The United Kingdom has established itself as one of Kiev’s biggest supporters in response to Russia’s 2022 re-invasion of Ukraine. It stands second only to the United States in military assistance to Ukraine, with a contribution standing at £2.5 billion as of May 2023 including important lethal weaponry such as Challenge II battle tanks, long-range precision missiles, and three M270 long-range multiple launch rocket systems. It has imposed sanctions on 1,550 Russian individuals and frozen $23 billion USD of Russian assets. The British government is also currently proposing legislation that would allow those frozen Russian assets to be used to aid the reconstruction of Ukrainian cities destroyed by the war, and that would keep sanctions in place against Moscow until reparations are paid to Ukraine. The United Kingdom has also launched a training program, Operation Interflex, which aims to provide basic training to 30,000 Ukrainian soldiers by year’s end.
There are a few potential explanations for why the United Kingdom has adopted such a firm approach toward Russia. Due to British access to critical intelligence shared through the ‘Five Eyes’ alliance; the Russian poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer-turned-British spy; and strong anti-Russian sentiment from the United States and from Britain’s Baltic and Nordic allies in the UK Joint Expeditionary Force, the perceived security threat of Russia is more salient for London than it is for other European governments. Officials in the United Kingdom feel responsible for failing to contain Russian aggression since the Cold War, and for allowing the post-2014 Minsk agreements to be unsuccessfully led by France and Germany. By assisting Ukraine, the United Kingdom is not only looking to defend that country’s sovereignty, but to meet the longstanding and persistent threat of Russia’s imperial ambitions.
But London’s hawkishness also serves as a warning to China and any other countries who believe Western deterrence efforts aren’t backed up with real commitments. The United Kingdom sees itself as a ‘moral leader’ similar to the United States, with the responsibility of defending threats to the liberal international order. Taking a strong stance against Russia is seen as a re-affirmation of the credibility and resolve of the U.S. and UK-led coalition of Western liberal democracies against aggression. A strong and powerful United Kingdom which is able to project power internationally works to counter the perception of the decline of London’s power in Europe post-Brexit and reassert the importance of British leadership in maintaining a humane and rules-based peace.
This strategy may reap benefits. The United Kingdom’s strong support for Ukraine has improved its relations with both the United States and its European partners. It has proven itself as an important and reliable member of NATO, and has created strong new ties with countries in Central and Eastern Europe. The joint security threat that the United Kingdom and the European Union (EU) face has led to increased economic and military cooperation between the two countries. Through the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), free trade has been established between the UK and EU, and the United Kingdom’s entrance into the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), the EU’s joint security and defense framework, it stands as an important global security leader. Britain has secured for itself the best of both worlds: separation from the EU and a larger autonomous role in NATO and the G7, as well as an amelioration of post-Brexit wounds through increased cooperation with its European allies.