The Russo-Ukrainian War and the British Response: 2014-2023

Yuichi Hosoya


The United Kingdom has consistently been at the forefront of criticizing Russia's military actions since its unilateral annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in March 2014 and the subsequent military invasion of eastern Ukraine. Is there any particular background reason for this?

A key to understanding this is the fact that the United Kingdom, along with the United States and Russia, was a signatory to the Budapest Memorandum of Understanding dated December 1994, which stipulated the denuclearization of Ukraine and its accession to the NPT regime; the United Kingdom took the lead in that process. As a signatory to that document, the United Kingdom was to assume some responsibility for Ukraine's security. But Russia's forced annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014 meant that the United States and the United Kingdom, not to mention the aggressor Russia, failed to comply with their commitments to the Budapest Memorandum. 1

Predicated on this background, this paper is intended to discuss the almost 30 years of history of British involvement in Ukraine's national security following the end of the Cold War and British responses during the process of encroachment of Ukraine's territorial integrity—from Russia's forced annexation of Crimea in March 2014 to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in April 2022. This paper does not position the Russo-Ukrainian war as something that suddenly broke out on February 24, 2022, but as part of a series of conflicts and crises that have evolved since 2014 and discusses this topic from the perspective of changes in the European security regime after the Cold War.

As noted above, the United Kingdom is a signatory to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. The document stipulates that, in exchange for the denuclearization of Ukraine (participation in the NPT regime), the nuclear weapon states—the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia—should provide security assurances to Ukraine's territorial integrity and political independence. (France and China subsequently assured a similar agreement between them.) Thus, Russia's forced annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, its subsequent invasion of eastern Ukraine, and its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 were, therefore, violations of the Budapest Memorandum by Russia, while the signatories' failure to give assurances to Ukraine's territorial integrity and political independence highlighted their inability to abide by the relevant text of the memorandum. According to Steven Pifer, "when negotiating the security assurances," US officials stated "that, were Russia to violate them, the United States would take a strong interest and respond." 2 Consequently, unlike other countries, both the United Kingdom and the United States have a special responsibility, and especially, the United Kingdom, which took the lead in formulating the Budapest Memorandum and in denuclearizing Ukraine, assumes a grave responsibility.

1. From the Budapest Memorandum to the Annexation of Crimea (1994-2014): Search for a Constructive Relationship

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, the overriding question that concerned the Western powers was how to deal with nuclear weapons deployed in the former Soviet states. Numerous nukes had been deployed in Ukraine; at the time of the Soviet dissolution, Ukraine was the world's third-largest nuclear weapon state after the United States and the Soviet Union.

In 1994, the then Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk demanded "billions of dollars" as "assurances" for Ukraine to transfer those nuclear weapons to Russia and "an American promise to treat an attack on Ukraine as though it were an attack on the United States." 3 He wanted security "guarantees" equivalent to those granted by the United States to its allies, which would deter Russia from attacking Ukraine in the future when Russia would become an expansionist power.

As a result of the negotiations, in exchange for providing such "guarantees," the nuclear powers of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia promised to provide "assurances" to Ukraine's (simultaneously Belarus and Kazakhstan's) territorial integrity and political independence in return for its acceding to the NPT. This was the so-called 1994 Budapest Memorandum. 4 The fact that the memorandum was a general declaration of "assurances" instead of legally binding "guarantees" Ukraine had sought after indicates that the US government was hesitant about military involvement to safeguard Ukraine. 5 However, due in part to some misunderstanding stemming from translation from English, the Ukrainian government felt relieved to have gained certain "assurances" from the United States and the United Kingdom.

Koichi Arai, a Japanese diplomat who was involved in this issue, criticizes in his article on the negotiation process, "The United States and other Western countries, while cooperating with Russia for the cause of safeguarding the NPT regime, hardly answered another important request of security guarantees for denuclearized Ukraine, only pressing the country to give up its nuclear weapons." 6 He further states, "This, coupled with Ukraine's ethnically complex, inflammable domestic situation, contributed to the complication of the Ukrainian nuclear issue." 7 It is noteworthy that as early as 1995, when Arai wrote this article, there were already concerns about whether Ukraine's security from Russia could be ensured in compensation for its abandonment of nuclear weapons." He warned, "Later in Russia, its great powerism began to revive, seeking to regain lost ground." 8

After the end of the Cold War, to develop cooperation between NATO and the former Soviet constituent countries, diverse initiatives came into existence, such as the Partnership for Peace (PfP), initiated in 1994 to build trust between NATO countries and the former Soviet constituent countries, and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC), established in 1997 to build a comprehensive cooperative relationship with Russia. In other words, the formation of a "Europe Whole and Free" has been sought to ensure that NATO's eastern expansion should not threaten Russia and that Russia should also be given the right to say and join those institutional frameworks.

