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The General Election: The Tories Need To Talk About Ukraine

Written by Brian Morris

Defence could be a wild card for the Conservatives. But will Sunak be bold enough to exploit it?

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‘We are moving’, according to Grant Shapps, the UK’s Defence Secretary, ‘from a post-war to a pre-war world’. You would not think so from an IPSOS survey in May.

Asked what they saw as the most important issues facing the country today 35% of those surveyed said the NHS/Hospitals/Healthcare, 29% said Inflation/Prices, 28% said the economy, and 27% said Immigration/immigrants. Defence/Foreign Affairs/International terrorism did not even make the top ten.

Yet the biggest challenge facing this country and Europe is the war in Ukraine and the threat posed by Putin’s Russia. Does the Prime Minister agree with his Defence Secretary’s bleak assessment? In the next few weeks he has an opportunity to deliver the ‘bold action’ he promised outside Number 10 (a phrase he’s already repeating constantly) and highlight Labour’s vulnerability on defence.

Yet the Government’s defence spending pledge falls into a category that has been all too common in Western support: too little, too late. Eliot Cohen, a US professor in international studies, recently asked about the Conservative pledge to increase defence spending to 2½ % of GDP by 2030, was scathing. ‘That doesn’t cut it’, he told the Telegraph’s impressive weekday podcast Ukraine: The Latest.

These were the final words in his interview, though he could have added that the world could look a very different place by 2030 and no one will care what the Conservatives pledged six years earlier, even if they are in office. And by then there might not be a Ukraine.

With the polls pointing firmly to a Labour General Election victory this year, what Labour has said and not said is far more significant. Sir Keir Starmer’s six pledges don’t mention Ukraine. Nor did he mention Ukraine in his first speech of the campaign, though Sunak did.

A Labour government would aim to raise defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP. The get-out-of-a-firm commitment clause is that Sir Keir has said he will only spend the extra money if it is achievable within the party’s borrowing rules. And it won’t just be the hard left pushing for more spending on the NHS and other public services to be prioritised.

The positions of our main political parties hardly speak of politicians and leaders who have grasped the Defence Secretary’s warning of a pre-war world. Western experts on Russia who have studied the history of post-Soviet transformation and Putin’s rhetoric, are firm in their belief the Russian leader would not halt his military aggression with a victory in Ukraine.

The US Institute for the Study of War regularly cites Russian propaganda aimed at creating narratives justifying future aggression against NATO states. Putin is putting his country on a war footing. A recent report revealed Russian sponsored sabotage groups were planning attacks on military industrial sites in Europe. Polish authorities have arrested nine people suspected of saboteur activities under the supervision of Russian secret services.  Pre-war begins to feel close to full war.

Sunak should rise to the moment and pledge to increase defence spending to 2½ % of GDP within two or three years. He should look to increase this year’s £3bn Ukraine support from the Treasury Reserve.

The opposition is likely to argue that Tory defence pledges are unaffordable and made to embarrass Labour. The response should be that Russia has inflicted death, destruction and misery upon Ukraine on a scale not seen since World War II.  Justice for Ukraine for the war crimes, the torture, the sexual violence, the executions of prisoners and civilians, the destruction of homes, health facilities and infrastructure, the kidnapping of thousands of children, can only come from a decisive Russian defeat. Dominic Nicholls, the Telegraph’s Associate Defence Editor, believes that Russian actions in Ukraine meet the UN’s legal definition of ‘attempted genocide’.

The West does not need to declare what constitutes a decisive victory at present. But it cannot be a negotiated settlement that allows Putin to claim even a partial victory and time to rebuild his battered army and depleted weapon stocks for his next aggression.

Giving Ukraine every bit of help we can muster is not only in the interests of our future peace and security but a moral imperative for Western democracies.

What is more, when it comes to the General Election, the Tories need not fear a debate on defence spending. It’s true that since the end of the cold war, our armed forces have been woefully under-funded, though other European countries have proportionately spent less.

On Ukraine, however, we have led Europe. The UK was the first country to provide Ukraine with weapons training, the first to give modern tanks and the first to send long range missiles. These initiatives pushed the US and other European countries to release weapons they were denying Ukraine for fear of escalation.

According to Poland’s Foreign Minister, Brexit has allowed Britain to respond quickly to Russian aggression and claim a leadership role on aid to Ukraine. Radoslaw Sikorski said that the UK could move faster than EU member states. It did not have to reach consensus in a 27-member bloc on issues such as sanctions against the Kremlin and aid.

Grant Shapps has quoted President Zelensky as saying: “Without Britain we may not still have been in this war today’.

None of this may shift many votes in a General Election where the economy and domestic issues will dominate the debates. Many of us think of Ukraine as something tragic happening to a country of which we know little. The understanding that this war could affect us profoundly and lead to a European and even a World War, is not something we learn very often from daily news reports.

The Tories need to talk about Ukraine.

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About the author

Brian Morris

Brian Morris, a media consultant and former current affairs TV producer.