In an interview with the Daily Telegraph last week, the UK’s newly appointed defence secretary, Grant Shapps, said he wanted to deploy British military instructors to assist Ukraine and train Ukrainian armed forces.
The UK is already hosting a training programme for Ukrainian troops, with the aim of training 30,000 of them by the end of 2023.
Moscow’s response to Shapp was swift. The step will, “turn your instructors into legal targets for our armed forces,” said Dmitry Medvedev, chairman of Russia’s security council.
To tone down Shapp’s statement, PM Rishi Sunak said mere hours later that there were no “immediate plans” to dispatch British troops to Ukraine. What the defence secretary meant, Sunak remarked, “might well be possible one day in the future.”
If understood liberally, this means the prime minister is primarily concerned with the timeframe of a British official presence in Ukraine, not the actual possibility or lack thereof.
That might not translate to an immediate shift in the UK’s policies toward Kyiv, but it suggests some of the taboos on Britain’s direct involvement in the war may have been slightly lifted, or the subject has at least become open to deliberations.
To date, Britain and other NATO countries have avoided official - at least declared - presence in Ukraine, deterred by the prospect of the situation spiralling out of control into a direct confrontation with Russia.
Nonetheless, the UK has been at the forefront of the pro-Ukraine war efforts. It was the first country to supply lethal weaponry and send advanced systems, like Challenger tanks, to Kyiv. In doing so, London sought to encourage (or rather allure) other nations to follow its lead and step up the game against Moscow.
The UK is now second only to the United States in military assistance to Kyiv. It has thus far committed £4.6 billion in military assistance to Ukraine, £2.3 billion in 2022 and a matching amount in 2023.
In all the above scenarios (and potentially in any future ones), the UK seems to have positioned itself as a ‘bold’ player and a ‘risk-taker’ in the conflict. This is despite the fact that the country is not well-equipped to take on Russia in an armed conflict.
Also, it should not be forgotten that in the past decade, London has been almost a safe haven for Russian oligarchy’s money, with UK politicians – especially amongst the Conservatives – benefiting from and facilitating its flow.
Why is it then that the UK’s position toward Russia is rather aggressive?
The question is guaranteed to raise many eyebrows in today’s Britain. And the immediate, simple answer would be, well, the most obvious and most idealistic: protecting Ukrainian freedom and sovereignty against Russia’s illegal invasion.
This is a narrative deeply embedded in a basic moral binary: the bad invaders versus the good freedom fighters. It provides emotional clarity that helps steer the public and the media in a certain direction. Although, this has also helped the silencing and demonising of dissident voices.
But to think that this idealistic explanation is all there is to it is naive. Governments, however, do not typically act on emotional whims or always base their political assessments on seemingly noble causes.
Otherwise, why would the UK support Israel, an occupying power under international law, just like Russia, while condemning Palestinian resistance to its invader, much in the same vain as Ukrainian resistance?
When Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, the UK was happy to join the efforts led by France and Germany to mediate a settlement between Moscow and Kyiv under the Normandy Format. The efforts eventually failed.
Even with the British lip-service on Ukraine’s territorial integrity afterwards, London was too reluctant - or rather uncomfortable - to take on a clear position against Moscow.
In the following years, reportedly, Ukrainian pleas for weapon supplies to three British prime ministers - Cameron, May, and Johnson - fell on deaf ears.
Britain’s record on taking in Ukrainian refugees has also been less than ideal, falling far behind other EU countries.
In part, the current UK posture could be more about Brexit and its consequences and less about Ukraine’s freedom and sovereignty. As the UK left the European Union, it struggled to find its special place in the world arena that suits its needs and serves its interests.
To that effect, Boris Johnson and many in his ruling party, and later Tory officials, sought every opportunity to show (or rather, prove) that Brexit has freed Britain to act more fluidly and dynamically on the international and domestic fronts.
As Liz Truss once stated, the UK is poised to, “do things differently, to think differently and to work differently … to get things done.”
By throwing its weight behind Ukraine and seeking to rally other countries in Kyiv’s direction, Britain is seeking to stay relevant as an international actor, a strategy with ostensibly political benefits at home.
What is more, a conflict on the EU’s eastern borders would uphold the British position as a net security provider and offshore balancer in Europe. By upping Ukraine’s military capabilities, Moscow has been forced to counter-escalate, and that may have increased the dependency of central and eastern European states on British material and logistical support.
To a similar effect, the risk-taking allows the UK to outmanoeuvre France and Germany, deepen its ties with Washington, and form stronger relations with countries like Poland, Norway, and the Baltics.
Such relations can only, to British eyes, favour Britain’s notion of a ‘balanced Europe,’ a place where London can still be an effective player without the restraints of EU membership.
The London way may seem like a risky and controversial gamble. But as long as British troops are not in the line of fire with Moscow, it will continue to serve as a scope for economic and political benefits for Westminster, well beyond the official narrative of Ukrainian freedom.
The question of sustainability and longevity of such a gamble, however, is another story. The ‘comfortable’ status quo could change rapidly, particularly if Sunak, or any later prime minister, decides to openly send British army personnel to Kyiv.
Dr Emad Moussa is a Palestinian-British researcher and writer specialising in the political psychology of intergroup and conflict dynamics, focusing on MENA with a special interest in Israel/Palestine. He has a background in human rights and journalism, and is currently a frequent contributor to multiple academic and media outlets, in addition to being a consultant for a US-based think tank.
Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.