The 1997 NATO decision on eastward expansion and the 1999 accession to NATO of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were made and implemented in consultation with the Russian government. No decisive rift developed between Russia and NATO during this period. In the subsequent war on terror, coordination and cooperation between NATO and Russia continued to address global threats. Yet, after Russia's use of military force in the 2008 Georgia conflict and Russia's encroachment and invasion into Ukrainian territory in 2014, the relationship between NATO and Russia came to a decisive rupture. Since these Russian acts violated such agreements as the 1975 Helsinki Accords, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, and the NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, it is natural for NATO to criticize those actions and to take a tough stance against Russia. Without Russia's use of military force, violation of territorial integrity, and unilateral scrapping of international agreements, the ensuing decisive deterioration of the relationship between the two sides would not have occurred.

2. Responses to the Ukraine Crisis Taken by the Cameron and Subsequent Administrations (2014-2021): Toward Appeasement

Russia's forcible annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine in March 2014 was the first attempt to change the national borders by military force in the post-World War II era, constituting the most critical challenge to European security. Facing such Russian military actions, however, NATO member states, which had maintained a policy of engagement with the country since the 1990s, took such an appeasing stance as to effectively tolerate Russia's move to change the status quo, in fear of the deterioration of their relationship with Russia and a military conflict involving NATO.

British Prime Minister David Cameron did not take a firm stand against Russia during the Ukraine crisis in 2014, thereby allowing the situation to progress as Russia desired. However, Cameron alone was not to blame; it was the outcome of the appeasement policy toward Russia also adopted by the political leaders of major Western countries at that time, including US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Prime Minister Francois Hollande.

On the other hand, Cameron aptly expressed the magnitude of the impact of this event in his memoirs when he wrote that Russia ripped up the rule book Europe and the whole world had kept until the outbreak of war. 9 As the phrase "Russia ripped up the rule book" suggests, Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council with special responsibility for the peace and security of the international community, ignored international law and unilaterally changed existing borders through threats of force and false allegations. This Russian behavior is an act of destroying the very foundation of the "rule of law" in the international community.

Yet neither Cameron nor Obama took a hardline stance toward Russia at that time because, from 2008 onward, when the global financial crisis began, the UK and US governments prioritized restoring the domestic economy, focusing on the vital political issue of scaling back foreign military involvement and curtailing defense spending. In addition, for Cameron and Obama, strengthening relations with emerging economies such as China and India became significant for the economic growth of their countries. Therefore, Cameron stated in his memoirs that it was his goal in 2001 to establish some form of constructive relationship with Russia, one of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), taking into account its enormous economic growth and trade potential. 10

It was not only because of such growing economic opportunities that Cameron sought to develop constructive relations with Russia; with the advent of Dmitry Medvedev to the Russian Presidency in 2008, he hoped that Russia would make a more liberal and more internationally cooperative transition. Cameron also writes that he met Medvedev at the G8 summit in Canada and was invited to visit Moscow—Medvedev was eloquent, friendly, and well-adjusted to the interests and concerns of the West; that President Obama and the European leaders agreed to have finally gained a person with who they can or should work. 11 Such expectations toward Russia account well for the British government's failure to take a strong stand at the time of Russia's forcible annexation of Crimea in March 2014.

Cameron held a telephone discussion with President Putin on February 28, 2014, amid the emerging crisis over the Crimean peninsula. Taking advantage of his own relatively amicable relationship with the Russian leader, Cameron attempted to persuade him to take measures to prevent the situation in Crimea from worsening. The following conversation record remains: "The Prime Minister [Cameron] emphasized that all countries should respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. President Putin agreed, stressing that Russian military exercises in the area had been planned before the current situation in Ukraine." 12 Thus, President Putin orally informed Cameron that he had no intention of forcibly annexing Crimea and would not take military action. His inclination to deceive remains unchanged after eight years since then.

