Main Image Credit Ukrainian naval ships in port at Odessa. Courtesy Vlassenko/Wikimedia Commons
The UK has a crucial role to play in building up Ukraine’s military capacity, developing NATO coordination in the area and helping to deter Russian aggression.
In June 2021, British destroyer HMS Defender conducted a freedom of navigation operation in the Black Sea, close to Russian-occupied Crimea. A Russian patrol vessel fired warning shots at HMS Defender, which was shadowed by Russian naval and air assets. The British operation was a signal of solidarity to Ukraine which has put a spotlight on the UK's involvement in the Black Sea and the emerging UK–Ukraine strategic defence partnership. The UK and Ukraine have recently signed the Political, Free Trade and Strategic Partnership Agreement, engaged in a rigorous defence dialogue and forged a cooperation agenda in the defence industry. The UK has stepped up its support to Ukraine to help it resist Russia's hybrid pressures.
The support of Western partners in helping Ukraine defend itself has been crucial. The US has been the primary supplier of military assistance, including lethal weaponry, to Ukraine since 2014. The UK has also been providing significant conflict, stability and security-related assistance. However, the UK displayed caution, specifying that it provided non-lethal defensive military aid to Ukraine, in particular through Operation Orbital, a training and capacity building operation with British personnel working far from the frontlines.
However, the increased scope of military cooperation with Ukraine, including the missiles and fast attack craft projects that the UK undertook to deliver jointly with Ukraine, points to a change in the British government’s approach to the provision of lethal weapons to Ukraine. It may also be a precursor to a strategic shift in the UK's thinking about the extent of its engagement in the Ukraine–Russia conflict.
This article provides an overview of the UK’s interests in the Black Sea and policy towards Ukraine, against the backdrop of its deterrence policy towards Russia. It investigates intensified UK–Ukraine security cooperation and analyses the rationale of military assistance to Ukraine.
The UK and Black Sea Security
The geostrategic significance of Ukraine and the Black Sea region for the UK has significantly increased since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, and initiated and sponsored the war in Ukraine's east. Recognising the adversarial nature of relations with Moscow, the UK has taken a more offensive approach towards Russia. Ukraine has thus been placed at the heart of the UK’s deterrence policy. To stand up to Russian belligerence, and as a part of its commitments after the 2014 Wales Summit to ensure security and reassure allies on NATO’s eastern flank, the UK has strengthened its footprint and boosted its guarantor role in the eastern flank. This position will likely grow in importance against the background of diverging voices within the EU and the distinct Russia policies of France and Germany. The UK has contributed personnel to the Multinational Divisional Headquarters (South-East) and NATO Force Integration Units in Romania and Bulgaria. In addition, the RAF has deployed Typhoon jets to the NATO Air Policing mission at the Mihail Kogalniceanu airbase on the Black Sea coast in Romania.
The UK's naval presence in the Black Sea has also been on the rise since 2014, reaching its peak in 2018. Notwithstanding the provisions of the Montreux Convention, which restricts the presence of military vessels of non-littoral states in the Black Sea to 21 days, the UK's presence has remained relatively stable since 2018. British warships spent 57 days on a rotational basis in the Black Sea in 2018, 52 in 2019, 31 in 2020, and (as of October 2021) 59 in 2021. Those stays started to include regular port calls to Odessa – the Ukrainian navy's main headquarters on the Black Sea. Underscoring its support to Kyiv and defying Moscow's denial strategy, the UK has demonstrated its commitment to freedom of navigation in the Black Sea.
Ukraine as a Focal Point in the Black Sea Region
The UK's political support for Ukraine has been unequivocal. Following the occupation of Crimea and the start of conflict in eastern Ukraine, the UK initiated international sanctions against Russia and developed its own sanctions mechanism after leaving the EU. It has been vocal about human rights violations on the Crimean peninsula. London has also backed the creation of the Crimea platform – an international coordination mechanism on Crimea initiated by Ukraine in 2021.
