Western unity on Ukraine is impressive, but there is one missing ingredient

A crucial set of summits showed Brexit Britain there is no substitute for constructive engagement

March 28, 2022
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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

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The contrast could not have been starker. On 24th March, leaders from Europe, North America and Japan gathered in a sequence of Nato, G7 and EU summits—an unprecedented display of diplomatic firepower in support of Ukraine. In New York, the UN General Assembly voted for the second time in a month on a resolution condemning Putin’s war. An overwhelming majority of 140 nations supported the text, and only five opposed it: Russia, plus a motley crew of Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea and Syria.

As a symbol of Russian isolation, it was powerful. But there was also real substance behind the rhetoric of support for Ukraine at the Brussels summits. Each event had a distinctive contribution to make to the overall message of allied unity.

At the Nato meeting, the US, Britain and others made further pledges of arms deliveries, including the anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles which have proved so effective in the hands of Ukrainian soldiers. Given the risk of Russia resorting to even more terrible weapons, Nato members also agreed to supply protective equipment against chemical, biological and nuclear threats. The build-up of Nato forces in the member states closest to Russia continues, and 40,000 military personnel are now under direct Nato command, meaning that they could react very fast if necessary. Nato leaders are also digging in for the long haul. They asked for planning to begin on transforming these short-term measures into permanent arrangements to deter and, if necessary, defend against a hostile Russia.

Nato still has acutely difficult issues to face, not least concerning whether allies could agree a joint reaction to a Russian use of chemical weapons in Ukraine. And the risk of nuclear weapons being used, while still very low, is probably now higher than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. But in comparison with the situation three years ago, when Emmanuel Macron declared in exasperation that Nato was “brain dead,” the transatlantic alliance is once again united and purposeful.

The main point of the G7 meeting was to emphasise that Japan was fully engaged in the effort to support Ukraine. Tokyo has taken a more assertive approach to this crisis than any previous one since 1945. It has applied similar sanctions to Russia as other western countries, sent non-lethal military aid, and agreed to receive some Ukrainian refugees. The G7 also agreed to encourage other governments to apply sanctions and in particular to prevent evasion of sanctions by pro-Russian countries or criminal black marketeers. This is a problem with all sanctions regimes: the more stringent they are and the longer they last, the greater the incentives for the unscrupulous to make big money by organising schemes to circumvent them.

And so to the meeting of EU leaders with Joe Biden. The EU-US relationship is immeasurably closer than when Donald Trump was in the White House. In this crisis, the EU and US have coordinated closely and effectively on successive packages of sanctions against Russia. At the 24th March meeting, Biden came with a major announcement that the US would supply EU countries with at least an additional 15bn cubic metres of liquefied natural gas (LNG) this year. This will more or less replace the amount of LNG the EU buys from Russia (but not the much larger volume of gas received through pipelines). The two sides agreed that they would aim to increase LNG deliveries to at least 50bn cubic metres by 2030. That is a lot of gas. But it would only amount to a third of the total volume Russia now supplies to Europe—which shows the scale of the task if Europe is to wean itself off energy dependence.

There was one notable absentee from this important conversation about energy security in Europe. That was Boris Johnson, who waited in vain for an invitation from the EU after his irresponsible and insensitive remarks to a party conference a few days earlier, comparing the struggle of Ukrainians fighting Russia’s invasion to people in Britain voting for Brexit. It was a completely unnecessary own goal, and the only sour note in a programme of summitry which summed up how much has changed one month into this war.

The Ukrainian people have won admiration around the world for their extraordinary courage and resilience. However the conflict ends (I examined the options in my blog of 14th March) Russia has already lost in strategic terms. Its armed forces have suffered major problems of equipment, logistics and morale, and have failed to break through the defences around Kyiv and other major cities. As a result, they have defaulted back to Second World War tactics of artillery barrages against civilian areas. Moscow has also failed to divide Europe and the US on the issue of energy. Meanwhile, the EU, led by Germany, is facing up to the need to take on security and defence responsibilities to match its economic weight. And, after a decade of US retreat from international leadership, Biden declared to a US business roundtable before travelling to Brussels: “There’s going to be a new world order out there, and we’ve got to lead it.”

Those are seismic shifts. But the Brussels summitry also showed that there is one piece of the jigsaw of allied unity which is still missing—a constructive relationship between Britain and the EU. Putin’s war puts everything else in a new perspective. Suddenly, the post-Brexit quarrels look petty and insignificant. This is the moment for London to take the initiative to propose a regular dialogue, which could start on sanctions policy and, as mutual confidence increases, spread to other aspects of the crisis such as energy.

The west has learned in this crisis the terrible consequences which follow when the system of international rules breaks down. Britain played a key role in building the post-war order. It cannot hope to be influential in shaping a successor if relations with its European neighbours remain blighted by Brexit ideology.