The war in Ukraine: a litmus test for post-Brexit Britain?

Ambassade de Russie à Londres (02/22)

Valérie André, OREMA, Aix-Marseille Université, LERMA.

   ‘Global Britain’ was one of the prizes which the Brexiters dangled in front of British voters at the time of the referendum. Highly improvised yet somewhat inspirational, it could buy the successive governments some time as they were busy repositioning Britain on the world stage. Early assessments of the United Kingdom’s strategy for a return to ‘East of Suez’ were generally dismissive, pointing to its lack of substance and delusional dimension. As of late, a few tentative steps have been taken to clarify its meaning and offer a sense of direction. The so-called ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific, which Boris Johnson claimed would allow Britain to “reconnect with natural allies”, became more tangible when the UK signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with Japan in October 2020, itself a steppingstone, so it is hoped, to Britain’s membership of the Trans Pacific Trade and Cooperation Partnership; similarly, the defence and security AUKUS agreement of September 2021 has added some credibility to the strategy; the ongoing negotiations with N. Modi’s India, while still inconclusive, also give further weight to the new orientations set out in the Integrated Review of March 2021.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 is the first state-on-state war on European soil since WW2. It is also the first major international crisis which the United Kingdom has had to face since it embarked on its solo post-Brexit journey. Having foregone the multiplier effect of E.U. membership, will the United Kingdom have to face the reality if not of its complete irrelevance at least of its largely diminished status and influence on the world stage? Will Britain have the capacity to uphold the ambitions of the Integrated Review and rise to the new challenges facing a problem-solving, burden-sharing power, committed to the defence of a rules-based international order? Finally, will the war in Ukraine derail a foreign policy which the British government only recently spelled out in the Integrated Review, thus forcing London to acknowledge that its ‘post geography’ moment has already passed?
The United Kingdom’s response to the war
In many respects the British government’s response to the war of aggression on Ukraine has been both swift and robust. The Russian invasion came as a vindication of the United Kingdom’s greater foresight and acumen, as the repeated warnings it had issued about the imminence of an attack on Ukraine contrasted starkly with European complacency.  The UK’s greater sensitivity to the Russian threat naturally stems from its recent exposure to a series of hostile activities such as the high-profile poisonings of Russian agents on British soil, (Litvinenko in 2006, Skripal in 2018) as well as interference with democratic processes at the time of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum (confirmed by Parliament in July 2020) and possibly with the 2016 Brexit consultation. This should not however diminish our appreciation of the performance of the U.K.’s Secret Intelligence Services (MI6), greatly enhanced by its membership of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. The war has also reinforced international trust in the information shared by the British MoD. 
Since the outbreak of war there has been ample evidence of the United Kingdom’s commitment to the defence of Ukraine and more generally to the security of the Euro-Atlantic through concerted action with the United States and European partners. Its contribution to Kyiv’s military response to Russian aggression has been exceptionally strong. The figures compiled by the Kiel Institute for World Economy through its Ukraine Support Tracker ( in its 4th release, covering the period until June 7, have established that Britain’s military assistance through arms supplies and training of military personnel is second only to the US and exceeds that of EU countries and EU institutions. As such it has proved crucial to Ukraine’s capacity to resist Russian aggression.

Britain’s participation in the sanctions packages coordinated through the G7 format ranges from a total embargo on Russian oil and gas imports by the end of 2022 to a set of comprehensive economic and financial sanctions, such as the exclusion of certain Russian banks from the SWIFT system of global payments which the U.K. claims to have initiated. Political and diplomatic support has also been forthcoming through a succession of high-profile visits to the Ukrainian capital by the Prime Minister and the Foreign secretary: Liz Truss travelled to Kyiv on 17 February to announce a trilateral partnership with Poland and Ukraine while Boris Johnson’s visit on 9 April was the first by a foreign head of government since the outbreak of war. The British Prime Minister also addressed the Ukrainian Parliament on 3 May, following Zelensky’s speech to the House of Commons via video on 8 March.

