It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Almost a year ago, the first echelons of Putin’s tank armies spearheaded pincer strikes on Ukraine. The plan was to join up with Russian airborne forces which would land at Hostomel airport, then storm into Kyiv, find and kill Zelensky, install a Putin-compliant puppet government and be home within the month. Instead, Ukrainian soldiers, using fresh, large supplies of British N-LAW anti-tank weapons, blew Putin’s tanks off the roads, shouting “God Save the Queen” as they fired them. The elite Russian airborne landings were a slaughter.
A year on, the first drafts of the history of the start of Putin’s war are being written; and of course they are heavily contested between Putin’s version and that of the free world. But they are also contested among Ukraine’s supporters. Right on cue, Michael Heseltine proclaims Brexit a disaster and Guy Verhofstadt blames Brexit for this war. The facts say the opposite.
With Ukrainians’ courage and Zelensky’s Churchillian leadership, Ukraine was saved from defeat by Day Six of the war by two men and one country. It was good fortune that Ben Wallace was himself a former combat-decorated Scots Guards captain with a hard-charging reputation. If they were to have a fighting chance, the Defence Secretary did not require advisers to tell him what the Ukrainians needed.
Double fortune for Ukraine was that Wallace’s PM was the most charismatic, if mercurial, politician of his generation and also a man with a deep and exotic hinterland outside politics. Wallace explained to Boris Johnson that what the Ukrainians required in the first instance were immediate supplies of man-portable “fire and forget” anti-tank weapons. Johnson gave his minister full backing to ride over the reservations of the securocrats who, left to their own devices and in the face of German opposition, with Macron’s grand-standing solo diplomacy at its back, would not have made the transfers at scale, at pace or at all.
As I explain in my new paper for the Centre for Brexit Policy, the UK exercised decisive sovereign will in this initial emergency sustainment. It simply could not have done so had it still been hamstrung by the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. During those critical days when Biden was vacillating, Germany was actively obstructive and France was freelancing, the EU institutions were passive verging on catatonic. Therefore, the UK’s leadership of the increasingly robust response to Putin stands as one of the biggest gains of Brexit. The UK resumed its place on the world stage. By November, the UK had spent more on military assistance to Kyiv than all the EU institutions combined.
However, our residual problem is the infantilisation of the ruling London elite which, for 40 years, has reflexively taken its lead from across the Channel. This finally must end. The history of 2022 shows that nimble voluntary associations of independent states, such as Nato, led by key sovereign states, are better equipped to deal with tyrants like Putin than slow-moving supranational bodies such as the EU. Lessons from past conflicts insist that appeasement of bullying states never works; and those histories urge the West to double down now in its support of Ukraine and to resist calls for premature ceasefires and negotiations.
There would be great risks in a “bankers’ dash-board audit” – just as the chiefs of staff were obliged to push back against the Treasury in 1932-35. “Half-hearted efforts to make peace … companioned by half-hearted attempts to make war” – Churchill’s phrase – would chart the most dangerous course for everyone.