According to historians Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowdon, Cameron had three telephone talks with Putin in this period, which remain on record as follows:

Prime Minister Cameron: "Your relationship with us will face increasing difficulties unless you stop the aggression."

President Putin: "This is my backyard. The West has repeatedly humiliated me, over Libya, over Syria, etc., for the last ten years." 13

Thus, Putin's words reveal his belief in the sphere of influence concept in which Ukraine is his "backyard" as well as his anger against the "West" for "humiliating" him. Putin's use of the first person pronouns in his remarks suggests that he mixed state policies and initiatives with his personal thinking to make despotic policy decisions. In any case, Putin first tried to dispel Cameron's concerns by stating that he had no intention to take military action; yet, he viewed the neighboring countries from the perspective of his sphere of influence concept represented by such a word as "backyard"—a notion irrelevant in international law. It was a statement that seems to have foreshadowed Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Regarding this, Seldon and Snowdon note, "It is evident that Putin's reading of recent history is very different from theirs [Cameron et al.]. It is equally clear that having an enemy suits his domestic political interests very well." 14 As early as at this stage, it was no longer possible to reach a compromise or to foster trust between Russia and what Putin called the "West."

Seldon and Snowdon further criticize Cameron for not making sufficient diplomatic efforts to address the situation in Ukraine during this period, noting, "Cameron isn't willing to invest the time in foreign policy or to pick up the phone more to European leaders, above all Merkel." 15 Chief of the Defense Staff General David Richards also criticized Cameron, a proponent of liberal issues, for his inability to address such traditional questions as war and violence: "In Ukraine, as in Syria and Libya, there is a lack of strategy and statesmanship. The problem is the inability to think things through. Too often it seems to be more about the Notting Hill liberal agenda rather than statecraft." 16

Thus, during the March 2014 Crimean crisis, the British government failed to take the necessary actions and stood out for its appeasing stance toward Russia. Regardless of their responsibilities for Ukraine's territorial integrity and political independence, the United Kingdom and the United States could not adequately defend them.

Evidently, both the UK and US governments were aware of their responsibilities under the Budapest Memorandum; on March 5, 2014, at the height of the crisis, a meeting of the foreign ministers of the United Kingdom, the United States, and Ukraine was held. A joint statement from the ministerial meeting argued: "The Budapest Memorandum sets out the obligations of signatories in return for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons. Under its terms, the three parties commit to refrain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine's territorial integrity. The Memorandum also obliges the UK, US and Russia to consult in the event of a situation arising where the memorandum commitments are questioned." 17

Thus, when Russia forcibly annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine in March 2014, the reaction of the United Kingdom and other Western countries was restrained and appeasing, as if, in effect, they tacitly overlooked such an invasion violating international law. This led to Russia's full-scale military invasion eight years later.

By July 2014, in response to intensified Russian military aggression and pressure from the US Congress, the United States and the EU decided to impose economic sanctions against Russia, announcing the first round of sanctions targeting Russia's financial and energy sectors. 18 However, in January 2017, Donald Trump took office as US president and, eager to improve relations with Russia, increased criticism of NATO, contributing, as a result, to weakening the West's solidarity. In addition, discord in European nations surfaced; some EU member states began to call for lifting economic sanctions due to sanctions fatigue. 19 These elements were bound inevitably to limit the effect of the West's Russian policy. As American researcher Steven Pifer points out, on top of these elements, the Brexit decision following the outcome of the June 23, 2016 UK referendum resulted in further discord in the Western countries. 20 This meant that the EU could become more pro-Moscow with the departure of the United Kingdom, a signatory to the Budapest Memorandum, which had taken the lead in supporting the Ukrainian government until then.

In 2014, the British government began to be aware of the need to substantially shift its previous policy toward Russia, notwithstanding Cameron's restrained approach. The NATO Wales Summit in September 2014, chaired by the United Kingdom, decided on the two percent of GDP goal for defense spending, the creation of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) under the NATO Response Force (NRF) to improve the rapid response capabilities of NATO forces, and, the strengthening based on these of NATO collective defense. 21 Furthermore, an "enhanced forward presence" was agreed upon at the July 2016 NATO Warsaw Summit—an attempt to deploy multinational battalions led by the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Canada in rotation to Central and Eastern European countries.

The enhancement of deterrence through NATO's collective defense and the strengthening of the Ukrainian national army—these efforts have, as a result, contributed significantly to providing Ukraine with capabilities of resistance and war continuation enabling the country to deal with the February 2022 crisis and to discouraging Russia from attacking NATO.

