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How the U.K. helped convince the U.S. and its allies to spend big to help Ukraine in its war with Russia

Jun 30, 2023

KYIV — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has quietly acknowledged to foreign officials that the United Kingdom has played a crucial role in convincing allies like the United States to dramatically increase military aid ahead of a summertime counteroffensive against Russia.

That may be one reason Zelensky was all smiles Monday as he welcomed U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly to the Ukrainian capital.

"Ukraine can count on the U.K.'s support," Cleverly told Zelensky.

While the U.S. has been Ukraine's most important partner, delivering or pledging just over $46 billion in military aid since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion, the United Kingdom, having contributed $7.1 billion, has led the way on advanced weapons systems that Washington and other allies had been skittish to supply.

The U.K. was the first nation to commit to sending modern, Western-made tanks — the Challenger 2 — and is so far the only nation to provide cruise missiles — the Storm Shadow — that can hit any target within all of Ukraine's internationally recognized borders, decisions that paved the way for bolder action from other NATO allies.

"In my meetings with presidents and prime ministers, they’ve been clear that the UK's willingness to act first to save Ukrainian lives by providing specific equipment shifted the dial significantly," Alicia Kearns, chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, told Yahoo News. "It enabled more countries to step forward and provide the support needed to limit and prevent atrocities by Russian forces against Ukrainians."

Unnamed Biden administration officials told Politico on May 9 they believed the British trigger-pulling on Storm Shadows would silence critics who have been pressuring the U.S. to send its own Army Tactical Artillery Missile Systems (ATACMS) to Ukraine. But weeks later, President Biden told reporters that the question of providing ATACMS was "still in play."

London's bullishness, U.S. and U.K. officials say, has had a galvanizing effect on Western security assistance in general. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior U.S. diplomat told Yahoo News that the provision of Storm Shadows even helped break the White House's impasse on sending F-16 fighter jets.

At a G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, late last month, Biden announced the U.S. would begin training Ukrainian pilots on how to fly the American-made fourth-generation jets, a process that the U.S. Air Force estimates will take four months.

Months before Russia launched its invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, the U.K. began flying planeloads of shoulder-launched anti-tank missile launchers, the Anglo-Swedish NLAW, to Ukraine at a time when doing so was highly controversial in Europe. The prevailing assumption on the continent was that Russia would overrun Kyiv in days.

Royal Air Force C-17 heavy transport planes were tasked to fly a circuitous route to avoid German airspace on their way to Ukraine to avoid the possibility of a fellow NATO ally declining overflight permission. At the time, Berlin was itself highly reluctant to send lethal kit to Kyiv and fearful of perceived escalation with Moscow.

Successive British prime ministers — there have been three since the war started, all from the Conservative Party — have been of one mind on helping Kyiv claw back territory. The U.K.'s support for Ukraine is unusual for the fact that it transcends party lines in Britain, with the opposition Labour Party being as hawkish if not more so than the ruling Tories. British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace is widely admired for his wartime stewardship of security assistance. In an interview for Yahoo News in May, Wallace's Ukrainian counterpart Oleksii Reznikov said that the U.K. is the one country whose electoral outcome causes him little angst, as the "opposition is as strong as the current government in terms of supporting us."

"The Labour Party has stood united with the government and the British public in support of providing Ukraine with the military, diplomatic, economic and humanitarian support it needs to prevail," British Shadow Secretary of State David Lammy told Yahoo News. "We continue to push the government to close the loopholes on sanctions, the repurposing of sanctioned assets and the creation of a special tribunal to prosecute Putin and his cronies personally for their crimes."

The Brits have also been out front in justifying Ukrainian-orchestrated military operations inside Russian territory.

After a series of drone attacks in and around Moscow on May 30, the difference in reactions from Washington and London was stark. "As a general matter, we do not support attacks inside of Russia," a White House spokesperson said. "We have been focused on providing Ukraine with the equipment and training they need to retake their own sovereign territory."

Cleverly, however, was less hesitant, emphasizing Ukraine's "legitimate right" to "project force beyond its borders to undermine Russia's ability to project force into Ukraine itself."

Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president and now deputy chair of Russia's National Security and Defense Council, tweeted in reply: "The goofy officials of the UK, our eternal enemy, should remember that within the framework of the universally accepted international law which regulates modern warfare, including the Hague and Geneva Conventions with their additional protocols, their state can also be qualified as being at war."

Steadfast from the start