The support offered to Ukraine over a looming Russian invasion serves Boris Johnson’s own interests – rather than the country in Vladimir Putin’s sights, says Iain Overton

There is nothing quite like the beat of the drums of war to help cover up the noise of a party.

In the past week, the Prime Minister has used the spectre of war in Ukraine to deflect from questions about attending his own birthday party in May 2020, when lockdown restrictions banned indoor mixing between households.

Instead, he loudly rounded on Labour Leader Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions, saying that “it is almost as though he was in ignorance of the fact that we have a crisis on the borders of Ukraine”.

Rather than addressing accusations of a knees-up at Downing Street, the Prime Minister fell back on the defence of another nation – Ukraine – in danger of being forced to its knees. “The Cabinet Room of this country, the UK Government, are bringing the West together,” he said.

The support he referred to takes the form of providing defensive aid to Kyiv, as Russian forces deploy around Ukraine’s borders.

Boris Johnson has made much capital about the UK’s support of Ukraine. The day before PMQs, he said that the UK has “acted to strengthen Ukraine’s ability to defend her soil by supplying anti-armour missiles and deploying a small training team of British personnel”.

Two weeks earlier, British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told the Daily Mail that the UK had already delivered 2,000 anti-tank weapons called the ‘Next Generation Light Antitank Weapon’ – or NLAW – to Ukraine. Other past UK military deliveries included the delivery of Saxon armoured vehicles.


The Wrong Kind of Warfare

The NLAW weapons are no small gift. Each costs an approximate £26,000 – meaning that the UK Government may have given as much as £52 million worth of missiles away (excluding bulk discounts).The suitability of handing over such missiles has been questioned, however. 

The Russian military doctrine is one of ‘non-contact warfare‘ – it focuses on destroying the enemy from long distances, rather than in tank battles. 

Take, for example, the barrage of Russian Grad rockets to hit the streets of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol on 24 January 2015. The attack left at least 30 civilians dead. The assault came from a distance – there were no tanks in sight.

In addition, as the recent conflict in Nagorno Karabakh has shown, troops using Russian tactics rely heavily on drone surveillance and strikes to wipe out the enemy. The NLAW is not the ideal weapon to take those down.

The days of Russian tanks and infantry pushing towards battle are no more. British military advisors who cut their teeth during tank exercises on the plains of Germany might imagine a very different war from one that will – if it comes to that – be fought.

This may explain why the UK’s support appears to be responding to old style of warfare – and therefore is failing to offer much support at all. 

As an expert from the Royal United Services Institute has written: “The delivery of… short-range anti-tank weapons… can only be useful in one scenario, one which is likely to be preceded by a harrowing and extensive period of non-contact warfare designed to prevent the Ukrainian armed forces from operating effectively at all.”

So, if handing over anti-tank weapons is unlikely to stop a war in Ukraine, what will?


Bellicose Bluster Versus Cuts to Aid

Some Conservative backbenchers want more bellicosity in the Government’s response to the unfolding crisis in Ukraine. 

Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Defence Committee, suggested to the Prime Minister that the best way forward was to “mobilise a sizeable NATO presence in Ukraine”. Given he also recently said that a senior military officer taking charge of the day-to-day running of Downing Street would give the public a “sense of assurance”, his solutions seem to be a default militaristic one.

But perhaps it is what the UK Government has failed to do that should concern us even more.

Despite the Prime Minister’s bluster of support, Britain’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) – aid intended to promote the economic development and welfare of developing countries – from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) has been slashed in Ukraine.

It has gone from just shy of £29 million in 2019/20 to £0 today. According to a House of Commons report, Ukraine is “currently not included as receiving ODA from the FCDO in 2021/22”.

This is despite the fact that there is a clear need for aid. As the think tank, the International Crisis Group, has said, post-war Ukraine is in economic turmoil: “Supply and market links have been shattered. Giant enterprises have shed jobs or collapsed. Entire communities have fallen into poverty, now exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.”

But these cuts are part of a wider slashing of FCDO aid.

Last year, the Government voted to break its manifesto commitment to continue spending 0.7% of Gross National Income on aid – reducing it to 0.5%. Citing the economic impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, the Government instead allocated 0.5% of Gross National Income for ODA in 2021, as a “temporary measure”.

The move has left 46 countries receiving no aid from the UK at all, while programmes working on everything from clean water to sexual health have seen their funding decimated. 

The current tranche of funds ring-fenced for Ukraine from the FCDO budget all run out in March. This includes the ending of some £14,284,020 spent on supporting governance and economic reform; £761,075 given to a climate and governance initiative; and £200,000 local embassy funds for judiciary reform.  

In contrast, providing weapons – however redundant – instead of finance to bolster democracies plays better with Conservative backbenchers. Perhaps this is less surprising when we remember that one in seven of Tory MPs are themselves military veterans.


Digital Warfare

The UK Government’s missile and tank-led response has failed to appreciate that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s playbook is focused on winning the digital war as much as the physical.

Last year, Olena Mokrenchuk, a senior lieutenant in the Ukrainian Army press office, told this newspaper that the Ukrainian Army is under-equipped to deal with the Russian troll farm onslaught. “To fight against bot farms,” she said, “I can count the people capable to do that on the fingers of one hand.”

Mokrenchuk’s bigger concern was that Ukraine was unable to control its own media space. Large swathes of the country do not receive Ukrainian media. In the Chernihiv and Sumskaya Oblasts, she said, just two hours drive from Kyiv, the locals prefer to watch Russian state television – riven with lies and pro-Russian propaganda – than pay for Ukrainian satellite feeds. She estimated that 14% of the population do not access their own country’s television news.

Real help from Britain, she told Byline Times, would come through enabling Ukraine to boost its television signal masks, thereby enabling Ukrainians to watch news from Kyiv not Moscow. A small British troop from the Royal Corps of Signals might be considerably more effective in winning the propaganda war than sending in anti-tank missiles.

What is clear is that the bold statements of support to Ukraine offered up by Downing Street quickly unravel when the details are examined: missiles that may not be appropriate for a coming storm; aid funding slashed to zero; and a failure to offer real, practical support to confront Putin’s digital war.

There is a Ukrainian expression – Купити кота в мішку – “to buy a cat in a sack”. It means to accept something without examining it first, despite the possibility it may be something of poor quality. Perhaps Britain is in danger of cajoling Ukraine to do exactly this – not least while it helps drown-out scandals closer to home.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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