If the Prime Minister and others gave the impression that they were untroubled by observations about the UK’s absence from the Ukraine negotiating table, subsequent statements suggest something different. Since then, ministers have seized every opportunity to declare their deep concern about events in that part of Europe and stress their engagement.
The latest was the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, who told reporters from the more hawkish end of the British press that President Putin posed a “real and present danger” to the Baltic states and constituted “as much of a threat to Europe as Islamic State [Isis]”. Nato, he said, was “getting ready” for “any kind of aggression from Russia”.
There was just one problem with this lofty statement of preparedness: Fallon was at that very moment winging his way in quite the opposite direction – to Sierra Leone, as it happened – in a quite spectacular mismatch of words and deeds. What was that about speaking softly and carrying a big stick?
Now it is not quite correct to say that the UK has been sitting on its hands over Ukraine, though EU diplomats have been heard to comment that London just does not seem that interested. Earlier this month, the Ministry of Defence said that Britain would contribute four typhoon fighter jets and 1,000 troops to a Nato rapid reaction force designed to reassure the Baltic states. This is not an enormous contribution from Europe’s second-biggest military (after France), but it is not nothing – and anyway symbolism has a value of its own.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
In talking tough about Russia and the security of Europe’s eastern flank, while travelling to Sierra Leone, however, the Defence Secretary unwittingly summed up one of this country’s most pressing dilemmas. The UK may occupy a permanent seat at the UN Security Council and it may have an independent nuclear deterrent (if you don’t define “independent” too closely), but how realistic is it to aspire any more to a global role? Would we not be better concentrating on the defence and well-being of our own backyard?
This is the nub of a discussion that is simmering beneath the surface of British politics, but has yet to graduate into a full-on national debate. It brings together our diplomatic stance, our future military capability and how we see ourselves in the world. All those elements are currently in flux, in a way that could change the UK and its self-image for ever.
I first caught wind of the controversies – and the unease of many in the upper echelons of the military – before Christmas, when a very senior former member of the top brass stood up at a gathering of foreign policy “wonks” to deplore what he saw as the British public’s current aversion to military combat. He called on his erstwhile comrades-in-arms to put themselves about more, to campaign publicly for the UK to honour its military heritage, and to defend the usefulness of international involvement.
But who were the top brass – past or present – to try to dictate, either to elected politicians, or to UK voters, what they should think? Is not a central principle of Western democracy the subordination of the military to political leadership? Claim a voice in the discussion by all means, but the intention here seemed to be to more than this.
The current distaste of the public for new interventions is hardly irrational. Consider the experience of the past 20 or so years. From Afghanistan, through Iraq, to Libya, the UK’s military endeavours have hardly been crowned in glory. The top brass may blame the politicians (sotto voce) for these failures, even as they admit – also sotto voce – that they did too little at the time to warn of the risks and cost. The refusal of the public, and Parliament, to authorise intervention in Syria was a direct consequence of these failures.
The picture is not entirely bleak. The Kosovo intervention just about attained its objectives, though this new nation-state is nowhere near being able to stand on its own two feet. But probably the only success has been Sierra Leone (though, again, distance may supply a flattering veneer). Contrast the plight of Ukraine, today, however, and Michael Fallon’s chosen destination this week can well be understood.
More difficult to discern is what lies behind the arguments now being half-aired. The top brass clearly hoped for better relations with a Conservative Prime Minister than has actually been the case. How far does discontent at the top stem from resistance to further projected reductions in manpower, including at the senior officer level, from inter-service rivalry, or from resentment about the apparently diminished influence of the military at the UK’s top table?
Earlier this week, the head of the army, General Sir Nicholas Carter, sounded a conciliatory note, accepting that the size of the military and what it was required to do were proportionate, though the way he couched this implied there were dissenters. A few days earlier, the former head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, had talked of the pros – and the cons – of military intervention, saying it was something the country had to decide.
At present, it seems, there are two divisions. One is between a proud professional military and a civilian public tired of distant wars “of choice”. The other is between the “opinion-forming” elite – who retain, according to a recent Chatham House survey, a desire to see the UK playing a global role – and the rest. It is not clear where the “rest” stand. But if the closed-door discussion produces an open debate, we – and the next government – might usefully find out.Reuse content