Ukraine response reveals Europe’s security is changing

Recent events regarding Ukraine show an active UK responding quickly while EU powers deliberate. But pulling ahead of the pack is not the same as leadership.

Expert comment
Published 8 February 2022 Updated 25 November 2022 3 minute READ

David Lawrence

Former Research Fellow, UK in the World Programme

Britain’s relationship with Ukraine appears to be thriving, with Ukrainian defence journalist Illia Ponomarenko recently tweeting the ‘British are just unstoppable these days’ and that the UK finds itself ‘on the right side of history’ while one Ukrainian wine bar has started offering free drinks to British nationals.

Ponomarenko’s remarks and the wine bar offer – certainly one post-Brexit benefit of having a British passport – are down to the UK decision to send anti-tank weapons to support Ukraine’s forces against a potential Russian attack.

The UK’s quick response was praised by Ponomarenko as being ‘wise enough not to be lured into going the easiest way, which is always the fastest lane straight to hell’ and strikes a clear contrast with that of Germany, whose typically moderated approach to geopolitical tensions went down badly in Kyiv.

The chief of Germany’s navy was forced to resign after saying Russian president Vladimir Putin ‘deserved respect’ and that Ukraine will never win back annexed Crimea. The German government also sought an energy exception to proposed US sanctions, so that gas can continue to flow into Europe.

The question for leaders in Paris, Berlin, and Brussels is how to deal with an active Britain committed to Europe but under no obligation to work within EU processes

France’s response was somewhat stronger but rather confusing as Emmanuel Macron initially called for European Union (EU) member states to ‘conduct their own dialogue’ with Russia, seemingly as an alternative to supporting the US-led NATO response.

Risks of a ‘bullying’ Russia

Although positioning himself as the convener of a transatlantic response to the Ukraine crisis brings welcome respite for UK prime minister Boris Johnson from his domestic ‘partygate’ fiasco, he is also reported as saying some world leaders ‘may not appreciate the deteriorating picture on the Ukrainian border, or fully comprehend the risks posed by a bullying Russia’.

One particular image sums up the difference in approach between the UK and the EU, as a flight path shows a British RAF plane flying around Germany before taking a detour over Denmark on route to Ukraine.

Given that Germany later blocked the export of NATO ally Estonia’s weapons to Ukraine, this image gives ‘Global Britain’ advocates a strong symbol of apparent British reliability and resourcefulness in the face of supposed European deliberation and disunity.

But although the UK’s response to the Ukraine crisis has rightly been credited as swift and substantial, it also reveals deeper developments in the current European security landscape as EU countries had worried Britain might choose to become absent post-Brexit.

Losing one of its two main military powers would certainly have been a blow to Europe, particularly as Russia’s threat has grown in recent years, so there will be relief that the Ukraine crisis shows Britain is undoubtedly committed to the region. Now the question for leaders in Paris, Berlin, and Brussels is how to deal with an active Britain committed to Europe but under no obligation to work within EU processes.

The UK already has an interesting network of bilateral and mini-lateral relationships with European allies. Its Joint Expeditionary Force brings together ten European countries – including Scandinavian and Baltic states – and is well-placed to support NATO activities while also remaining flexible and independent. In the past year, the UK worked with Norway in the Arctic region, provided military engineers support to Poland, and worked directly with France and Germany through the E3 grouping – once again bypassing EU institutions.

The UK also brings a unique diplomatic, technology, and intelligence-sharing relationship with the US which is unavoidably important in dealing with the threat from Russia. As the US sees European security through a NATO lens – rather than an EU one – this makes Britain a leading player as one of the few countries meeting its NATO spending commitments.

UK must do more to win trust

But despite such creative partnerships transcending the constraints of Brexit, the UK must do more to win the trust of the EU’s biggest players France and Germany to be a permanent power in the region. And relations with France have deteriorated following disputes over fishing, a lack of cooperation on migrants, and the AUKUS defence technology agreement between the UK, US, and Australia.

When it comes to Germany, the UK must not use the Ukraine crisis as an opportunity for geopolitical point-scoring. There are good historical reasons for Germany’s cautious approach to military engagement, even if these do constrain the country’s response to this challenge.

In dealing with Russia, some members of Germany’s ruling SPD sincerely believe their party’s less confrontational posture was central to de-escalating conflict during the Cold War. And although some historians may dispute that belief, it is still a distinct and more noble motivation for ‘dovishness’ than pure economic self-interest.

Despite such creative partnerships transcending the constraints of Brexit, the UK must do more to win the trust of the EU’s biggest players France and Germany to be a permanent power in the region

Cooperation always requires some compromise on all sides. Germany must accept some level of economic risk if sanctions against Russia are to be meaningful and France has to accept the necessity of the UK and US’s involvement and that the most effective dialogue is unlikely to be achieved through EU institutions.

Meanwhile, the UK must accept some role for the two biggest EU players, particularly as the Normandy Format which includes Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany has proved productive in the past. And the UK needs to clamp down on its own economic ties with Russia.

Ukraine response reveals Europe’s security is changing 2nd part

The UK may be far less dependent on Russian gas than Germany, France, and most central European countries but London has deep ties to Moscow in finance and property. A recent Chatham House report highlights the UK is effectively a global capital for kleptocratic money-laundering because UK regulations, although strong on tackling organized crime, are ‘ill-equipped to prevent capital flight from kleptocracies’.

Transparency International reports it has identified almost 150 land titles in the UK which are ‘ultimately owned by Russian individuals alleged to be involved in corruption or with links to Putin’s regime’. Clearly, the UK needs to clean up the City’s behaviour or it will continue to provide legal protection and effective financial sponsorship to a regime it is militarily opposing on Ukraine’s eastern flank.

In the long run, the need to face Russian aggression means the UK is inexorably bound to its European neighbours but the question is on what terms, and through what institutions, this relationship takes place. Britain needs to ensure it is trusted by European allies if security cooperation is to be sustained in the years to come.