The War in Ukraine and the UK’s New Role in Eastern Europe

2022 / 05 / 06

Nino Chanadiri, Contributing Analyst


The war in Ukraine has already become widely assessed as an event which will bring a “new reality” to Europe. The way the collective West responds to the Russian threat to European security will determine not only the fate of Ukraine and other Eastern European countries, but also Europeans’ sense of safety in the years to come. The key actors in Europe have already experienced shifts in their security visions, seeing them making decisions to help Ukraine “by all means,” and the UK has come to stand out as an important player in this process with its straightforward position against Russia.

The fact that the UK aims to play an active role in Eastern Europe in the security field became clear before the full scale invasion of Ukraine. On February 17, during Liz Truss’ visit to Kyiv, the foreign ministers of the UK and Ukraine announced the formation of a trilateral partnership between the UK, Poland and Ukraine, not only in the fields of economic and trade relations, but also in security. Just one week later, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine became the first challenge on the agenda of the newly formed partnership, and the UK seems to be dealing with it successfully. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been positioning as President Zelensky’s friend and ally, and his support has been appreciated in Ukraine, where he is often called “the most principled of opponents to the Russian invasion” and has even had streets named after him.

The UK’s support to Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has proven that the UK is ready to cooperate with the EU and be an active, if not a leading, player when it comes to European security. The war in Ukraine pushed the UK and EU to intensify relations which have experienced a certain scale of distancing since Brexit. Once both the EU and the UK saw the bigger picture of the challenges Europe faces, their cooperation only grew stronger. Liz Truss even attended the meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council of the EU in Brussels in March. Steps regarding Ukraine are based on this close cooperation, and some believe that it can grow more in parallel to the war in Ukraine, as coordinated steps will be needed on further military support and targeted sanctions.

The UK’s support to Ukraine has been strong since the very first days of the war. It has provided military support to Ukraine, including anti-tank and air defense systems, and it grows the list of aid almost daily.  Boris Johnson often states that military support to Ukraine aims to ensure that Russia’s invasion plan fails. Alongside the economic sanctions, the UK has closed its airspace to Russian flights, restricted Russian media as a source of disinformation, and has sanctioned a number of individuals, including Putin’s relatives, Russian officials, oligarchs, and generals who are committing atrocities in Ukraine. The number of sanctions and sanctioned individuals is increasing almost by the day.

After the Bucha tragedy was revealed to the world, on April 9, Boris Johnson traveled to Kyiv and walked the streets with President Zelensky. The visit was widely recognized as historic and a very successful diplomatic step. On April 23, Johnson announced that the UK will reopen its embassy in Kyiv to demonstrate its solidarity.

This successful partnership did not go unnoticed in Russia. Following several explosions on Russian soil, Russia accused Ukraine of involvement. Even though Ukraine has not admitted that strikes were made on Russian territory, James Heappey, the armed forces minister from the UK, said that it is legitimate for Ukraine to disrupt Russia’s logistics and use British weapons to do so, even on Russian territory. As a response, Russia accused London of “direct provocation” and threatened “a proportional response”, including targeting decision-making centers in Kyiv. Some believe that the UK might also become vulnerable to Russian cyber-attacks, however, it cannot become a reason for the UK to reduce its support for Ukraine.

How the UK sees the Russian threat and why is it important for Eastern European states

UK-Russia relations have never been lower, especially with the assassination of former Russian spies on UK territory and the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in 2018. In this sense, unlike other big European powers, the UK has been akin to Eastern European countries in its perceiving of Russia as a security challenge. This shared vision and common values were also stressed in a joint statement by the UK, Poland and Ukraine when announcing their new trilateral partnership.

Boris Johnson’s speech in March about Putin’s reasons for invading Ukraine pretty much sums up how the UK evaluates the threats from Russia to other Eastern European states. In his speech, Johnson noted that if Russia wins this war in Ukraine, it will mean the “extinction of any hope of freedom in Georgia and then Moldova” and that this will affect the entire region of Eastern Europe and give a green light to autocrats all over the world. This vision determines the UK’s policy towards supporting Eastern European countries, and firstly and most importantly Ukraine, against Russian aggression. The UK officials, alongside the other Western leaders, more and more often stress the need for and express readiness to support other countries beyond NATO and under the threat of Russian influence, including Georgia and Moldova. The war in Ukraine might be an opportunity for the UK to play a new role in supporting Eastern European security, not only during war, but also in the future. It also opens a window for these countries, especially non-NATO members, to follow the path of Ukraine and take steps to deepen cooperation in strategically important directions with the UK, a strong European actor with a clear understanding of the Eastern European security context.

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