In Ukraine, the UK Finds a Timely Ally

Overtures with Kyiv hint at London’s behavior on the world stage after Brexit.

By: Ridvan Bari Urcosta

An unexpected and overlooked consequence of the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 was that it brought Ukraine militarily closer to the United Kingdom. Over the past few months alone, they signed several important documents concerning political and military cooperation, the most notable of which suggested a mutual readiness for the U.K to build a naval base in Ukraine.

What may seem like an odd pairing actually makes geopolitical sense. As the United Kingdom approaches the final stage of Brexit, it is trying to figure out a strategy for its new place in the world. 

As then-Prime Minister Theresa May pointed out in 2016, that new strategy must be global, and being global requires new relationships or, in some cases, new formats of older relationships. 

Either way, it looks as though a fundamental element of post-Brexit U.K. strategy will be to isolate Russia from the rest of Eurasia. Ukraine can be a means to all those ends.

In fact, the U.K. is Ukraine’s second most important partner after the United States, and in some ways is even more brazen in its support (whether on its own or through NATO). 

It has introduced a comprehensive strategy toward Ukraine that boasts several components: a naval presence, massive military exercises and trainings, and, in the future, joint construction of warships for Kyiv’s navy. 

Moreover, London also provides roughly 10 million pounds ($13.3 billion) in funding to Kyiv annually. For now, it appears as though the two will focus largely on high-speed patrol boats – larger vessels such as frigates are wildly expensive, and Kyiv is unable to foot the bill – but London has said future construction depends on the Ukrainian government, leaving open the possibility that they could build more vessels in the future.

A Brief History of Cooperation

Bilateral military cooperation began in earnest more than 10 years ago, roughly after the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. Suspecting that somewhere such as Crimea could be next, the U.K. and Ukraine signed an agreement whereby London would help prepare and train military personnel according to NATO standards. 

The real breakthrough came after the events in Crimea and Donbass, in eastern Ukraine, when the U.K., per Kyiv’s request, sent specialists to train the Ukrainian army. After the incident in the Kerch Strait, London decided to extend its military defense assistance to Ukraine, this time extending the mission to include naval forces. 

By January 2019, London sent members of the navy and the marines for even more training. Since 2015, more than 18,100 Ukrainian Armed Forces personnel and nearly 4,000 military instructors have been trained by the mission. 

By August 2020, the British Embassy in Ukraine reported that more than 2,500 British military personnel had conducted more than 400 training courses. This mission won’t end until March 2023.

But it doesn’t stop there. Also in August, the British government announced that it would lead a multinational maritime training initiative for the Ukrainian navy to improve combat preparedness in the Black Sea. 

The initiative will comprise military instructors from the U.K., Sweden, Canada and Denmark and will cover navigation, operational planning, military diving, sea surveillance, firefighting and damage control. 

Furthermore, in September, more than 200 British paratroopers from the 16 Air Assault Brigade conducted joint exercises in southern Ukraine near Crimea, the purpose of which was to gain experience quickly deploying from air to land, to reaffirm Britain's commitment to Ukraine and to British partners in the Black Sea and around world, and to demonstrate the U.K.’s ability to send soldiers far afield at a moment’s notice.

All of these efforts, however, are less important than the most recent agreements signed between London and Kyiv – most notably the Political, Free Trade and Strategic Partnership Agreement, inked on Oct. 8, 2020, during an official presidential visit to London. 

The document covers a free trade regime, outlines the new-and-improved nature of their relationship and, critically, defines future military cooperation, which includes: managing regional threats, cooperation between defense industries, helping to make Ukraine’s defense industry meet NATO standards, developing national military doctrines, advising on defense policy and management, participating in joint exercising, military intelligence-sharing, and so on. 

Other documents signed Oct. 8 were several memorandums of intent on cooperation in developing and enhancing the capabilities of Ukraine’s army and navy. 

London made a financial commitment to Ukraine to the tune of about 1.25 billion pounds for defense projects. Ukraine plans to build eight gunboats for its fleet, two of which would be built in British dockyards. (The rest would be built in Ukraine.)

Brexit as a Catalyst

But the most intriguing development is Ukraine’s decision to build new naval bases in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea – with technical and financial assistance from the United Kingdom. 

Ukraine’s reason for doing so is clear: Russia, a much larger power, poses a direct threat to its territorial integrity, and it needs all the help it can get to defend its interests. 

The U.K.’s reasons are a little more arcane. It’s true that the U.K. is one of the most vocal proponents of freedom of navigation in the Black Sea and that British (and American) ships have been visiting its waters and Ukrainian ports since 2014 as a show of power and a deterrent to Russia. 

But the larger point is that London is searching for its own place in the changing global landscape after Brexit. Indeed, Brexit was a catalyst for the flurry of military cooperation efforts these past few months. 

The U.K. is returning to a traditional grand strategy in Eurasia of blocking and isolating Russia from Eastern Europe and the Near and Middle East. Ukraine is crucial in that regard. And Britain is trying to do this as an independent player that engages Ukraine as an independent player – that is, to the exclusion of NATO.

Russia is certainly bristling at the prospect, since it brings formidable Western powers even closer to Russia's borders. Moscow has already said that new bases would undermine regional stability. 

It will, of course, intensify its naval exercises in the Black Sea near Crimea, but there’s only so much it can do. The bases – and cooperation that spawned them – are unlikely to change the military balance between Russia and Ukraine, if for no other reason than that countering them could come at the expense of its ground game in eastern Ukraine.

Ultimately, though, Moscow's response will depend on whether it believes the U.S. and U.K are working together. On that, the jury is still out. The U.S has been funding and assisting in the building of the naval bases in the Sea of Azov, and Ukraine recently decided to relocate several bases from Odessa and Mykolaiv to the shores of the Sea of Azov.

It is too early to speak about the permanent presence of U.S. or British troops in Ukraine, but it’s trending in that direction. The fact that they are acting through NATO suggests they still want the appearance they are not acting alone. 

Either way, this kind of cooperation highlights London’s commitment to its geopolitical imperatives in the Black Sea and Eastern Europe, not to mention its commitment to its role in a post-Brexit world.

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