The UK welcomed Ukraine receiving NATO Enhanced Opportunity Partner status in 2020, highlighting the benefits from closer association and increased interoperability and recognising that ‘NATO is fortunate to have such a partner’. The UK has been the lead country of the NATO Trust Fund on Command, Control, Communications and Computers (C4), assisting Ukraine in modernising its C4 structures and capabilities.
The UK’s efforts have concentrated on conflict management and peacebuilding projects: it has committed to providing support to the OSCE's Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, and is one of the largest contributors to the mission. It has repeatedly called for the extension of the scope of the OSCE Observer Mission monitoring the Ukrainian–Russian state border at two Russian border checkpoints and condemned Russia's unilateral decision to close the mission in September 2021. Together with the US, Sweden and Switzerland, the UK has recently launched the Partnership Fund for a Resilient Ukraine, raising £35 million from donors for capacity-building projects in the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine over the next three years.
British strategic documents updated in March 2021 define support to Ukraine as the basis of the UK's policy in the region. The Integrated Review outlines the UK's plan to ‘actively deter and defend against the full spectrum of threats emanating from Russia’ and to help Ukraine build resilience and increase the capacity of its armed forces. The Defence Command paper signals the UK's interest in solidifying its presence in the Black Sea and investing in Ukraine's capabilities to withstand Russian malign actions.
As a milestone development, in October 2020 Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed the Political, Free Trade and Strategic Partnership Agreement. The agreement not only seeks to regulate post-Brexit economic relations with Ukraine (and in doing so builds on Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine) but also formalises the UK–Ukraine strategic partnership in the security and defence sphere.
Having agreed to establish and develop the strategic partnership, the sides distinguished the following key aims of their defence and security partnership:
- ‘Strengthening engagement for peaceful resolution of the conflict caused by Russia's hostile actions, in full respect of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders, as well as for economic recovery and reintegration’.
- ‘Supporting Ukraine's continuing political, economic, defence and security reforms, which are aimed at realising its European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations, including towards EU and NATO membership’.
- 'Further developing a close relationship in the field of security and defence to tackle threats to peace and stability’.
The Parties have also agreed (Article 4) to establish the format of the Strategic Partnership Dialogue and hold its annual meetings ‘at high official or highest governmental level on all aspects of bilateral cooperation, including security, economic and migration issues, as well as on international and regional issues of mutual interest’. The signing of the agreement is described as a direct result of the two states' shared understanding of global threats and a desire to partner to solve common challenges.
The UK–Ukraine Defence Partnership
For the UK, defence is the cornerstone of the special partnership with Ukraine. Since 2015, the UK has trained around 20,000 Ukrainian soldiers through Operation Orbital, which was expanded in 2020 to include maritime capacity-building through a multinational Maritime Training Initiative for the Ukrainian navy, led by the UK. The members of the armed forces of the two countries conduct joint sea, land and air training. In September 2020, British paratroopers took part in joint drills with their Ukrainian counterparts, flying directly from RAF Brize Norton and parachuting into the south of Ukraine. This was the largest para exercise carried out by the UK in a decade, affirming the UK's ‘ability to project highly capable troops forward anywhere, and any time, they're needed’. In summer 2021, shortly after the incident with the HMS Defender, the UK contributed to the US and Ukrainian-led Sea Breeze naval exercises in the Black Sea. The UK and Ukraine also conducted Exercise Cossack Mace land drills.
The UK is taking the lead in supporting Ukraine's naval capabilities and is regarded by Kyiv as a priority partner. Following the Memorandum of Intent signed by the UK defence secretary and Ukrainian defence minister in October 2020 and the Memorandum of Implementation signed during HMS Defender's visit to the port of Odessa as part of the UK's Carrier Strike Group deployment in June 2021, the two countries have agreed to implement the Ukrainian Naval Capabilities Enhancement Programme.
