Why is Britain so strongly behind Ukraine? Does it matter?

As Vladimir Putin continues to discover to his cost, the Western response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been far stronger than anyone anticipated and has so far shown little sign of fading. Of Western players, the UK has been a stand-out ally to Ukraine. The UK’s material contribution is second only to that of the US. And, beyond Ukraine’s immediate neighbours (and potentially Russia’s next victims) Poland and the Baltic states, elite and public opinion in the UK has been most strongly supportive of the people and the armed forces of Ukraine. The question here is not whether it’s right to support Ukraine, but why the UK is doing so strongly and unquestioningly.

It is worth spelling out the degree of political unity behind the proposition that the UK should be actively supporting Kyiv. With the exception of the (now largely marginalised) Corbynite faction of the Labour Party, no political group has argued against British military, economic or political support for Ukraine. Interestingly, the “populist” right has not sought to capitalise on the view, sometimes articulated on social media, that instead of helping Ukraine, Britain should focus all its attention on those facing economic challenge at home.

It is easy to take such unity for granted – a kind of “fish don’t see water” moment. Many of Ukraine’s supporters elsewhere in the West are bemused by the extent of British activism.   We shouldn’t be embarrassed to seek to understand what lies behind it, if only to help us understand what implications there might be for the longer term.

After all, recent years haven’t exactly shown strong consensus on political positions in the UK, nor have elite views necessarily enjoyed mass acceptance. It’s not self-evident that a cause so markedly espoused by Boris Johnson should command such widespread political and public support. So what is going on here?

And, while to some extent, public opinion may be led by elite opinion and media commentary, again almost uniformly in favour of supporting Ukraine, there’s no doubt that people across the UK have been walking the walk as well as talking the talk.    From donating over £400 million to charities working in the country, to flying Ukrainian flags, to the very real personal contribution of putting up over 25,000 Ukrainian refugees in their houses and welcoming them into schools and communities, there’s no question that British people have been doing their bit.

British companies have been active too.   Many have been providing practical assistance, humanitarian and civilian as well as military, with many making a financial contribution of their own and with staff volunteering to take personal risks. And many companies went beyond legal requirements to disengage quickly (and at substantial cost), demonstrating their wish to be “on the right side of history”.

The question here is not why there has been such revulsion at Putin’s invasion and the humanitarian consequences – the UK is not alone in that, but why has it remained so salient in Britain. Why have opposing arguments – keeping out for fear of provoking Russia, focusing resources on domestic concerns – scarcely surfaced beyond the depths of social media?

We shall be asking some questions in BFPG’s forthcoming Foreign Policy Public Opinion Survey which we hope will shed some light on this phenomenon. But in the meantime, we can look at some of the broader political and historical considerations.

One explanation may be that public opinion doesn’t really see the cost of living crisis as driven by the invasion of Ukraine. Since Governments like to take the credit for success even when it may be the result of external factors, it’s no surprise that people tend to blame the Government at home when problems arise. Or they believe the politicians when they say that defeating Putin is the best route to improving geopolitical and economic conditions.

But this alone doesn’t explain why Britons seem comfortable – indeed positively enthusiastic – at the UK’s active support for Ukraine. Perhaps a deeper answer lies in Britain’s traditional view of itself as a “moral” leader, though with different interpretations of “moral” depending on your political preferences. Britain’s story both during and since the Cold War perhaps offer some perspectives.

Since the Cold War, the UK has been active around the world in a range of conflicts from Sierra Leone to Kosovo and Iraq, some seen more positively than others. Where the Britain has chosen to intervene less assertively – for example in Bosnia and Syria – this too has provoked considerable controversy.   It is interesting that sharply differing views on these conflicts have most often transcended established political divisions. The narratives (crudely described) of “saving the world” and “projecting British power” both end up with a more assertive stance than many of Britain’s Western partners. Former Foreign Secretary William Hague advocated an “active and activist” foreign policy, his predecessor David Miliband coined the phrase “Better World, Better Britain”. Both come together in defence of the so-called “rules-based international order” as would pretty well the entire British elite.   A foreign policy narrative based on values rather than interests is, from a global perspective, a rarity.   Is it perhaps a less remarked upon legacy of Empire, or just a consequence of Britain’s continuing permanent membership of the UN Security Council which (we believe) requires us to have a view on every major international development?

If these narratives reflect a deeper British consciousness, then the more recent Cold War period put the focus of much of the national effort, led by the military, intelligence services and diplomacy of the country, on Russia and the Soviet Union. Russia is to most in the today’s Britain an unfamiliar country but it’s still a familiar enemy, most obviously following the Salisbury poisoning which claimed a British life and caused a major threat to a British city. And it’s one which has illegally invaded its neighbour, as if to remind Brits that it’s still an enemy.

From an international – or at least Western – perspective, Britain’s assertive position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a positive for the country’s image. Britain is respected in Ukraine and beyond for showing moral leadership. It has shown that the UK is very present on the international scene, in a way recognised as positive both by Brexiteer advocates of “Global Britain” and Remainers critical of a perceived inward turn. The UK’s closeness to Ukraine should benefit the UK in terms of its wider relationships in Central and Eastern Europe in the future, as well as in carving out a role in reconstruction of Ukraine.

Is there a downside to such an unquestioning and unequivocal approach? Russian threats have implied that the UK has made itself more of a target for reprisals, although the deterioration in bilateral relations long predates 2022.

There is perhaps another risk to identifying so closely with an all-or-nothing approach to the conflict. Compared with the US, there’s little talk about the need to moderate our ambition, to contemplate something less than “defeating” Russia and returning Ukraine to its pre-2014 borders. But, compared with the US, there’s much less that Britain can do to achieve such an ambitious objective. Is there really an appetite to ramp up defence spending to anything like Cold War levels? Pre-budget speculation suggests not. Or will it be presented as a prosperity play: plenty of British jobs for British defence? Or could a less than unequivocal victory in Ukraine be seen as a blow to Britain’s self-image, different from but of a similar magnitude to Iraq? How would that narrative play out, with threats from Russia, China, Iran and potentially others still in place?

All these questions are difficult – indeed awkward – to answer. But there can be something uncomfortable about an unquestioning consensus which doesn’t prepare for what may be coming down the line. Maybe it’s time to start asking.

David Landsman

David is a Senior Advisor at the British Foreign Policy Group.