Decades of Nato failure define the UK’s stance on Ukraine

While modern Ukraine first declared independence in 1917, its national identity largely stems from the eastern Slavic culture that flourished in approximately the same area as the modern state during the middle ages. This is the period in which national identities also emerged in Britain.

While their present realities sharply contrast, the fates of Ukraine and Britain have been intertwined more intimately than either population are generally aware. 

The Crimean war, in which Britain and its allies defeated the Russian Empire, led to the resignation of prime minister, the 4th Earl of Aberdeen George, Hamilton-Gordon, following an 1855 vote of no confidence. The conflict became a cultural touchstone for depictions of the brutality and futility of modern warfare, now almost wholly supplanted by the memory of the First World War.

A preoccupation with foreign conflict and liberties is not simply a feature just of the post-Cold War liberal order, but a consistent question for the modern age. To what extent is the security of a faraway country the business of other states?

Currently, the official governments of Ukraine and the United Kingdom are relatively warm to each other, as the former seeks out support wherever it can as Putin threatens to compromise its borders. However, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky continues to stress – despite Nato’s public briefings to the contrary – that panic is unnecessary. Zelensky himself is also far from the democratic ideal, and stands accused of corruption, attacks on Ukrainian opposition, and allegiances with far-right groups. Yet for those seeking to combat Russian ambitions, the Ukrainian Premier is an obvious bedfellow.

Latest analysis suggests that 130,000 Russian troops remain poised along Ukraine’s frontiers with southwest Russia and Belarus. Late last week, experts suggested that the crisis had reached “its most dangerous stage” and foreign ministers warned an invasion could happen within hours or days. While the situation does seem to be cooling off – at least for now – with Russia saying it has scaled down some of its presence – who controls Ukraine will remain an enduring concern for the balance of power in Europe.

Despite war featuring as an ever-present feature of international relations since time immemorial, the nature of modern parliamentary democracy means willingness to become entangled in military conflict is directly related to how those in power believe it will impact their political prospects. Hope remains that this crisis could deescalate, but the situation has prompted important questions about Britain’s willingness – or lack thereof – to involve itself in foreign conflicts. 

While few Britons share the Corbynite urge to pin sole responsibility for the crisis on the aggression of America and its allies, this does not mean they welcome intimate British involvement in yet another faraway war.

The latest research finds the public divided on the issue of direct military support if Russia were to roll its tanks in today. YouGov found that 30 per cent of British adults were in favour of direct force to “defend Ukraine”, while 32 per cent were against it. Conservative voters were slightly more hawkish, with 35 per cent favouring action versus 29 per cent against, while Labour voters were split 31 to 34, erring on the side of non-intervention. 

Of course, as a Nato member, Britain is already ingrained in the conflict to a degree. Anti-tank weaponry and advisors were deployed to Kiev weeks ago, and 1,000 British troops are on standby to provide aid in the event of a humanitarian crisis triggered by a Russian invasion. However, the idea of British and Russian troops engaged in direct combat is highly unlikely. 

On Saturday, armed forces minister James Heappey reiterated that “there will be no British troops in Ukraine if there is any conflict with Russia.” While all such statements by officials grappling with a crisis must be taken with a pinch of salt, the expert consensus is that the western reaction to an invasion would be to continue providing equipment and funding anti-Russian dissidents without risking the consequences of all-out war witnessed most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is not to say that the British are generally sympathetic with the actions of the Russian state. According to the latest YouGov polling, 47 per cent of British adults report “disliking” Russia. After a steady climb upwards in British perceptions of the country following the hostilities of the Cold War era, they plummeted following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the 2018 poisoning of two Russian citizens by suspected Russian agents in the sleepy cathedral city of Salisbury. 

Perception of Ukraine is much more neutral, with 48 per cent of British adults reporting to neither like nor dislike the country. In other words, Brits are far more likely to be sceptical of the Russian state than Ukraine’s, but they do not favour the latter enough to demand that all available resources be put toward its defence.

It is also a fact that not all Nato members favour the same approach to Russia, somewhat frustrating any approach the UK or other states may push for. Germany for example, seems more eager to appease its one-time eastern belligerent in the hope of guaranteeing energy supplies following its plans to phase out nuclear energy – for environmental reasons nonetheless. However, the reality is that the US, which contributes half the world’s military spending, pulls the biggest financial strings when it comes to decision making. Even if the UK or German government decided military confrontation with Russia made sense (or vice versa), US financial pressures would heavily influence any final decision.

It could well be that Putin’s latest suggestion of a semi-withdrawal is a signal not that the crisis is over, but that he realises he may have already won. If Russia now knows the Nato response to any further incursions will be minimal – with the US denying that troops would be sent to retrieve its own citizens – the matter of further expansion is no longer a question of if but when.

Following last summer’s bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan, a lukewarm defence of Ukrainian sovereignty amplifies a growing signal of Nato apathy to the rest of the world, especially to China. If Kiev is not worth defending, what about Taiwan? The South China Sea? Herein lies the fundamental conflict at the heart of the general attitude of Britain and its allies: the wish to protect or promote democracy abroad, but the lack of will to do so after decades of failed attempts.