The UK has led the way during the conflict, and must keep NATO allies with it for the struggle ahead
British officials have, since the storm in Eastern Europe was only brewing, had a clear strategy when it comes to Ukraine: be way out in front. London, at not inconsiderable risk, has led the way in Europe with putting more boots on the ground in Eastern Europe and then with rushing lethal aid to Kyiv. Any Ukrainian official will tell you Britain’s NLAW anti-tank missiles and their British-trained snipers have played their part in stopping Vladimir Putin’s lightning war to seize their capital and install a quisling regime. Now London is planning for the long war.
Talk of peace is on Twitter but British and American officials cast scorn on the Russian claim they have decided to “dramatically” scale-back operations in the Kyiv and Chernihiv areas in the north for the benefit of the talks.
In the snow around Kharkiv and Irpin, Putin’s blitzkrieg has turned into a war of attrition, where moving just a mile comes at huge cost. Russian forces are digging in across the country and its armies are redeploying to attack Ukraine’s forces in Donbas: only half the Donetsk oblast is under the control of the Kremlin’s puppet republic. Should Russia encircle this — and with it a quarter of Kyiv’s army and its most battle-hardened force — it could still be able to claim some kind of a win and use its expanded territorial control to try and set the terms of what comes next.
NATO officials are now trying to work out if Russia can pull this off. If the Kremlin is indeed pretending to negotiate, as many Western allies fear, a long war lies ahead. It is being gamed out in Downing Street and might see Russia’s current frontlines settle into the kind of violent but mostly static lines that the original Donbas conflict settled into after 2014, with occasional breakthroughs. This is why it is seen as crucial that the Kremlin fails.
Behind the scenes there are real worries about Ukraine’s armies. Kyiv has been highly successful in keeping its losses offline but they are still bleeding. Russia’s air campaign has been destroying the country’s military industrial capacity from above and the longer this goes on the more this will start to bite. The war is taking place on its territory after all.
Exhaustion, just like for Russian forces, is also starting to set in. This does not bode well for the coming assault in the east, where some NATO officials fear Russia might use chemical weapons in frustration.
This is where Britain’s plan for Ukraine comes in. The country needs to be armed to the teeth with much more sophisticated weaponry than it is currently being offered. It needs to be made so hard that Russia will never attempt such an invasion again. Such allied military support must be a de-facto security guarantee deterring Putin and his successors from any further irredentism. Dispatching British-made Starstreak missiles to Ukraine should be just the beginning.
Even then, Downing Street thinks Kyiv will need much more and this support will have to be structural — an “arsenal of democracy” not something ad hoc, similar to how Roosevelt supported Churchill with the Lend Lease programme in the Second World War.
British officials are working to bring round Americans and Europeans. They are also trying to preempt the looming shadow of calls for normalisation. This is why Boris Johnson told his senior ministers that a ceasefire alone is not good enough to lift sanctions on Russia. London is preparing to argue against those voices — still plentiful in Paris, Brussels and Berlin — who will argue ceasefire is enough.
The UK plans to work closely on this with its allies in Northern and Eastern Europe if a ceasefire does come into view — after the Russians have failed or succeeded in Donbas.
Whoever wins the battle there, a war of attrition will be grim. Ukraine will live under perpetual menace. Much of the country will slip into the misery now seen in Kharkiv where pain, hunger and joblessness mingle in the ruins of a once proud city.
There will be risks, too, for the West. Having been stopped from taking Kyiv and rebuilding a Russian Empire by an allied-trained and supplied army, NATO officials believe Vladimir Putin will now look for his revenge.
This, many fear, might soon take the form of cyber attacks on Western critical infrastructure such as Atlantic undersea cables, private banking or even the NHS, amidst a vast shadow war with his spies. One thing is certain — we will not have to wait too long to find out.
Ben Judah is an author and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council
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High tech help: A Ukrainian serviceman holds a UK-supplied next generation light anti-tank weapon (NLAW) on the front line in the north Kyiv region Credit: REUTERS/Gleb Garanich