The UK should help coordinate support for Ukraine by backing EU defence initiatives

But without US leadership, the ability of Ukraine’s European allies to cooperate effectively looks uncertain.

Expert comment
4 minute READ

Defence ministers and officials from around 50 nations met today in Ramstein, Germany to discuss the ongoing war in Ukraine, at the 20th meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group.

The US convened the first meeting of the group in April 2022. At that time its largesse in supplying material and moral support to Ukraine gave it the undisputed right to coordinate the efforts of its European allies. But more recently, an emergency bill to secure $60 billion of future funding for Ukraine has been blocked, and the long-term future of US support seems more uncertain.

While the US is not suddenly absent from the cause, its leadership role is becoming more unpredictable. In these circumstances, Ukraine’s most ardent European backers could find themselves struggling to prevent the Western effort becoming fractured and piecemeal.

The UK should now act to prevent that, by taking a more prominent leadership role and engaging with European partners – though it is a task that recent developments indicate will be far from easy.

Steadfast UK support and European disagreements

The UK can make a reasonable claim it has played a galvanizing role in support to Ukraine. It has provided a significant proportion of direct military aid and training, but also played a role in coordinating international assistance. It has consistently set the pace of support, sending anti-tank missiles even before the invasion and sending tanks and longer-range missiles sooner than other allies.

UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps travelled to Kyiv on 7 March to announce a major support package covering the supply of drones and other equipment. Shapps said Ukraine must be given all it needs to win, in another demonstration of the clarity in the UK’s commitment.

But that steadfastness is part of a rapidly changing and increasingly complex wider picture of Western support for Ukraine – one where the outlook for European coordination is currently discouraging. In a dramatic few weeks, events in Paris and Berlin have created very public disagreements among European allies.

In late February, France’s President Emmanuel Macron suggested that the future deployment of NATO soldiers to Ukraine should not be ruled out.

This would be a step-change in strategy and Western allies’ appetite for risk. Even if NATO soldiers hypothetically deployed in rear echelon roles, backfilling Ukraine’s stretched armed forces at the front, it would officially place them in harm’s way in Ukraine for the first time.

Macron’s suggestion of ‘boots on the ground’ was rejected out of hand by London, Berlin and Washington DC. A Downing Street spokesman reiterated that ‘we do not have any plans to make large-scale deployments’.

This sensitive matter of operational security placed Britain front and centre in a further dispute that erupted with another European ally.

In March, Russia publicized an intercepted call featuring senior German military officers, discussing how British-supplied Storm Shadow missiles were being operated in Ukraine, and whether Germany’s Taurus missiles could be used to destroy the Kerch Bridge.

Efforts have been made to show European unity: last week, EU countries agreed an additional €5 billion for the European Peace Facility (EPF) to boost the support for Ukraine.

Officials in London were angered by this leak, since it endangered the operational security of a key part of UK military support and revealed that there were additional UK military personnel in Ukraine.

Foreign Secretary David Cameron visited Berlin shortly afterwards renewing calls for Germany to supply its Taurus missile system to Ukraine, arguing this would not be escalatory (which was the main line of German reluctance).

Alliance disagreements are par for the course in any joint effort between democratic countries. And efforts have been made to show European unity: last week, EU countries agreed an additional €5 billion for the European Peace Facility (EPF) to boost the support for Ukraine. And on the 15 March Marcon, German Chancellor Olaf Sholtz and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk also met as a show of agreement on Ukraine.

But disagreements this year seem more serious than in the past, when they took place in a context of undisputed US leadership. With the full-scale war entering its third year, and US support more uncertain, effective European cooperation is vital to Ukraine’s war effort.

The UK faces the pressing question of whether to…devote greater diplomatic resources and prestige to driving European defence collaboration – and what kind of impact could it realistically have?

Ukraine has now signed separate bilateral security agreements with the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and the UK. These are important ways for these countries to demonstrate their long-term commitments to Ukraine’s security.

However, without effective coordination, there is a real possibility that individual countries retreat into their national boltholes when deciding how to help Ukraine, or work more closely with some than others. Support could arrive piecemeal and in inefficient fashion, with no European country able to coordinate and corral the others.

The UK faces the pressing question of whether to expand its galvanizing position on Ukraine: should it devote greater diplomatic resources and prestige to driving European defence collaboration – and what kind of impact could it realistically have?

An expanded UK role

The UK has already taken important steps to expand its leading role providing specific capabilities to Ukraine – recently taking on co-leadership of the ‘drone coalition’ in the Ukraine Defense Contact Group.

Article 2nd half

And it already leads the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), a rapid response military partnership between Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Netherlands and the Baltic States. But coordinating subsets of the NATO Alliance is not a solution.

The UK cannot formally join EU efforts, but if it wants to expand its leading role and improve coordination, it will have to invest in making them work.

To make a significant difference, the UK should seek to work closer with European allies on their efforts to bolster and coordinate defence industrial production. The UK should begin by backing the EU’s proposed new joint military procurement initiatives and its new defence industrial programme, which sets out to improve European defence readiness and support Ukraine’s defence industry.

The UK cannot formally join EU efforts, but if it wants to expand its leading role and improve coordination, it will have to invest in making them work.

For instance, the UK strongly backed the seizing of profits from Russian’s frozen assets and using this money to assist Ukraine. The EU has now adopted a law allowing it to seize the profits made on frozen Russian central bank assets (most of these funds are held by Belgium’s clearing house Euroclear). The UK can now focus on influencing how this money is spent. 

The UK can also continue to use its convening power to try and bridge the gaps between the countries backing Ukraine.

An unpredictable US is becoming a lasting reality. Making the support to Ukraine greater than the sum of its parts is not a new challenge. But the calculus involved in doing so has only become more challenging for the UK and Ukraine’s steadfast backers.