The blue and yellow flag still flies high over Britain’s town squares and public buildings, signalling our unwavering and enduring solidarity with Ukraine’s war effort.
Well, in theory, anyway. For you can feel the fatigue descending now, like heavy autumn mist pooling in the bottom of a valley; a sort of strange public torpor, quietly smothering the high emotion of the early days of the war. Having leapt too quickly at the assumption that Kyiv couldn’t possibly hold out against the mighty Russian army, British public opinion then swung wildly towards what has turned out to be an equally unrealistic idea, namely that plucky Ukraine could somehow achieve a David v Goliath victory over the rusting superpower within the year. We could put up with one winter of rocketing gas bills, surely, if that was the price to be paid for peace in Europe. Only now it’s the second winter of not daring to turn on the central heating, and the stories emerging from the frontline are no longer of Ukrainian farmers cheerfully towing away stranded tanks with their tractors, but of a grinding war of attrition that could last up to a decade.
This is the most dangerous of moments for Ukraine, whose soldiers are locked into a critical military offensive and whose civilians face another brutal winter of Russia trying to freeze them into submission by attacking their power infrastructure. But it’s western, not Ukrainian, resolve that shows the most worrying signs of faltering, with Republicans in Congress balking at signing off Joe Biden’s military aid package, and victory in last week’s Slovakian elections for a pro-Russian populist promising to end support for Ukraine. Here in Britain, meanwhile, a prime minister keen to give President Zelenskiy anything he wanted has been succeeded by an unsentimental economic hawk better known for watching every penny, under enormous political pressure to deliver tax cuts.
It’s almost certainly not a coincidence, then, that former British defence secretary Ben Wallace chose the morning of the current chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s party conference speech – and the closing stages of behind-the-scenes negotiations over Hunt’s crucial autumn statement – to reveal that he had asked Rishi Sunak for another £2.3bn for Ukraine just before he resigned this summer. In war, Wallace wrote, “the most precious commodity of all is hope”, and it was Britain’s duty to keep those hopes of victory alive by stumping up.
British politicians have been privately worrying about how to shore up support in Washington for the war since at least early spring, amid rising resistance on the Republican right and suspicions that Donald Trump will turn off the tap if he wins the next presidential election. “We’re giving away so much equipment, we don’t have ammunition for ourselves right now,” Trump told potential voters in New Hampshire in May, when asked if he would continue aid to Ukraine. But now similar views are filtering through the political undergrowth in Britain, too. Nigel Farage asked viewers of his GB News show earlier this year whether Britain had now given “too much” to the country and risked leaving itself defenceless, even though the whole point of arming Ukraine is to avoid Nato members having to defend themselves against whatever a victorious Russia might choose to do next.
While the likes of Russell Brand peddle conspiracy theories about Ukraine, Nato and the IMF, in rightwing populist circles the idea that we can’t afford to keep supporting Ukraine is building up a powerful head of steam. “When it’s been five minutes and you haven’t asked for a billion dollars in aid,” Elon Musk posted on his social media site X (nee Twitter) on Monday over a Photoshopped image that appeared to ridicule the Ukrainian leader.
The idea that charity ought to begin at home, long used as a battering ram against spending on overseas aid, is now being deployed as an argument against military aid even though western military support for Ukraine is anything but charity: if anything, it’s guilt money. Ukraine’s allies have an existential interest in halting Russian aggression in Europe but they don’t want to risk their own troops’ lives, so instead they have been persuaded to get out the chequebook – both for weapons and to absorb the effects on their own economies of oil and gas price rises. That was the unwritten deal, but Wallace is not alone in seemingly fearing that it may start to unravel as times grow tougher. Conservative party members love a bit of patriotic tub-thumping on defence at conference. But if they had to choose between tax cuts at home and supporting someone else’s war overseas – well, would you bet Europe’s future on the outcome?
“We have a chance to help finish this,” Wallace wrote in the Daily Telegraph. “The Russian army is cracking.” But only, perhaps, if western politics doesn’t crack first.