PULASKI COMMENTARY Perfect Ally For the Darkest of Hours (Bartłomiej Kot)

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PULASKI COMMENTARY Perfect Ally For the Darkest of Hours? (Bartłomiej Kot)

PULASKI COMMENTARY Perfect Ally For the Darkest of Hours? (Bartłomiej Kot)

Published: February 10, 2023

Author: Bartłomiej Kot

PULASKI COMMENTARY Perfect Ally For the Darkest of Hours? (Bartłomiej Kot)

PULASKI COMMENTARY Perfect Ally For the Darkest of Hours (Bartłomiej Kot)

Autor foto: Domena publiczna

PULASKI COMMENTARY Perfect Ally For the Darkest of Hours? (Bartłomiej Kot)

Author: Bartłomiej Kot

Published: February 10, 2023

The United Kingdom is a perfect match for Ukraine for conducting wartime advocacy. Britain needs to project its image as a country with a global impact and has a long track of understanding the Russian threat to security. Zelenskyy – with his Churchillian narrative – will not save Tories from a likely defeat in the next general elections. He can however help some of them to build a legacy for being on the right side of history. Despite that, British support for the Ukrainian cause should be perceived as absolutely bipartisan.

The unexpected visit of Volodymyr Zelenskyy to the Western European capitals started on Wednesday, February 8th, with a set of meetings in London. Britain’s capital became therefore the 2nd place after Washington chosen by the Ukrainian president as the key place to conduct his advocacy on behalf of the fighting nation. With a “Churchillian speech” in Westminster, a visit to Downing Street, and a warm welcome from the King in Buckingham Palace, Mr. Zelenskyy received a „state-visit” level of treatment from the British policy-makers. But it was actually a meeting with the Ukrainian troops, training on British Challenger 2 tanks, that showed best the intention behind the trip to London. Ukraine needs continuous support in providing Western equipment, and has ambitions to oppose Russia with more modern weaponry. While tanks are being deployed to the East of Europe, the high expectations for fighter jets are rising.

One may very well ask a question – why London? Ukrainians have been talking about F-16s for some time already. The jets that are not even in the possession of the Royal Air Force. Instead, the RAF uses Typhoons – a joint European project that included  among others Germany – and F-35 – far off the table due to their costs and both operational and maintenance complexity. Since a week ago the government spokesperson already labelled British jets as too complex for fast deployment to Ukraine, the odds were not necessarily in Ukrainians’ favour. It took however one day visit of Zelenskyy to London, an ace fighter pilot’s helmet gifted to Speaker of the House of Commons Sir Lindsay Hoyle, and comparing Ukrainian pilots to the King, to unblock PM Rishi Sunak’s willingness to investigate the possibilities to open training for Ukrainian pilots in the UK in the fastest possible manner. Describing this story that way would be oversimplifying. What is however perfectly true – there is a perfect match between Ukrainian’s needs and London’s aspirations, that with Zelenskyy’s effective advocacy, proved that Britain was indeed a way better choice than Brussels or Berlin to start with.

Bipartisan support

The support for the Ukrainian cause in Westminster is absolutely bipartisan. The last year of war in Ukraine has seen 3 different British Prime Ministers but not a change in the UK’s commitment to supporting Kyiv’s war efforts. This continuity comes not only from the fact that the Secretary of Defence Ben Wallace’s tenure in his position seems to be one of the few non-variables in recent Tory cabinets. It goes across the political lines of the strongly politicised country. Recording of Jeremy Corbyn that recently hit headlines and Twitter posts across the globe, in which the former Leader of the HM Opposition criticises arming Ukraine, only added up to his image of an outsider within his former party.[1] The statements such as this face open criticism from Labour’s frontbenchers, such as Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey’s comment, saying that “Jeremy Corbyn is on the outer margins of British public opinion.”[2] With Labour MPs expressing constant support for Ukraine and Leader of the HM Opposition Sir Keir Stramer using his full time during the last Wednesday’s PMQs (Prime Minister’s Questions) to support the country’s position on Ukraine, there is an enormous feeling of bipartisanship. This even leads both parties to encouraging each other to give more and to work even closer with Britain’s allies to stop Russian aggression. This a remarkable phenomenon in a country facing such a heated political debate in the post-Brexit era.

Russian track record

London has a long-term experience of defiance to Putin’s terrorism. 2023 marks 17 years since the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko and 5 years since Sergei Skripal’s unsuccessful poisoning. Since then, Britain followed the US in establishing its own Magnitsky Act. The need of fighting with money laundering happening in so-called “Londongrad” was gradually understood with a series of reports published by NGOs and parliamentary bodies. In the 2021 Integrated Review: Global Britain in a Competitive Age, Russia was labelled openly as “the most acute threat to UK’s security”[3] with Britain’s task to “actively deter and defend against the full spectrum of threats emanating from Russia.”[4] Noteworthy, the UK’s government declared in the same document its will to “continue building the capacity of Ukraine’s armed forces.”[5]. This all proves that Britain has a long tradition of understanding the Russian threat and the political need to oppose it. The War in Ukraine opened a new chapter, but a commitment to defying Putin’s Russia was brewing in London for some time already.