From a narrow party-political perspective, the government’s claim that Britain is playing a leading role in the fight against Russia’s war of aggression has offered a timely reprieve from domestic difficulties, not least Partygate, and a welcome distraction from recent setbacks at the local elections of 5 May 2022. The hawkish declarations by senior government members have also helped paint the portrait of a “plucky Britain” (“Now is the time for courage”, Liz Truss, 26 April 2022) which has risen to the challenges of war, thus boosting its credentials as a staunch defender of freedom, democracy and the rules-based international order as well as a burden-sharing, risk-taking and problem-solving power.

The negatives of the British response to the war have however been played down. The City of London’s ‘Russian connection’ is one of them, its money and reputation laundering activities have been exposed not least through the Russia report whose publication was delayed by Boris Johnson until after the December 2019 General Election. The Tory Party’s partiality to the generosity of Russian donors has also been established and it goes a long way to explaining the Government’s delaying tactics which allowed wealthy Russian entrepreneurs to move their assets before sanctions started to bite as well as the persistent flaws in sanction regimes whose loopholes can be exploited by well-informed Russian oligarchs. Finally, the over-cautious British approach to the Ukrainian refugee crisis, tied up as it is with an increasingly stringent immigration policy, has fallen short of the EU’s visa-waiving strategy in a way which critics argue amounts to callous disregard for human rights.

Unity not uniformity

The west’s coordinated response to the war in Ukraine testifies to the magnitude of the challenge it poses to Europe’s security system and the rules-based order. However, the unity which was on display at successive NATO and G7 summits does not mean uniformity. One of the main dividing lines between allies runs down the Channel. It pitches the United Kingdom against some of its European counterparts, most specifically France, which assumed the 6-month presidency of the Council of the European Union on 1 January 2022, and Germany. London has been more vocal in its condemnation of the Russian invasion and it has systematically adopted a firmer line on the issue of war aims, aligning with Kyiv’s maximalist view that Moscow must suffer nothing short of a military defeat at the hands of the Ukrainian army, that future peace negotiations must be preceded by Russia’s complete withdrawal from Ukrainian territory, Crimea included and that Vladimir Putin should not be offered an ’exit ramp’ (Liz Truss, ‘The return of geopolitics’, 26 April 2022 )

In continental Europe, the option favoured by the French and German governments, later joined by Italy, has been one of continuity with the strategy deployed after 2014, namely keeping the channels of communication open with the Kremlin, reviving the Normandy Format and the stalled 2015 Minsk 2 agreements which provided for an accommodation of Russian grievances through the granting of special status to the Russian-speaking regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as well as the protection of minority rights. They have similarly refrained from calling for the defeat of Russia, preferring less confrontational terminology (“Russia must not be seen to win the war”) and have distanced themselves from the suggestion that a defeated Russia must be punished through the addition of a “War Guilt Clause” to any future peace treaty. On the whole, leading European nations have been more concerned with preventing the escalation of the conflict and shielding their populations from its consequences, from the security risks of a potential overspill to E.U. borderlands to the economic and social disruptions caused by mass migration and Russian embargoes on cereals and fossil fuels.

Diverging opinions have regularly been couched in a language which tends to blow differences out of proportion. In the U.K. memories of the Guilty Men’s myopic appeasement policy and of French capitulation in May 1940 are casting a long shadow over Emmanuel Macron’s insistent warnings that Russia should not be humiliated and that a negotiated peace settlement is to be preferred to an intensification of the conflict. Senior members of the British government have raised objections which echo Winston Churchill’s portentous words at the time of the Munich conference in September 1938. But even as the British Prime Minister is claiming the Churchillian “never surrender” legacy, the view in Paris and other European capitals is that Boris Johnson’s attention-grabbing declarations amount to foolhardy gesticulation, reminiscent of the military adventurism of a succession of ill-fated 20th-century military campaigns from Gallipoli in 1916 to the humiliation of Suez in 1956, and irresponsible provocation in a nuclear age.

