Boris Johnson’s brief visit to Kyiv came in the middle of a huge row in Britain over the illegal parties he held during lockdown. As a result, the visit received only brief coverage in Britain. It was seen as an obvious attempt by the British prime minister to divert public attention from his own domestic difficulties. Neither the photographs of Mr Johnson with President Zelenksy nor his promises of support for Ukraine were seen as central to the crisis between Ukraine and Russia, and Johnson’s attempt to play the international statesman was widely mocked at home.
Nevertheless, Britain is more closely involved in support for Ukraine than many British voters realise. Britain has joined Poland in a proposed trilateral alliance with Ukraine, intended to bolster the common defence of all three countries in the face of a growing threat to Ukraine. Liz Truss, Britain’s foreign minister, is going to Kyiv shortly to sign an agreement to set up what Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister, called a “security belt” from the Baltic to the Black Sea. This will help Ukraine strengthen its own defences in case of invasion by the Russian troops massed on the border.
The new alliance is not going to be called a defence treaty and is not intended to be an alternative to either Nato or the European Union. Ukrainian membership of either group is unlikely for at least several years. The trilateral deal with Poland and Britain – old allies during the Second World War – is seen as a way of reinforcing cooperation, based on common principles of security and defence, and is meant to give Kyiv immediate reassurance that its neighbours and friends in the West will do what they can to protect its sovereignty and independence. Poland has already indicated that it will send Ukraine anti-aircraft missiles, drones and ammunition.
There have been several similar regional defence and cooperation agreements. Ukraine has a bilateral agreement with Turkey and also is a member of the Lublin group, set up in 2020 together with Poland and Lithuania. It also is a member of the associated trio with Georgia and Moldova. But the proposed alliance with Britain and Poland is the first time that a senior Nato ally and a west European nation has explicitly linked its defence policies with Ukraine.
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What would this new arrangement mean in practice? It would not be an attempt to imitate Nato. It does not commit either Poland or Britain to send troops to help Ukraine in case of attack. Rather, it is intended to make it easier for Britain to provide vital arms and equipment to Ukraine, to help train Ukrainian soldiers and to offer whatever logistical help might be needed in case of an emergency. The idea of a formal agreement to underpin military cooperation was already discussed with Boris Johnson by President Zelensky when he came to London at the end of 2021 and held wide-ranging talks on new arms sales, British military help and training for the Ukrainian armed forces and key exports in the hi-tech and defence industries.
Russia has reacted in a predictably hostile way. Moscow sees any western military presence on its borders or military help to former Soviet republics as a direct threat to its own security. Far from trying to reassure Russia that the West is not pushing to expand Nato membership or confront Russia, the proposed new alliance will reinforce fears that the West is seeking to take its military presence closer to Russia’s frontiers. Russian spokesmen have both mocked and denounced the trilateral agreement. The Russian ambassador to Britain said it was like the various small and insignificant “piecing together of small triangles” for which Eastern Europe was famous, and he compared the arrangement to the Visegrad Four, which groups together Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. This is a grouping of new members of the European Union that has little power or formal structure.
Andrei Kelin, the ambassador, dismissed the new trilateral agreement as just one of all the other “petty alliances that is likely to end in just talk.”
The three countries are interested in cooperating, as all have a somewhat detached relationship with the other west European powers. Britain has left the EU and has no defence cooperation with its European neighbours outside Nato. Poland has a long-standing quarrel with Brussels over EU criticisms of the Polish government’s attitude to the freedom of the press and judiciary, and may face formal EU rebukes and fines. Ukraine has no formal links with either body, and has only a loose trade agreement with the EU. Both Poland and Britain are staunch supporters of Nato, however, and of the alliance with America, and are keen to see Washington take a tough line in confronting President Putin over Ukraine.
Boris Johnson has long championed a robust and independent defence policy for Britain, one of the few Nato countries spending more than 2 per cent of its budget on defence. He has often denounced what he sees as aggressive Russian policies and has urged the West to take a tough stance over Ukraine. During his brief visit to Kyiv, he urged Russia to step back from the brink, and promised Ukraine full British backing in strengthening its defences.
His words are in line with what most Western leaders have been saying in the past month, and were welcome in Kyiv. But the Ukrainians are fully aware of Johnson’s own weak position at home. He has been fiercely criticised for allowing at least two dozen parties to be held in his official residence in Downing Street during lockdown, when all gatherings indoors were forbidden. The scandal has escalated, made worse by Johnson’s earlier attempts to deny that such parties took place. He has twice had to apologise to the country in the House of Commons, was subject to withering criticism by an independent civil servant. He now faces a full police inquiry. If it is found he broke the law, he would be obliged to resign.
As a result, the British government and the Conservative party is now in turmoil. A growing number of former supporters and members of Johnson’s Conservative party have called on him to resign. He may soon face a formal challenge to his leadership if at least 54 members of the party send in letters calling for a leadership contest.
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All this has considerably weakened Johnson’s authority at home and abroad. Nevertheless, the opposition Labour party is just as determined to underpin Ukraine’s sovereignty, and would not oppose the new trilateral alliance. The details are still being worked out between senior military officers of the three countries. Johnson’s brief visit was largely symbolic and probably did little more to underpin a cooperation already established during Zelensky’s ground-breaking visit to London.
The crisis over Russia and Ukraine has been headline news in Britain for the past month or so, although it has been eclipsed by the scandal over Boris Johnson’s behaviour. For many Britons, Ukraine is an unfamiliar country that seems a long way away, and there is no eagerness to get involved in any future war in the region. But Britons are also angered by Russia’s recent anti-Western activities, especially after the poisoning of a former Russian intelligence agent with novichok in Britain in 2018 and the assassination of other Russian exiles in Britain. Stopping Russia from launching an invasion that could lead to a full-scale war in Europe is now seen as an urgent foreign policy goal.