Voices: Britain needs a strategy for standing with Ukraine – for as long as it takes

·4-min read

President Putin is losing the fight in Ukraine, but his announcements yesterday show he believes he can still bully the West into accepting the long-term Russian retention of illegally-occupied Ukrainian territory. Our Western leadership challenge is to demonstrate we will stand with Ukraine for the long term and we will face down such intimidation.

In recent weeks, Ukrainian counteroffensives have retaken territory and been a huge loss of face for Russia. It has been deeply moving to see towns and villages liberated by Ukrainian forces and disturbing to see more evidence of Russian war crimes emerge.

Western weaponry has been skilfully used by Ukrainian troops and given them a military edge during this advance. The government will continue to have Labour’s full backing to provide such assistance, and we have welcomed the prime minister’s confirmation that this year’s military funding for Ukraine will – as a minimum – be matched over the next year.

We see this as a down payment pledge on the UK’s necessary long-term support for Ukraine. Ministers must move beyond ad hoc announcements about donating weapons and lay out a strategy for military, economic and diplomatic support over the next year and beyond.

A long-term strategy will reassure Ukrainians and send an unequivocal message to Putin that Britain will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes to see off Russian aggression. This is the best response to Russia’s latest escalation in rhetoric, and the best way we can help ensure Ukraine wins and Putin’s invasion really does end in failure.

Ministers have promised a 2023 action plan for Ukraine, but we are yet to see one. This should gear up British industry to produce the weaponry Ukraine will receive in the months and restock our own forces. It should extend the British Army’s excellent training for Ukrainian recruits, so that it also runs throughout next year and beyond. It is genuinely humbling to know that the Ukrainian troops whom Keir Starmer and I met last month on Salisbury Plain are now fighting on the frontline in the Donbas.

This week, the prime minister also confirmed the government will update the integrated review of foreign and defence policy in light of Ukraine. Labour has been arguing for this for months, while 20 other Nato nations have already rebooted defence plans and spending since the invasion of Ukraine.

This decision, along with promises during the Conservative leadership contest to review defence spending and deeper troop cuts, is needed for our national security. And we will make sure the prime minister and defence secretary now deliver.

We want the government to get this review right because their strategic threat assessments are long term and their decisions will largely fix the framework for an incoming Labour government in 2024 and beyond.

The integrated review 18 months ago was conducted behind closed doors, while Labour’s 1998 strategic defence review is regarded as exemplary for its broad engagement with the forces, industry, experts and opposition. By doing it in this way, we built a strong national consensus behind its conclusions.

That’s why we are ready to contribute as the official opposition and we are asking the government to open up this review process to build broad public and political support on Britain’s defence and security.

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The current integrated review’s strategic objectives are undermined by cuts to capabilities. Britain can’t pursue “persistent global engagement” with threats increasing while cutting another 10,000 troops, scrapping Hercules military transport planes and failing to contribute a modern warfighting division to Nato until 2030.

There is a Europe-shaped hole in the current integrated review, as Conservative ministers could barely bring themselves to refer to the European Union. So this flaw must be fixed by rebuilding relationships with European allies to make Brexit work and by ensuring Britain will be the leading European nation in Nato with our maritime, command and control and logistics expertise.

The updated integrated review must also make British industry and our peacetime defence procurement system a major priority. We cannot support Ukraine or ensure our own UK security when the Ministry of Defence on day 211 of the conflict has still not proved capable of signing the contract to produce replacement stocks of the highly valued NLAW anti-tank missiles the Ukrainians are using so effectively to defend against the Russians.

Just as bipartisan support has strengthened Britain’s action to help Ukraine and confront Russia, it could also strengthen Britain’s wider defence and security.

John Healey is the shadow defence secretary and Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne