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Ukraine Is a Test of Britain's Diplomatic Mojo

Ukraine Is a Test of Britain's Diplomatic Mojo

Saturday, 29 January, 2022 - 06:00

Boris Johnson’s leadership may have become a laughingstock thanks to “Partygate” breaches of lockdown rules at Downing Street, but the UK is being taken more seriously in one part of Europe than it has been for years — Ukraine.

Today, the most clear-eyed response to Russia’s propaganda offensive on NATO and aggression toward Ukraine has come from Britain. UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace has delivered 2,000 state-of-the-art N-LAW anti-tank weapons to Ukraine — though London had to avoid German airspace to do so. Even before other Western ministers took notice, Wallace challenged Vladimir Putin’s now notorious 5,000-word thesis from 2021 that argued Ukraine has no existence separate from Russia.

It is high time that Britain recovered its diplomatic mojo.

Along with the US and Russia, the UK is a signatory to the 1994 Budapest agreement, which guaranteed the borders of newly independent Ukraine in return for surrendering its share of the former Soviet nuclear arsenal stationed on its territory. Back then Britain still had a place at top table: The UK was an important second-tier power whose military, nuclear and diplomatic heft was universally acknowledged.

Yet when Russia twice attacked Ukraine in 2014, first to annex the Crimea and then to support separatists carving up territory in the east of the country, the UK made light of its Budapest obligations. Along with the US, it shuffled off responsibility for patching up peace with Moscow to the cautious leaderships of Germany and France. As editor of The Sunday Times, I argued to then-Prime Minister David Cameron that Britain must be represented as a forceful advocate for Ukraine, but he was preoccupied by domestic issues.

It is true that the UK is now taking a firmer stand in the latest iteration of the Ukrainian crisis. But it could and should still do more to stop Russian money being laundered through the City of London— especially as its allies appear disunited.

Germany’s new “traffic light” government led by Olaf Scholz, made up of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Liberals, is anxious not to provoke Moscow. Having shut down its nuclear power plants, Berlin is naturally worried about its gas supplies from Russia. The SPD looks back fondly, too, on its gentle Ostpolitik version of detente with the Soviet Union.

Scholz’s French partner, President Emmanuel Macron has not distinguished himself in this crisis either. Having declared NATO “brain dead,” Macron initially made grandstanding calls for a European Union response that would have distanced the bloc from Washington. Brussels, however, has been almost invisible throughout.

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson and UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss have been vocal in support of Kyiv. The prime minister surely welcomes any distraction from his current domestic woes, but better someone who does the right thing for the wrong reasons than otherwise. In a rare outbreak of unanimity, Keir Starmer, the opposition leader, has broken with his Labour predecessor’s soft line on Russia too.

Britain was once far more respected by friend and foe alike for the consistency of its approach to the Kremlin. The lines were clear: Russian aggression was firmly resisted, but London was always willing to do hazard-headed business with Moscow to de-escalate tensions.

From Winston Churchill’s famous Iron Curtain speech in 1946 to Harold Macmillan in the late 1950s to Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, British leaders made a distinct contribution to the Western Alliance. They rejected anti-Communist hysteria but were skeptical of the more extravagant claims made by German, and sometimes American, administrations for detente.

Yet Churchill, Macmillan and Thatcher remained open to agreement with Moscow. It was the Iron Lady who first spotted the star quality of a rising Soviet apparatchik, Mikhail Gorbachev, and marked him out to her ideological ally President Ronald Reagan as “a man you could do business with.”

Still, when Moscow’s spies became brazen in their activities, Britain expelled them en masse, sometimes by the hundred. Theresa May ordered the last clear-out in 2018 after a Russian defector, Sergei Skripal, was poisoned with a chemical weapon. At the Security Council and the General Assembly of the United Nations, London’s diplomats worked with Washington and other allies to contain the Communist threat. Around the world, British soft power put the case for Western democratic values without stridency.

Today, Britain’s Foreign Office needs a reboot. It effectively lost responsibility for relations with Washington and Brussels long ago to No. 10 — although Truss has taken on the role as negotiator for the Northern Ireland Protocol with the EU. Its diplomats failed to prepare a “Plan B” for leaving the EU before the referendum in 2016. Its civil service chief, still in situ, refused to come back from holiday after the shambolic evacuation of Kabul last year, because, he told a shocked House of Commons committee, “it wouldn’t have made any difference.”

The UK’s armed forces are in a better state, though they have been shrinking. The navy and air force are adapting to the revolution in military affairs in which more technicians than fighting men will be required to wage war. If the army’s plan to modernize is given the right investment — Britain currently meets the NATO target of spending 2% of GDP on defense — the UK will be able to deploy combat-ready forces in NATO-allied territory bordering Russia at short notice. That’s a big if.

So the UK has the means, but does it retain the ambition to count for something in the world? Under Thatcher and Tony Blair, the UK punched above its weight — sometimes by sheer force of will and clarity of purpose. Their successors, both before and after Britain’s departure from the EU, have been much less assured. Skeptical friends in Berlin and Paris, still sore from Brexit, have marked the decline along with enemies in Moscow and Beijing.

Johnson and his putative Tory successors are now wedded to a forward-looking foreign policy called “Global Britain” and have even deployed forces to the Indo-Pacific. The rhetoric is ringing, but does this government have the staying power to make the UK a force once more?


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