The visit by President Zelensky and his wife to London last month, accompanied by a large delegation of senior Ukrainian officials, was one of the most significant visits by a foreign statesman since Boris Johnson became British prime minister last year.
Though largely overshadowed by the final stages of the American election campaign, the visit led to agreements and contracts that mark an important stage in Britain’s relations with the countries of eastern Europe. It may also set a pattern for how Britain hopes to do business with new partners overseas once it has severed all formal links of membership of the European Union.
What is significant is the scale and ambition of the many agreements signed. They included not only trade and the negotiation of a new bilateral agreement, which will be needed once Britain no longer forms part of the EU trade bloc; they also have an important security dimension, and specifically give British assurances of military and arms supplies and support to ensure Ukraine’s independence and security.
Shortly after the visit, Dominic Raab, Britain’s foreign secretary, spoke of more active British efforts in the future to stop Russian hacking of British networks and the attempts at political interference in the UK’s electoral system that have been traced to computers in Russia. Mr Raab suggested that Britain would take more “active measures” on its own to hit back at this alleged Russian interference; already a campaign has been launched to disrupt an online campaign originating in Russia to fan opposition to the new coronavirus vaccines that may soon be available in Britain.
This has led to speculation that Britain sees Ukraine as a link in the global attempt to rebuff malign Russian attempts to disrupt the political life of its neighbours and the main economies of western Europe. Does this mean that the new British agreements with Kyiv might be a way for an important Nato country to offer Ukraine security support, even though there are no formal talks or preparations for Ukraine itself to become a Nato member or to enter into any formal agreements with the Nato alliance?
Certainly Britain is one of the most vigorous members of Nato in bolstering western defence preparedness. Britain has an unwavering commitment to Nato, which is all the more important for Britain’s own security and for strengthening its links with its European allies at a time when it has broken the formal links of EU membership. Britain has also been outspoken on the need to counter what it sees as the aggressive posture of the Kremlin towards the West. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its actions in the breakaway parts of eastern Ukraine are still seen in Britain as the main obstacle to improving British relations with Moscow.
The agreements signed in London are also important in the range of what they include. Trade is clearly an important element, and the trade links between Britain and Ukraine work well. These links have been growing steadily in recent years, reaching a total of $2.56 billion in 2019. What Britain will need especially after Brexit is a reliable source of food, since Britain depends heavily on food imports and those from the EU will be more expensive if new tariffs are added. Ukraine has a large and important agricultural export sector. So exporting more food to Britain makes sense for both countries. And Ukraine also has a thriving IT sector. Neither this nor farming are much hurt by Covid-19, so any treaty will not be much affected by a sudden economic downturn.
Another area where there are common interests is climate change, with Britain due to host the next big climate change conference in Glasgow next year. There are also agreements on further protecting human rights, an area that needs to be handled carefully, otherwise Kyiv might fear that Britain is trying to lecture Ukraine on its own responsibilities and human rights record.
It is the security dimension that has attracted most comment. Britain is offering $6.4 million in humanitarian aid for those people in eastern Ukraine affected by the war with Russia and Covid-19. This money is mostly symbolic, as the amount needed to help these ruined areas is far greater. But it is a gesture of solidarity and support for Ukraine which will help to cement warm overall political relations.
A more tangible sign of support is the agreement to sell Ukraine military equipment and a loan worth some $1.1 billion for its navy. This is a massive loan, larger than most that Britain has made to other countries, and is of immediate importance after the confrontations Ukraine has had with Russia in the Sea of Azov. It underlines what both Johnson and Zelensky called a new “strategic partnership” between the two countries.
How far will this new partnership go? Britain is already training Ukrainian forces, and recently 250 British paratroopers from 16 Air Assault Brigade dropped into the Ternivsky training area in the Mykolayiv region just north of Crimea. They then teamed up with thousands of Ukrainian troops ahead of the exercise “Joint Endeavour”, in which US forces were also involved. The symbolic message to Moscow was unmistakable. And with the US now preoccupied by the transition to the new presidency, it falls to Britain to be the most active Nato country attempting to bolster Ukraine’s armed forces and its security capabilities.
Of course Moscow will be angered by this latest signal of support for Ukraine’s independence, which Russia will see as directed specifically against its own interests. And that is probably exactly the signal that the Johnson government wishes to send, as it is considering how to respond to recent Russian actions that have alarmed the west – the continued cyber interference in western security or the poisoning of Alexei Navalny. Britain may find it easier to take a strong stand in co-ordinating with its allies, especially as President-elect Biden was always sceptical of Russian intentions when he was Obama’s vice-president
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A series of new agreements with Ukraine is especially important in view of what is happening in neighbouring Belarus. The European Union has voiced protests but been unable to do anything beyond imposing sanctions that will have little effect and symbolic condemnation of the Lukashenko regime. Britain will see help for Ukraine as a more significant sign of disapproval for Lukashenko’s behaviour and his plea for help from Russia.
Britain has not signed many treaties that include both trade and security. The clear aim is to demonstrate that, post-Brexit, London is eager to forge its own new relationships with other countries, and to strengthen its political relations independent of Brussels. There are few other countries where Britain now is negotiating new post-Brexit treaties that will need also to look at issues such as conflict resolution and arms supplies: certainly not in Japan or in any south-east Asian country, apart perhaps from India. Ukraine therefore sets an important precedent. And although President Zelenksy’s visit received little press coverage in Britain at the time, its importance has been noted by academic analysts and political decision-makers alike.