Words and Actions: Understanding The UK’s Contradictory Stance on Ukraine

, by Martin Penov

Words and Actions: Understanding The UK's Contradictory Stance on Ukraine
Boris Johnson visits Kyiv for Ukraine’s Independence Day - 24 August 2022. Credit: Office of the President of Ukraine, https://www.president.gov.ua/en

The United Kingdom is a country which has historically prided itself on its support of humanitarianism. Thinking globally is the basis of Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit vision of a “Global Britain”. It may seem bewildering then that the UK is the only country in Europe which does not accept Ukrainian refugees without a visa. While Eastern European diaspora communities have come together to organise rallies, launch fundraisers and host charity events, many are wondering why Britain has been so cautious. While Central & Eastern European countries such as Poland, Romania and Moldova have opened their borders to accept over 5 million refugees, the UK only begun to ease visa restrictions on the 14th of March after a petition to the Parliament passed one thousand signatures. The response has been disappointing to say the least, and there is an evident gap between what the government says and what it actually does. While many buildings across the country have been lit up in the colours of the Ukrainian flag, such symbolic gestures do not compensate for the fact that the government has refused to waive visas. Instead, the government has opted for a new “Homes for Ukrainians” scheme, allowing Brits to apply to house Ukrainian visa-holders if they so wish.

One Foot In, One Foot Out

The UK has a history of supporting Ukraine militarily. It was one of the original signatories of the infamous Budapest Memorandum, the now void agreement on security assurances made between Ukraine and the permanent UN Security Council members to strip Ukraine of its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal. Following the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, the British military has helped train 22,000 Ukrainian soldiers with ‘Operation Orbital’ and supported the country’s aspiration to join NATO. Prior to the invasion on the 24th of February, the British, Polish and Ukrainian governments signed a trilateral pact to enhance their strategic cooperation. The British government continues to be one of Ukraine’s biggest supporters, providing billions in military aid and announcing in June a program to train up to 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers on British soil. Former PM Boris Johnson has made numerous trips to Kyiv, with the most recent being on Ukraine’s Independence Day on the 24th of August. It is all the more puzzling, then, that the government has been so wary of allowing Ukrainians to enter the country.

Hostility towards migration is nothing new for British politics, with Eastern Europeans all sharing a history of being targeted by British populists and the infamous right-wing media. Polish, Bulgarian and Romanian nationals were for a long time the favourite scapegoat of politicians, with wild accusations against Eastern Europeans of stealing jobs and criminality running rampant, especially in the country’s most read tabloids. This was especially prevalent in the election campaigns of Nigel Farage’s UKIP prior to the 2015 Migrant Crisis, and once again during the run-up to the 2016 Brexit Referendum. It can be argued that this xenophobia towards Eastern EU nationals among parts of the electorate is what pushed David Cameron to organise the referendum. Following the results of the Brexit vote, the ruling Conservative Party styled itself as the part to get Brexit done. From the countryside to the affluent towns and hamlets, conservative voters have an expectation that the government will put an end to what they viewed as uncontrolled migration, so allowing a large number of Eastern Europeans, Ukrainian or otherwise, would be antithetical to the party’s promises.

The Conservative Party’s relationship with Russian oligarchs is also complicated to say the least. The party has a long history of accepting donations from wealthy Russian backers, disincentivising the government from following the EU’s sanctions regime, earning it much criticism during the initial months of the war. This was only worsened in 2019 by the government’s delay of the so-called ‘Russia Report’, inquiring about possible Russian interference in the Brexit Referendum. Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, London itself has been a safe haven for Eastern European oligarchs to hide their dirty money and live comfortably in luxurious houses in prime boroughs such as Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster. Eaton Square in Belgravia has become almost synonymous with this phenomenon, earning it the nickname of London’s very own ‘Red Square’, while ‘Londongrad’ has been used to describe the city itself. Since the start of the war, measures have been taken to curb Russian influence in British politics, but the damage to the UK’s reputation will be hard to overcome.

Good Friends in Times of Need

In a very cynical twist of fate, Mr. Johnson could not have been any luckier with the war’s timing. The string of controversies finally started catching up with the ex-PM as leaks of lockdown parties began emerging in late-2021 and early-2022, leading to the infamous ‘’Partygate’’ scandal which saw the PM lose the support of many of his fellow party members and colleagues, as well as face an unsuccessful no-confidence vote. This was only exacerbated by the 2022 local elections in May which saw the Conservative Party lose 487 seats. The Ukraine war, in turn, seemed like a saving grace for the PM’s battered reputation. In a sharp shift in rhetoric, Johnson painted himself as Ukraine’s greatest ally, pledging large amounts of military aid, visiting Kyiv whenever a domestic scandal was brewing and adorning the facades of numerous British landmarks with the colours of the Ukrainian flag. The firm support has been an opportunity to both mask ongoing controversies, as well as flex the UK’s diplomatic muscles in front of Brussels. While this may have helped the then-PM’s reputation, it only slowed down the inevitable. In July 2022, allegations emerged of a history of sexual misconduct by Johnson’s Deputy Chief Whip, Chris Pincher, which led to the PM announcing his resignation on the 7th of July. During his resignation speech, Johnson stated:

“Let me say now to the people of Ukraine, I know that we in the UK will continue to back your fight for freedom for as long as it takes.”

The question remains, however: How will the next British PM approach the conflict? Support for Ukraine is high among the British public. Any moves by the new leadership to reverse the current course of action would be viewed as political suicide. Prior to her appointment as PM, Liz Truss and her opponent, Rishi Sunak, both showed support for the country and claimed they will continue the country’s current approach – increasing economic sanctions and military aid. Truss has not changed course yet, having chosen Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy for her first official correspondence since becoming PM. Direct confrontation with Russia remains off the table. However, the ongoing energy crisis has become a leading topic in British politics, one which both candidates have done their best to avoid. Whether UK leadership will continue its large financial support of Ukraine in light of the mounting economic challenges is yet to be seen.

The apparent duality of the governments’ response has been openly criticised by many, including French President Emmanuel Macron who noted that Britain should live up to its “grand statements”. The “Homes for Ukrainians” scheme has also received a fair amount of criticism for putting the responsibility on British citizens who have been asked to volunteer to house refugees, making Ukrainians dependent on the goodwill of strangers and opening them up to the possibility of exploitation. Regardless of the criticism, the government is unlikely to change its stance soon. As the crisis deepens, more cooperation and unity will be needed between European countries. If the UK truly wants to pursue a global future and retain a good relationship with its neighbours, the next PM will have to further adapt to the rest of the continent’s stance on the war and show a united European front to support Ukraine’s struggle for freedom.

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