities.

The world is shaped by powers that act. If we don’t, it will be shaped by someone else, quite probably to our detriment.

Michael Jones has a BA in History from the University of Oxford. He is currently reading for an MA in War Studies at King’s College London. His particular areas of interest include modern Russia and great power rivalry.

This article is part of a Strife series entitled ‘Russia and the World following Ukraine’. Over the next couple of weeks Strife will feature three more articles about the global reaction to the crisis in the Ukraine. Next, Conradin Weindl will look into the relationship between the European Union and Russia in the wake of the war in Ukraine. Then Andrzej Kozłowski will analyse Poland’s approach to the crisis and the implications for Polish security. Finally, Sebastian Åsberg, will examine the debate regarding NATO membership in neutral Sweden and Finland, which has intensified significantly as a result of the war in Ukraine.


[i] I Magazine pp.4 20/02/2015


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