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Ukraine needs support — but the UK must act wisely

24 February 2023

The Government is right to help to resist Putin’s regime — but it should take care not to escalate the conflict, says Paul Williams

DURING a three-day visit to Kyiv in late November, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of the “extraordinary courage” shown by the Ukrainian people in the face of Russia’s “illegal, unjust, and brutal invasion” (News, 2 December). Earlier this month, the Archbishop was very pleased to join members of both Houses of Parliament to hear President Zelensky address us.

It is important to explore, however, some of the issues which have arisen in recent weeks concerning how we assist Ukraine militarily, while ensuring that we avoid strategic miscalculation.

It is surely right that, as the war progresses and the early predictions of Russia’s swift victory prove ill-judged, our support for Ukraine grows significantly. The recent announcement that NATO countries will send tanks to Ukraine — a decision that would have been seen as taboo this time last year — has already given way to fresh debate on whether Ukraine should now also be supplied with fighter jets and longer-range missiles.

Such is our support for Ukraine that this is no longer being seen as a war solely between Russia and Ukraine. That is hardly surprising, given that many Western commentators now openly call for Russia’s complete defeat in Ukraine, either to bring down the evil Putin regime or to press for the decolonisation of Russia.

YET we need to be careful that, as the war progresses, our objectives do not shift from helping Ukraine defend itself to more comprehensively defeating Russia. Neither should we wishfully assume that a post-Putin Russia would mean that the country would pathway seamlessly to democracy.

In the mean time, we need to be reassured that we are not depleting our already diminished military resources, and we should strengthen our capacity for future defence without delay. Putin needs to see that we are serious in our preparedness for any widening of the conflict, should that be needed. This surely now requires a robust financial plan for immediate and medium-term increased defence spending, and a strategic defence procurement plan, especially in the light of the sudden shift in security priorities because of the heightened threats in Europe.

Additionally, there can be no reduction in the need for supporting those fleeing the trouble in Ukraine. The initial early public support for the refugees was remarkable, and the government scheme very welcome; but more of the elderly relatives are now starting to come, and they have been harder to house. People in my diocese have found that there is also a particular problem for those leaving their host families to be able to find sufficient resources for a deposit for rented accommodation. We cannot keep taking from the international-aid budget; we need a budget more in keeping with the fact that we are, in many ways, strategic players in a proxy war — a war that will need a long-term, committed response.

As we and our allies continue to support the people of Ukraine to defend themselves, however, how do we ensure that we do not become over-confident in our supply of advanced weaponry, or so convinced by the rightness of our cause that we find ourselves in direct confrontation with Russia?

There are significant cultural, religious, and historical antecedents that need to be understood as having value in themselves, if Putin is not simply to exploit those very things to bolster his increasingly costly war by framing Western aggression as an attack on all that is instinctively and proudly Russian.

In this, there is a propaganda war that we may not yet have properly addressed. I believe that we should, therefore, not defer from the Prophet Micah’s call to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” That should not soften strategic or military resolve to reply to violent aggression; but it may help, in the process, to avoid lapses of judgement caused by conflict fatigue. Indeed, it ought to stiffen the moral imperative to continue resisting such a grotesque evil, even though the financial and more tragic human costs may continue to increase.

It would be helpful to hear from the Government whether there are limits to the military support that Britain is willing to provide to Ukraine. Is there a clear set of criteria against which such decisions are being made? I would also value clarity from the Government as to what success looks like.

WE HAVE pledged to help Ukraine win and to provide it with the weaponry to do so; but, as an alliance, we remain undecided on what victory means or looks like.

What will territorial integrity look like? Would a post-ceasefire and internationally supervised referendum in parts of Donbas and Crimea be respected by all sides, and sufficient to end the dispute over the territories? Are we looking to supply weaponry so that Russia can be evicted militarily from all of Ukraine, including Crimea? Or do we want Ukraine to be able, credibly, to threaten Russia’s control of Crimea in order to strengthen Kyiv’s position in any future negotiations?

The Foreign Secretary is right to say that we cannot “allow this to drag on and become a kind of First World War attritional-type stalemate”; but we need to be careful that such understandable frustration does not lead to mission creep and, with it, further unnecessary escalation.

The Rt Revd Paul Williams is the Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham. This is an edited version of his  speech in the House of Lords on 9 February.

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