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Britain's support for Ukraine is vital

Sir Vince Cable
September 25, 2023

The main evidence of war in Kyiv in the last few days has been a series of loud bangs in the middle of the night – Russian rockets meeting Patriot Missiles apart from the one which got through and hit a power plant.

Otherwise, Kyiv is a normal and beautiful, bustling European city of 3.5 million with busy pavement cafes and restaurants, flourishing shopping centres and street stalls, traffic jams and young people zooming round on e-scooters. After a while you notice the numbers of burly off-duty soldiers in uniform, the exhibitions in civic squares honouring war casualties and the forest of flags to the memory of those who died in Maidan Square in the 2014 Orange revolution. So, not so normal. A war for national survival is taking place, to expel the Russian invaders.

One of the practical consequences of war is that airports are closed.

I came to Kyiv to talk to entrepreneurs, students, academics and politicians (from the various liberal parties which support President Zelensky) arriving after a 15-hour bus ride from Warsaw. My hosts expressed great appreciation for an in-person visit from the UK. In fact, there was unaffected praise and thanks, more generally, for the generous support from the UK. Whatever our – mostly negative - views of the Boris Johnson era, he made the correct call on the Ukraine war. Continued British backing, with weapons and economic aid, remains vital for what could be a long struggle: easy to say but harder to deliver when there are already difficult issues around the public finances (and other moral imperatives such as our aid to the poorest countries).

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Image: Unsplash / Polina Petrishyna

By contrast, other supporters have started to wobble. Most seriously, a row has broken out with Poland, hitherto one of Ukraine’s cheerleaders. Putin’s blockade of Ukraine’s grain exports from the Black Sea has led to some diversion to Europe resulting in protests from Polish and other farmers. There is an election looming in Poland and the government has played to the nationalist gallery, blocking not just Ukrainian grain exports but badly needed military supplies. And on the bus back, crossing the Polish frontier, I saw ridiculous and petty Polish bureaucracy making Ukrainians feel decidedly unwelcome. Elsewhere in Europe, pro-Russian parties continue to make progress – most recently in Slovakia – sapping political support for the Ukrainians.

The most crucial ally is the USA and, while President Biden continues to deliver the high-tech weaponry Ukraine needs, there is strong resistance from Republicans in the House. The nightmare of a Trump Presidency is all too plausible. I was repeatedly told that the Ukrainians’ great fear is that the West is losing interest and patience when what is needed is stamina and a willingness to stay with Ukraine’s slow but successful military campaign. That is why Britain must remain 100 per cent committed.

I saw the reasons why Ukraine sees the war as a life-or-death struggle. At Irpin, despite rapid rebuilding, there is abundant evidence of systematic bombing of civilian housing; and in the town cemetery are the bodies of many refugees who were killed trying to escape. Serious people talk of a genocide in occupied territories with much yet undiscovered or unreported.

Before war crimes can be pursued there is important humanitarian work to be done. I met women, their faces etched with anxiety, whose partners are in Russian POW camps. Prisoner swaps should be negotiable. Then there is the appalling abduction and theft of children. The more time passes the chances of tracing and returning the children diminishes.

I met women, their faces etched with anxiety, whose partners are in Russian POW camps. Quote

I became involved in Ukraine because of the economic issues around reconstruction. A few months ago, the main multilateral agencies estimated that around $400 bn was required but that sum is a big underestimate and escalating as the Russians try to, systematically, destroy Ukraine’s infrastructure. Investment cannot wait for the end of the war which could be years away. Private investors are, however, unsurprisingly, inhibited by war risk though Ukraine has offsetting advantages in an educated, skilled and low-cost labour force. Western governments are worried about their own budgets. It would greatly help to use the currently frozen assets of the Russian government and oligarchs. At present our governments are worried about legal complications though Putin’s Russia itself breaks every law in the book. A way forward could be to use the assets to provide guarantees. There is real urgency to get investment flowing.

President Zelensky rightly enjoys hero status at home and abroad. But mistakes have been made and acknowledged. One has been a failure to mobilise major countries of the Global South who trade with and politically indulge Putin’s Russia: India, China, South Africa, Brazil, Saudi Arabia in particular. The policy makers I met were very pragmatic; they want help, however limited, from China in particular. Despite the pro-Russian rhetoric, China is demonstrating serious limits to its ‘friendship without limits’ and is seen as useful on economic issues, nuclear safety and potentially reconstruction. The last thing Ukraine wants is to be used as a pawn in a new Cold War between the USA and China.

Until I visited Ukraine to see for myself – my first visit since the Khrushchev era – I indulged in armchair statecraft and military strategy from the safety of my London suburb. I now realise how valuable is Britain’s solid support for the war effort and how vital it is to sustain it as the war drags on.

Vince Cable profile

Sir Vince Cable is a former Secretary of State for Business, and led the Liberal Democrats from 2017-19.

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