Balancing strengths and weaknesses

The war in Ukraine has provided the British government with an opportunity to expand its military and diplomatic footprint in continental Europe as well as an opportunity to flesh out what some have called ‘the platitudes’ of the Integrated Review on the U.K.’s commitment to European security (‘our commitment to European security is unequivocal’). To a large extent, the Johnson government’s recent initiatives have confirmed long-standing British interests in the region and intensified a lingering presence under NATO auspices. Since the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, in which assurances were first expressed by Britain and the United States, the U.K. has been one of the most steadfast defenders of Ukraine’s security.  After the invasion of Crimea which London still regards as illegal, Britain has stepped up its commitment to Ukrainian security both as commissioned by NATO and through direct bilateral military agreements. Between 2015 and 2021, the British military operation code-named Operation Orbital trained over 21,000 Ukrainian military personnel. From 2020 it was expanded to include maritime capacity building. Britain has also returned to the European chessboard and consolidated its presence from the Baltic to the Black Sea through the ratification of a succession of bilateral or trilateral agreements: in the High North, Boris Johnson signed a mutual defence and cooperation agreement with Finland and Norway on 11 May 2022; the 2018 Treaty of defence and cooperation with Poland was extended to Ukraine as a British-Polish-Ukrainian trilateral pact on 17 February 2022; on 26 May, the Foreign Secretary travelled to Sarajevo to confirm the UK’s commitment to the stability of  BiH and announce British investment in the security of the region.  By far its most innovative contribution to the security of the region has been through the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), originally a British-German initiative at the 2014 NATO summit in Wales, which has been building military cooperation and interoperability between 10 countries since membership was extended to Iceland in 2021. Under British leadership, the JEF has been running Exercise Cold Response in 2022, one of the biggest exercises in Europe since the Cold War.

That the UK has built an interesting network of bilateral and multilateral relationships with European allies is undeniable. From an E.U. perspective this nevertheless raises the issue of how to deal with “an active Britain committed to Europe but under no obligation to work within EU processes” (Chatham House, 8 Feb 2022). Leading member states’ suspicion of the fissile effect of Britain’s consolidated presence in European borderlands has been revived, as have their fears of a changing balance of power to the advantage of Eastern European countries and of dilution into a larger Atlantic bloc. 

Echoes of World War Two and of the Cold War have been rife on either side of the Atlantic. With the resurgence of Cold War rhetoric, the UK has been trying to operate within the format of an Atlantic Alliance where it could lay claim to the status of Washington’s most trustworthy ally. Such attempts have fallen short of their intended purpose and a diminished post-Brexit Britain has had to grapple with the reality of a special relationship which is no longer what it used to be. Brexit and the U.K.’s threat to default on the Northern Ireland Protocol have driven a wedge between London and Washington. The British government’s boisterous declarations about the restauration of freedom of navigation in the Black Sea or willingness to stretch the definition of a defensive war so as to include strikes on Russian territory have been further irritants from the perspective of the Biden administration. The days are probably gone when Washington was willing to accommodate Britain’s claim to exceptionalism and turn a blind eye on its idiosyncrasies.

The U.K. government’s decision to double down on its support of the Ukrainian government has been made without any public reference to the cost of the war effort when the economy is already contracting under the twin pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit. Recent figures published in the Financial Times (“Echoes of the 1970s for UK economy”, June 13, 2022) are alarming and with an economic downturn looming, Britain’s capacity to maintain such high levels of military implication will be severely tested, as will its claim to global relevance. Finally, the UK government also has to contend with the threat of political instability at home: how long will the electorate support the strategic choices spearheaded by a government frontbench and a Prime Minister whose dented popularity, even within his own ranks, has been exposed by the unnerving results of the 6 June vote of confidence?