The programme will include several projects. It envisages the development and joint production of eight fast missile warships, two of them to be built in British shipyards and the rest in Ukraine. The Ukrainian government will also purchase two refurbished British Sandown-class mine countermeasure vessels. The parties agreed on the sale of British missiles to be integrated with Ukrainian navy patrol and airborne platforms together with a training and engineering support package. Finally, the UK will help Ukraine build two new naval bases on the Black Sea (Ochakiv) and the Sea of Azov (Berdyansk).
Babcock International Group, which was designated as a primary industrial partner to help deliver the program with other British and Ukrainian industrial partners, announced that alongside the delivery of the shipborne armaments, new fast attack missile crafts, and the enhancement of capabilities on the existing naval platforms, the program would also encompass the development of a modern frigate capability and the training of Ukrainian navy personnel. The projects will also include the implementation of the Shipyard Regeneration Plan aimed at the regeneration of Ukrainian shipyards. The programme will be funded from a loan of £2.5 billion to the Ukrainian government made available by UK Export Finance for about 10 years, with half of the loan to be directed at projects enhancing the naval capabilities of the Ukrainian forces.
The approach taken to support the Ukrainian navy has been needs-driven and based on Ukraine's identified military capability gaps. The projects to be implemented take into account the shortcomings Ukraine's naval capabilities suffered after 2014 and aim to boost Ukraine's capacity – currently outmatched by Russia's military superiority – to defend its territorial waters.
After the annexation of Crimea, the losses of the Ukrainian navy amounted to 75% of personnel, 70% of ships and key infrastructure. Russia has militarised Crimea, maintains de facto control over 75% of Ukrainian maritime space, and routinely prohibits navigation in the Black Sea (including the open use of conventional force when Russian warships seized three small Ukrainian military vessels on their way from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov in November 2018).
The insufficient naval potential of Ukraine is a significant factor enabling Russian aggression from the sea, according to Ukraine’s navy. The Strategy of the Naval Forces lists sea blockade, striking coastal facilities and landing operations by the Russian forces as palpable threats from the sea.
To address these threats, Ukraine seeks to develop a 'mosquito fleet', which has been formally recognised as ‘the most realistic solution in terms of cost-effectiveness ratio’. Kyiv's primary consideration has been to reduce the capabilities gap in the shortest time possible – procuring ships from abroad and equipping the new missile boats with British anti-ship missiles has been in line with those calculations.
Ukraine’s navy chose to procure the small vessels due to their speed, manoeuvrability and ability to perform a broad spectrum of tasks. The estimate has been that the 'mosquito fleet' is best placed to defeat a stronger enemy in naval operations and the expectation is that there will be a synergetic effect with the high speed and combat power of the 'mosquito fleet', unmanned aerial and surface vehicles and coastal anti-ship complexes.
Ukraine's 'mosquito fleet' – to be created by 2025 – will be based on three types of warship: patrol, amphibious and missile boats. Mark VI and Island-class patrol boats supplied by the US already constitute the backbone of the future fleet. Projects with the UK are to cover the needs of the Ukrainian navy in terms of missile craft. The fleet is also to be equipped by Ada-class corvettes, to be jointly produced by Ukraine and Turkey.
When implemented, these projects are expected to generate a qualitative leap in the combat potential of the Ukrainian military forces. Progress delivering a modern naval fleet and maritime support infrastructure in Ukraine will increase interoperability, prepare the infrastructure for NATO reinforcements and drive the restoration of the declining shipbuilding industry in Ukraine. Both parties will benefit from the cooperation between their defence industries, with the transfer of the UK's shipbuilding technologies and skills to Ukraine and investment into the revival of the British shipbuilding industry.
The Rationale of the Military Assistance to Ukraine
The ongoing Russian military build-up on the Ukrainian border and in Crimea again calls for consideration of the West’s Russia strategy and the scale and impact of military assistance to Ukraine. Being the most prominent military actor in Europe, the UK is best placed to take the lead and shape the strategic debate on deterring Russia and assisting Ukraine.
