Mary Dejevsky – UK Policy Toward Russia, Ukraine: Could It Change Under Labour?

Nothing new from Britain

Mary Dejevsky is a columnist for The Independent of London and a former foreign correspondent for The Independent and The Times of London

Cross-posted from Russia Matters


The Labour Party, which is set to take power in the U.K. after the General Election on July 4, has campaigned under the slogan “Time for Change.” While there are many areas where Labour’s leader, Sir Keir Starmer, is eyeing change, policy toward Russia and Ukraine will not be among them. Thus, unlike the looming concern over an imminent shift of France’s government to the far right, insofar as the U.S. Biden administration continues to consider Ukraine’s defense a vital U.S. national interest, a shift in the United Kingdom’s government to Labour would seem to be good news.

Since the first day of Russia’s 2022 invasion, there has been a near cast-iron consensus on the Ukraine war in the U.K. between the two main political parties; indeed, across the whole British political spectrum, with little challenge to that consensus either.

At least some of this consensus reflects the extent to which, following then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s early and full-throated support for Ukraine, his successors have come to pride themselves on the U.K.’s role, as they see it, as Ukraine’s first and most enthusiastic champion against Russia; as well as the first European donor of military aid. But it also reflects the extent to which domestic issues, such as living costs, have topped voters’ concerns.

On Ukraine, politicians have set the agenda, and the public has largely acquiesced. It is true that  the effusive rhetoric has quietened down somewhat since Johnson left office, and the U.K. has been overtaken by Germany as Ukraine’s biggest European supplier of military and other aid. But the policy of supporting Ukraine, whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, has not wavered, whether in delivering weapons, training troops or welcoming refugees—there were an estimated 174,000 in the U.K. at the last count—nor has the insistence that Putin must not win.

It is clear, both from the Labour party’s manifesto and from official statements, that the team of Keir Starmer and his likely Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, will not waver from this. Indeed, it can be reasonably predicted that security permitting, Sir Keir will rush to Kyiv within hours of taking office, bearing a pledge of uninterrupted and undiminished support. Time was when a new U.K. leader’s first foreign duty was a trip to Washington or Paris. It is now a photo-op with Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

It is equally predictable that there will be no change—in the short term—in U.K. relations with Russia, which may justifiably be described as being as bad as they have ever been. There was a fresh deterioration as recently as May, when the U.K. accused Russia of arranging a fire at a Ukrainian-owned business in London, expelled the defense attaché as an undeclared intelligence agent (although he had been in his post for 10 years) and canceled the diplomatic status of a number of buildings owned or leased by Russia. Reciprocal action by Russia predictably followed.

While this represented a new low, aside from a brief warming in 2000 under Tony Blair, U.K.-Russia relations have been mutually hostile for most of Vladimir Putin’s years in the Kremlin. Today’s standard point of orientation—cited to illustrate Russia’s ingrained malevolence before it invaded Ukraine—is the 2018 Skripal affair, when the U.K. government says Russian agents used a nerve agent in an attempt to murder a former double-agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter in Salisbury.

This generally dire state of relations means that the U.K. has little to lose when it leads international efforts to impose ever tougher sanctions on Russia—after the Skripal poisonings, after the downing by pro-Russia rebels of Malaysian airliner MH17 and after the Ukraine invasion. As it happens, the U.K. tends also to be among those least affected, having fewer energy and other trade links than many others.

Recent plans to confiscate Russian assets to benefit Ukraine are an exception, placing the U.K., unusually, in the hot seat as a center for international law and finance. The limited approval given to such a scheme at the recent G-7 summit was peppered with phrases about complying with the law, which may reflect the misgivings of the U.K., among others.

The use of Russian assets, which has been the subject of much lobbying, is one area where there could perhaps be a change in U.K. policy, although the national interests and the legal constraints will not have changed, and the fact that both the incoming Prime Minister and foreign secretary have a legal background may leave the U.K.’s objections in place.

Could the new government perhaps face public pressure to change its uncompromisingly black and white stance on Russia and Ukraine? For most of the campaign, the answer would have been no. In its lack of public debate on the subject, the U.K. had increasingly diverged from the United States and some European countries, where there is at least some open discussion about the background to the war, the Kremlin’s thinking and whether the isolation of Russia is the best response. Any effort to consider Russia’s perspective, moreover, was shut down by being branded “appeasement,” with its echoes of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s infamous visit to Munich in 1938.

Then two weeks before polling day, Nigel Farage—a late arrival to the campaign as leader of the anti-Establishment Reform Party, which is currently polling as much as 17%—ventured to suggest in a television interview that the West shared some culpability for the Ukraine war because of how NATO had expanded. He was met with a torrent of condemnation from all mainstream parties (although less from the public at large). It could be that in saying what was hitherto almost unsayable in the U.K., Farage has lit a fuse that could ignite some sort of public debate, or even some dissent in the new Parliament. But that remains to be seen.

Aside from the possibility that the political consensus could face its first real challenge—which is by no means certain—it is most likely outside developments that could force its hand. One looming issue is money. Under Starmer, Labour has taken care to present itself as fiscally responsible. But the bill for Ukraine’s reconstruction, or even continuing the fight, could be coming in, and however many Russian assets are confiscated, that will not be enough. In a choice between its domestic priorities and Ukraine, what would Starmer do? Boris Johnson told U.K. consumers that they were only paying higher gas prices, whereas Ukrainians were paying “with their blood.” It is unclear, two years in, whether Starmer could carry that off.

There are many other uncertainties that would demand big decisions in London. What if Ukraine’s chances of success started to look even slimmer than they do today? Or if its military collapsed, or Zelenskyy were overthrown?  And what if the snap French elections produce a parliamentary majority for the far right, breaking the EU’s fragile unity on Ukraine? Or if the U.S., under this or the next president, downgrades its support for Kyiv? This last, incidentally, is a scenario envisaged by the centrist Liberal Democrats in their manifesto, which promises a U.K. contribution to a Europe-wide effort to offset any diminution of U.S. support.

Such eventualities would pose difficult questions for a government of any complexion. But they would be particularly acute for a government with no recent experience of power, and a foreign policy labeled—perhaps hopefully—”progressive realism.” Boris Johnson led the cheering, in the belief that Ukraine could win. Sir Keir Starmer will have a lot of U-turning to do, should Johnson be proved wrong.

In the short term, though, the message from the new government on Russia and Ukraine will almost certainly be “no change”—with the same message echoing back from Russia, which has shown an almost total lack of political or media interest in the U.K. election (in contrast with the U.S. election). That means, from a U.S. perspective, Britain’s is the first of a series of critical elections in democratic states that appear unlikely to weaken the Biden administration’s increasingly contested view that Ukraine’s success against a predatory Russia remains a vital U.S. national interest.

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