Symbolic dimension

Zelenskyy has a Churchillian factor. It is without a doubt that the Ukrainian president and his staffers mastered the art of addressing different nations by using references to their memories of opposing terror and evil forces. While addressing the US Congress he referred to the US troops fighting with Hitler. While tweeting to the Polish citizens, he reminded them about the January Uprising. By referencing Churchill in his speech in Westminster, Mr. Zelenskyy added up to the image of himself that is painted among the British public. Ukraine’s President reminds the UK’s public opinion of Winston Churchill – the great man of state who despite the odds takes the duty of leading his nation through the darkest of hours. In times when the UK is experiencing the period of the biggest political instabilities in decades, the role model of a politician leading the nation based on his personality traits is particularly alluring. In this regard, Zelenskyy builds trust in the eyes of Britons that Westminster’s policymakers can only look up to.

Domestic dimension

Ukraine gives a perfect opportunity for the Tories to build their legacy. Even the fiercest opponents of Boris Johnson – let that be in the Conservative Party or across the aisle – openly admit one thing: he was absolutely right about Ukraine and the UK’s involvement in providing military support. Loved by Ukrainians for his stance as a fierce supporter of this fighting nation, B. Johnson was already recognised by naming a street after him in Ukraine, but most importantly by President Zelenskyy himself in his speech in Westminster. What followed was a wave of applause from all the MPs and the crowd in the hall. A remarkable grace, given quite recent bad reviews of the COVID-time misconduct that resulted in his downfall. Speaking about popularity, as compared to the British politicians that hardly reach 35%[6], Mr. Zelenskyy is the 2nd most liked foreign politician after Barrack Obama, almost doubling this number (69%).[7] Looking deeper into the rankings published by YouGov, the Conservatives are plummeting in almost all the categories – with PM Rishi not being able to improve their image, himself falling 21 points behind the Leader of the HM Opposition.[8] What stands out however is the fact that on a question about the best party to manage 10 key policy areas, the Tories are leading Labour by a noticeable margin only on one: ‘defence and security’. The most likely defeat in the next elections (24% of support as compared to 48% of Labour)[9] can actually leave the Conservatives with a similar legacy to this of Johnson himself: being just absolutely right about Ukraine.

In the narratives about Western reactions to the events on the Ukrainian frontline, hesitancy is often mentioned. This cannot be said when it comes to the British response. London has managed to shape its image as a credible ally to Ukraine that takes little time to react with new deliveries and is often bold in co-creating coalitions that move things forward – as in the case of Challenger 2 tanks. The British public is in favour of Ukraine, British politicians are in favour of the UK’s image as a global power that stands for its interests. This alliance for certain responds to the needs of Britain’s political narratives – not only on a party level but in more general terms, to the vision of the country within the international order. But it is also the reality check to the ambitions of both sides of the Commons concerning the state of the British Armed Forces. And as in the case of support to Ukraine, both parties are committed to increasing defence spending and working on rebuilding UK’s defence capabilities. This leaves London with an ambitious goal of ‘Global Britain’, but also with some hope from other NATO allies – especially in CEE – that the credibility shown to Ukrainians is a long-term offer for the region.

Author: Bartłomiej Kot, Head of Advocacy Office, Casimir Pulaski Foundation

[1] The News Agents: Full Interview with Jeremy Corbyn, globalPlayer, accessed February 9, 2023, https://www.globalplayer.com/videos/2JsSYh1WbKX/

[2] Labour’s shadow defence secretary John Healey blasts Jeremy Corbyn for claiming UK weapons sent to Ukraine could be used to invade Russia and demands ministers boost weapons production and stockpiles in case of ‘future conflict’, Daily Mail, accessed February 9, 2023, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11722991/Labours-shadow-defence-secretary-John-Healey-blasts-Jeremy-Corbyn-Ukraine-weapons-boast.html

[3] Integrated Review ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age’, accessed February 9, 2023, p.18 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/975077/Global_Britain_in_a_Competitive_Age-_the_Integrated_Review_of_Security__Defence__Development_and_Foreign_Policy.pdf

[4] Ibidem, p. 61

[5] Ibidem

[6] Boris Johnson ranks at 35%:  whereas Sir Keir Starmer at 31%, both at the top of their parties’ rankings. The Most Popular Conservative Politicians (Q4 2022), YouGov, accessed February 9, 2023, https://yougov.co.uk/ratings/politics/popularity/conservative-politicians/all & The Most Popular Labour Politicians (Q4 2022), YouGov, accessed February 9, 2023, https://yougov.co.uk/ratings/politics/popularity/labour-politicians/all

[7] Mind that as compared to Boris Johnson’s 46% of dislikes, and Starmer’s 36%, Zelenskyy is disliked only by 8% of Britons. The Most Popular Foreign Politicians (Q4 2022), YouGov, accessed February 9, 2023, https://yougov.co.uk/ratings/politics/popularity/foreign-politicians/all

[8] 100 days in, Rishi Sunak’s ratings are lacklustre and he has failed to salvage the Tory brand, YouGov, accessed February 9, 2023, https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2023/02/01/100-days-rishi-sunaks-ratings-are-lacklustre-and-h

[9] Voting Intention: Con 24%, Lab 48% (31 Jan-1 Feb 2023), YouGov, accessed February 10, 2023, https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2023/02/03/voting-intention-con-24-lab-48-31-jan-1-feb-2023