While the issue of political, economic and humanitarian support to Ukraine has never been in contention, military assistance to Ukraine has been a sensitive topic. For the Western governments mindful of Russia’s propensity to escalate, the question is how far can security assistance be advanced and how to strike a balance in assuring Ukraine but not triggering a broader escalation. Sometimes, it has been implied that there is an inherent link between providing military assistance to Ukraine and harming the prospects of peace negotiations. The assumption that Russia in this case is likely to retaliate dissuaded some governments against stronger military backing.
The critics of military assistance as a counterproductive and excessively provocative have pointed to the absence of formal obligations to protect Ukraine (because it is not a NATO member) and assumed that such assistance validates Russia's fears about NATO encroaching on its borders. Per this logic, should Kyiv, heartened by the increase of its offensive capabilities, contemplate launching an offensive in the Donbas, prompting Russia to counterattack, the West will be faced with even harsher security choices.
Naturally, Russia's narrative about 'red lines', which it draws as it sees fit, and warnings about a harsh and asymmetrical response aggravate those perceptions. Moscow is keen to instil the idea that military aid to Ukraine will come at a cost. Kremlin has warned against NATO reinforcements in the region, including against the naval bases Ukraine will build with the UK's support as a 'threat to stability'. London, in particular, is seen as a heavy-weight challenger ‘willing to go to the edge’ and having ‘fewer reservations about confronting Russia’ compared to some other NATO member states.
While the concerns about the links between military assistance and risks of further escalation are legitimate, there are arguments in favour of military assistance as a de-escalation tool. More capable Ukrainian armed forces and a resilient state will raise the costs of Russia's actions and affect its assessment of the potential losses and gains.More robust support makes Russia’s destabilising moves less plausible. One can argue that providing military assistance and advocating for a political solution to the armed conflict are, in fact, not mutually exclusive but rather reinforcing policies.
Likewise, Ukraine's susceptibility to military solutions is misconceived. The Kremlin asserted that military assistance to Ukraine emboldens Kyiv to behave dangerously in the conflict in the Donbas. The incentive for such an offensive is non-existent. While Ukraine reserves the right to defend itself, its strategic documents prioritise political and diplomatic measures to solve the armed conflict in the east of the country and seek de-occupation without resorting to force. Ukraine's military strategy has been focused on comprehensive defence, with effective deterrence and countering threats as the main pillars.
It is true that Western involvement has prompted a series of Russian reactions. But it is also the case that the risks of withdrawing or yielding to Russia's pressure outweigh the risks of engagement. The UK’s military assistance to Ukraine should be about this calculated risk, embedded into a wider vision of managed confrontation with Russia.
The UK’s part in deterring attempts to undermine the international order is indispensable, and strategic retreat in this domain would be misguided. The UK should not downgrade its stabilising presence in European affairs. The recognition that ‘no defence response to any structural security crisis would be credible without British military capabilities’ warrants to remain heavily invested in the security of partners like Ukraine.
Maintaining a robust footprint in the Black Sea and developing ties with Ukraine is a way for London to demonstrate that the UK can become the ‘greatest single European contributor to the security of the Euro-Atlantic area’ and embrace a more global and proactive posture for upholding collective security in Europe.
The UK and Ukraine are to seek novel avenues of cooperation against Russia's disruptive influences. There have been discussions about NATO's uneven and incoherent distribution of deterrence capabilities along the eastern flank and the risks that this might entail. Allies can fill in those gaps and there are a number of possible steps to strengthen NATO and Ukraine's resilience in the face of Russian threats. For example, by forging a common Black Sea strategy to be able to coordinate their actions in a coherent way, conducting maritime policing missions every day of the year, reanimating the idea of a joint naval formation of NATO allies and partners, or extending air policing missions to non-member countries. The UK has a tangible role to play in coalescing NATO Allies to undertake these or other relevant measures.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Editor's Note: Changes were made to paragraphs 3, 4, and 30 on 12 November 2021.
Dr Maryna Vorotnyuk