The E.U.’s weaknesses as an international and regional security actor have similarly been thrown into sharp relief. The war in Ukraine has dealt a powerful blow to cooperation with Russia and exposed the flawed strategy that economic integration drives political change. For all the talks of European unity, it threatens to sharpen the divide between the “Peace” camp and the “Justice” camp. On the issue of sanctions, unity has proved increasingly difficult to achieve and has come with a price, that of departing from the rule of unanimity as exemplified by the decision to exempt Hungary and Slovakia from the E.U.’s embargo on Russian oil. The EU’s inability to devise a common strategy was already apparent in 2009 – at the time of Russia’s annexation of Georgia – through its indecision over the Eastern Partnership Programme. Its failure to clarify its precise intentions with respect to the future status of the borderland states continues to hamper its capacity to match economic heft with political, diplomatic and military clout.) Finally, all hopes of achieving strategic autonomy through the transcendence of the post-cold war settlement (Macron speech to the European Parliament, 19 January 2022) have been dashed by the Kremlin as early attempts at mediation have hit the rocks of Russia’s lofty indifference. As Vladimir Putin and Serguey Lavrov have made amply clear, Washington remains Moscow’s only western interlocutor. The recent trip to Kyiv taken by Europe’s Big 3 on 16 June has in many ways turned into a walk to Canossa.

If we can conclude with Jolyon Howorth that the EU per se has been marginalized by the war, there are signs that it has also been jolted into increased awareness that far-reaching reorientations are necessary. The EU summit in Madrid on 23 June decided to fast-track Ukraine’s candidate status to EU membership and extend the possibility to other long-time would-be applicants such as Molodova and possibly Georgia. Under a French Presidency which is drawing to a close, new ideas have been floated and strategic initiatives have emerged. The 2022 European Defence Fund will provide for the operationalization of E.U. peace through the establishment of a rapid reaction force of up to 5,000 troops by 2025. The Strategic Compass of March 2022, in addition to boosting the Common Defence and Security Policy also promotes ‘a rapid and more flexible decision-making process’. Emmanuel Macron’s idea of a political community of democratic states, if it materializes, is a step in the direction of a widening of the E.U, even if it is presented as no substitute for enlargement. These are early indications of a major rethink which favours widening over deepening and balances permanent associations on the PESCO model with more flexible, opt-in arrangements not unlike the JEF, the bespoke defence and security association which has provided the bulk of European support to Kyiv.

The war in Ukraine has therefore also underlined the closeness of EU-UK security interests and strengthened the case for cooperation by exposing flaws and vulnerabilities on either side. In theory, it has also removed some of the obstacles to a revived defence partnership of sorts. Overtures have been made to the UK, even if they are not free from calculation or residual rivalry. Yet cooperation, however rational and desirable, is unlikely to materialize under a British government obsessed with Brexit and the fetishization of national sovereignty, and whose Prime Minister’s legitimacy and political survival is increasingly tied up with a never-ending Brexit.


The war in Ukraine has presented the British government with a set of interrelated challenges. Its response has been largely calibrated as a vindication of Brexit where relative isolation is reframed as independence from entanglements with the European Union. In the great power game of the war, Britain has built on its many strengths, including that of its well-established position as one of Ukraine’s most steadfast and dedicated supporters, and played down its weaknesses. Ben Tonra recently commented that while still a significant player, the United Kingdom is increasingly seen as an add-on and an after-thought. The fear of marginalization is apparent in the sometimes-frenzied attempts to increase its visibility as a powerful and resourceful ally in the defence of freedom, democracy and a rules-based international environment.

The U.K. has effectively been operating from the margins, building up coalitions (Liz Truss’s ‘networks of liberty’) in the blind spots of NATO’s and the E.U.’s strategic spaces, inventing ‘creative solutions’ which straddle the E.U. and NATO. The British government claims that the war in Ukraine has seen the rise of a Global Britain in the North, a problem-solving power with the will and capacity to devise solutions which it argues are transferable to other regions such as the Indo-Pacific. Whether the United Kingdom evolves into a reliable team-player still remains to be seen.

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