Boris Johnson meets with Zelenskiy, February 2022. (Photo by Peter Nicholls - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Not so perfidious Albion

Britain has proved a steadfast ally to Ukraine, whilst the EU has dragged its feet

Artillery Row

“We’re doomed” was the catchphrase of Private Frazer in Dad’s Army. Often this comment would be intermingled with some disobliging and insubordinate comment about his commanding officer Captain Mainwaring. By the end of each episode, the crisis would have been overcome. Then Frazer would become ingratiating and declare: “I never doubted you for a moment, sir!” 

The UK was months ahead of other countries

Much of the commentary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has followed a similar pattern. Assorted “experts” told us Russia would “inevitably” overthrow Ukraine’s Government and military machine within three days — just having to cope with sabotage and other sporadic acts of resistance from the civilian population after that. When it turned out rather differently, those same “experts” still popped up to explain it all to us with as much self-assurance as ever. 

Boris Johnson has had a good war and has an optimistic temperament by nature. But even he had doubts. On 24 February, as the invasion started, the Prime Minister told the House of Commons: “We will give all the support we can, logistical or otherwise, as Britain always has done, to Governments in exile. One of the points I made to President Zelensky this morning was that it might be necessary for him to find a safe place for him and his Cabinet to go.” 

The United States made a similar offer. It was reported the next day that Zelenksy replied: “I need ammunition, not a ride.” 

By the time Boris addressed Ukraine’s parliament on 3 May, he assured them that when he first heard of the possibility of Russia’s invasion, he was sure Ukraine would win: 

I told anyone I knew, anyone who would listen that Ukraine would fight and Ukraine would be right, and yet there were some who believed the Kremlin propaganda that Russian armour would be like an irresistible force going like a knife through butter, and that Kyiv would fall within days. Do you remember they said that? And people rang Volodymyr and offered him safe passage out of the country, and he said — no thanks and that this Rada of yours would have to be reformed outside Ukraine maybe in Poland or even in London perhaps and I refused to believe it.

Despite a certain discrepancy in narrative, our Prime Minister has been rather more robust in his solidarity than any other national leader. Not just in words, of course, but action. 

The UK was months ahead of other countries in providing military supplies and training. Other countries swung into action when the war started. But for all the skill and valour of the Ukrainians, that might have been too late. We got in early. 

The Sunday Times reports: 

“In August, the defence secretary wrote to the prime minister, urging him to begin systematically arming the Ukrainians. He was backed by John Bew, the prime minister’s foreign policy adviser, who ensured that Britain’s defence review pinpointed Russia as a unique threat to UK security.”

It quotes a source as disclosing: “Boris was very supportive but it was security apparatus that was the problem. The Foreign Office and national security people were just throwing up unnecessary bureaucratic hoops to jump through.” 

The difficulty was “securocrat” opposition to such assistance on the grounds that it would be “provocative”. Boris overcame these objections and gave the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace the backing needed for the critical supplies to get through — with enough time for the necessary training also to be provided. 

Would another Prime Minister have taken the same anti establishment stance? Would Keir Starmer? Would Theresa May? It would seem doubtful. Had Jeremy Corbyn been Prime Minister, one wonders whose side we would have been on. 

The contrast with the EU was of twenty-seven countries dithering

There is another intriguing counterfactual. What if we had still been members of the European Union? 

Jacob Rees-Mogg has argued that as EU members it’s “highly improbable” we could have delivered this help so effectively — as the UK “would have had to operate within the confines of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. As we were outside, we were able to go way ahead of what other countries were doing and encourage them. If we had been tied into the EU’s High Representative and their other structures it’s highly improbable that we could have done so”. 

The CFSP requires a doctrine of “mutual sincere cooperation” and aims to “include the progressive framing of a common Union defence policy”. Once the war started, the EU has approved significant military assistance to Ukraine. Had the UK been in the EU, it is most unlikely we would have been able to get that crucial help provided so much sooner. 

Even if the CFSP’s High Representative Josep Borrell had ruled that doing so would not breach the UK’s “sincere cooperation” duties, there would have been delay. 

The context was that “securocrats” in the British defence establishment were already being obstructive; they would have seized on this opportunity for an important obstacle. Like so many of the EU treaties, the wording is ambiguous. But at the very least it would have been a source of restraint and uncertainty.

Some have suggested that had we been in the EU, we could have used our influence to make EU backing for Ukraine stronger and faster. That would seem naïve given all our experience of how the EU operates. Just as with our nimble approach to producing covid vaccines, the contrast with the EU was of 27 countries dithering and delaying before lumbering into action. Our example of independent action to help Ukraine probably had rather more influence on the EU than if we had still been in the club.

The irony is not lost on me that Ukraine wishes to join the EU. This is entirely understandable given the signal it wants to send of being allied to the West. But if it hadn’t been for Brexit, the chances of Ukraine being in a position to make such a decision might well have been much diminished.

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