3. The Johnson Administration and Its Response to the Ukraine Crisis (2021-2023): Launch of a Hardline Policy Toward Russia

In February 2022, the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson took a different political stance toward Russia from Cameron's appeasing posture. Amid the economic difficulties resulting from Brexit, Johnson committed grave blunders in the initial response to Covid-19 and faced loud criticism for violating the law in the "Partygate" scandal. Nonetheless, Johnson showed sound judgment in response to Russia's aggression against Ukraine. He boasted of being the first world leader to "lead the way" in helping Ukraine, declaring, "Vladimir Putin must fail." 22

Since 2014, the British government has helped strengthen the Ukrainian national army and actively provided intelligence information to the Ukrainian government; since the outbreak of the recent war, it has provided tangible assistance in protecting the security of President Zelensky. 23 Among all the Western nations, the United Kingdom has been the most profoundly involved in Ukraine's security.

In contrast to the Cameron administration, which was led by the left wing of the Conservative Party on the occasion of the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Johnson administration, led by the right wing of the same party, took an extremely hardline stance against Russia at the time of the February 24, 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Johnson demonstrated his stalwart support for Ukraine by visiting Kyiv personally and inviting President Zelensky to address online the British House of Commons.

On February 24, 2022, the day the recent war began, Johnson, in his address to the nation, stated: "A vast invasion is underway by land by sea and by air. And this is not in the infamous phrase some faraway country of which we know little. We have Ukrainian friends in this country; neighbours, co-workers. Ukraine is a country that for decades has enjoyed freedom and democracy and the right to choose its own destiny. We—and the world—cannot allow that freedom just to be snuffed out. We cannot and will not just look away." 24

Obviously, Johnson's speech was conscious of one by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the hero of World War II. Johnson had written a critical biography of Churchill; he may have overlapped his own role with Churchill's. 25

Not only Johnson but also Liz Truss, who served as Foreign Minister in the Johnson administration, criticized the Russian aggression in a more aggressive tone than Johnson. The populists Johnson and Truss tended to foster a bellicose atmosphere while, at the same time, emphasizing values such as democracy and freedom more than other politicians in the Conservative Party. Foreign Minister Truss stated, "Over recent weeks, the Russian government has repeatedly denied their hostile intent towards Ukraine. At the same time, they have massed troops, launched cyber-attacks, and staged false pretexts and provocations. Today, the Russian government has shown that it was never serious about engaging in diplomacy—focused only on deceit and furthering their territorial ambitions." 26

Conclusion: Toward a More Unclear Future

Thus, the British government has taken a more hardline stance toward Russia than the other G7 governments. This is a long-standing tradition of British diplomacy, and at the same time, it is an outcome of information gathering through the work of British intelligence in Russia.

Anglo-Russian relations decisively deteriorated after it transpired that the Russian government was involved in the 2006 poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy and a critic of the Putin administration. (The British government released an investigation report in 2016.)

In addition, the British Army's Special Air Service (SAS) is reportedly supporting Ukrainian troops behind the scenes and protecting the person of President Zelensky. The United Kingdom is in the closest cooperation with the current Zelensky administration and will likely continue to provide active support to the Ukrainian government.

As background for such active involvement of the United Kingdom in the Ukrainian crisis, we have pointed out that the British government, along with the United States, is deeply concerned with "assurances" to Ukraine's national security provided in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. In this sense, the United Kingdom should be understood to assume some legal responsibilities, in addition to moral ones, for the current Ukrainian crisis.

Meanwhile, as in some quarters, we hear London called "Londongrad," many have pointed out that, especially, British Conservative Party members have profound connections with Russian funds. Those connections have, in a sense, been an obstacle to the British government's policy toward Russia. Consequently, despite Russia's violation of the Budapest "assurances" and of Ukraine's sovereignty (2014), the British Conservative government hesitated to impose harsh sanctions on Russia. This is, indeed, a "less glorious past." 27

It remains to see to what extent the West will be able to carry on its hardline sanctions against Russia and its stalwart support for Ukraine. Although the United Kingdom has already left the EU, it is still a core member of NATO, thus occupying a crucial position in determining NATO's policy toward Russia. In this sense, it may be relevant to focus on the British government's policy toward Russia and support policy for Ukraine.

(Professor, Keio University)

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