As Europe falters, Sunak must step up support for Ukraine

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A secure area known as ‘The Attic’, at the Patch Barracks military base in Stuttgart, Germany, bears witness to the UK’s contribution to the war effort. Here, military personnel from 26 NATO and other allied nations are working around the clock to coordinate the delivery of huge arms shipments to help Ukraine repel the Russian invasion.

Evolving from supplying Soviet-era small arms, anti-tank weapons and equipment, “the granary” now functions as a one-stop-shop for weapons offered to Ukraine from around the world. It is run by the International Donor Coordination Cell (IDCC), a joint brainchild of the UK and US armed forces, which merged their separate aid operations in March. The IDCC also organizes the training of the Ukrainian army, in which the UK played a leading role.

The British are doing what they do best: working with the Americans in a military crisis, providing them with reliable material and moral support, just as they did in the two Gulf Wars. British intelligence also played a major role in revealing Vladimir Putin’s offensive intentions from the outset. After the outbreak of war predicted by London, the UK provided Ukraine with more than £2.3bn ($2.7bn) in military aid which helped cripple the offensive Russian tanks around Kyiv.

Say what you will about personal flaws, but former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his short-lived successor Liz Truss were real friends of Ukraine when other European leaders dodged diplomatic cover. The Economist pokes fun at the fact that the UK has become “Britaly” after the recent political turmoil, but you won’t hear anti-British jokes in the frontline states of Eastern Europe where the contribution of London to mainland security is appreciated. In Kyiv, they even named a street after Johnson.

But how deep was Britain’s involvement in the war? Truss promised to increase defense spending by 2% to 3% of GDP by 2030. Rishi Sunak, the new conservative prime minister, did not deliver on that pledge, calling the targets “arbitrary”.

However, without a sustained increase in spending on inglorious weapons production and logistics, the British Armed Forces will neither be able to supply Ukraine nor fight back. Britain has already depleted its stockpiles of NLAW anti-tank weapons that helped turn the tide of the war earlier this year. Sunak’s chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, is the son of an admiral and a former foreign secretary. For years he argued that the defense should get a bigger slice of the pie. Now that he’s in charge of the nation’s finances, however, Hunt signals he wants to keep spending at current levels through 2026.

This should be the moment when the UK rallies its allies by example. There is a clear opportunity for leadership in the West, as nerves are fraying over the risk of Putin using nuclear weapons.

A week ago, President Emmanuel Macron announced that France would not retaliate with nuclear weapons against a Russian strike. British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace protested that Macron had “revealed his hand”, weakening the strategic ambiguity the West has always harbored over Moscow’s offensive nuclear posture. Macron’s bombastic efforts earlier this year to broker peace with Putin went unappreciated in Ukraine.

Since 1989, the American administrations have considered Germany as the main European partner of the Atlantic Alliance, but they are always disappointed. The country is hitting below its economic weight. German industry has been overly dependent on cheap gas imports from Putin’s Russia and increased exports to communist China. The dithering over military aid to Ukraine has been accompanied by a decline in popular support for sanctions against Russia. The timing of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to Beijing – just days after Xi Jinping seized absolute power at the Chinese Communist Party congress – betrays Berlin’s essentially parochial outlook.

Meanwhile in Washington, Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy told the Biden administration that there would be “no blank cheque” for aid to Ukraine this winter if his party wins a majority in next month’s midterm elections. A group of left-leaning Democrats also sent a letter to the White House urging the president to explore “all possible avenues” to end the war “including direct engagement with Russia” – although they withdrew their missive rather than being associated with their Republican adversaries. .

Without the help of the American “arsenal of democracy”, Ukraine will give way.

Siren voices are once again calling on Kyiv to negotiate with Moscow, but what kind of negotiating hand would Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have with Russian troops in possession of a fifth of his country’s territory?

NATO has lost discipline since the Cold War, when it was last forced to manage a nuclear confrontation with a hostile superpower. Many European members of the alliance have armies that are barely equipped to fight battle let alone war.

At this hour, Poland, the Baltic republics and the Nordic countries are looking to the UK, not the Franco-German alliance, for leadership. But the cupboard is empty. To counter Russian threats earlier this year, Britain nearly doubled its military footprint in Estonia, which shares a 183-mile border with Russia. However, these additional troops are expected to be withdrawn soon, leaving only 900 troops behind. And the threat has not gone away.

The British Army is reduced to its smallest size since the Napoleonic Wars two centuries ago – 75,000 by 2025. The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force lack the capacity to sustain operations on their own . During Gaddafi’s campaign against Libya in 2011, the UK was forced to turn to the US for resupply after just four days of fighting. Today he could barely sustain a fighting force for 48 hours. It is no consolation that the German army is in an even worse state.

Sunak and Hunt may have stabilized the markets at home, but what are they willing to do to keep the European continent stable? At a critical juncture where Ukraine’s armed forces are reclaiming lost territory in the south and east of their country, the UK should redouble its efforts to help. Russia is already regaining territory in Donestk.

Britain faces a classic dilemma: guns or butter? The temptation in times of economic hardship is to cut spending on the armed forces. The lesson of history is that it’s always the wrong choice.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Previously, he was editor of the Sunday Times of London and its main political commentator.

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