What do UK-Ukrainian arms talks reveal about fears of a resurgent Russia?

Government in talks to sell missiles to ​​Kiev in first ever arms deal

Armed soldiers without identifying insignia stand guard outside a Ukrainian military base in Crimea
Armed soldiers without identifying insignia stand guard outside a Ukrainian military base in Crimea
(Image credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Officials from the UK and Ukraine are in negotiations over the sale of weapons for the first time amid fears Russia could use the gas crisis to renew its efforts to seize the eastern European country’s territory.

Plans under discussion would involve the UK selling “surface-to-surface missiles for Ukrainian patrol boats and missiles for aircraft”, The Times said, as the two nations look to “increase cooperation after Brexit”.

As details of the plan emerged, a Ukrainian diplomat told the paper that any escalation in fighting between Russia and Ukraine would have “unpredictable consequences” for European security, adding that further conflict is “highly possible”.

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Stirring bear

Ukraine currently acts as a transit point for the pipeline that ferries Russian gas to Europe. But should the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Baltic Sea become fully operational, Moscow will no longer be reliant on Kiev to provide safe passage for its valuable natural resource.

Such an eventuality would put Ukraine “at risk of further hostile Russian action”, The Telegraph said. Conflict between the two countries has flared sporadically since Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of Crimea following a widely criticised invasion in 2014.

The Ukrainian diplomat told The Times that Putin’s “main ambition is the restoration of the Soviet Union”, adding that “the Soviet Union was nothing without Ukraine”.

“They don’t need Crimea, they need all of Ukraine, because the heart of the history, religion and culture is in Kiev, not in Moscow,” they added.

“As long as Ukraine remains resistant, such countries as Georgia, Moldova and Kazakhstan feel themselves more or less safe because Russia is still busy with Ukraine.”

Earlier this week, Russia staged a large “invasion” drill in Crimea, in which “more than 40 warships and 30 jets” took part in a “terrifying show of strength”, The Sun reported. The much publicised “war games” included “missile launches, practice bombings and simulated landings with footage released by Defence Ministry TV channel Zvezda”.

A Russian military spokesperson said the drill “simulated hostilities” in which “mock armed groups entered [Crimea] with the aim of carrying out terrorist attacks and destabilising the situation in other regions of the Southern Federal District”.

“The coastal troops of the Black Sea Fleet worked out practical actions to secure anti-sabotage defence of a section of the coast and fought with naval assault groups and naval landing forces,” they added.

Downing Street “has previously raised concern about the impact Nord Stream 2 would have on Ukraine”, The Telegraph said.

Earlier this month, a No. 10 spokesperson said the government was monitoring the fact that “Nord Stream 2 would divert [gas] supplies away from Ukraine, with significant consequences for its economy” and “significant security implications”.

Gas diplomacy

Putin’s ongoing war with Ukraine is the “world’s worst-kept secret”, said Peter Dickinson, chief editor of Business Ukraine magazine. But the Russian president publicly “remains in denial” about the fighting.

Writing for the Atlantic Council, Dickinson continued that the “conundrum facing Ukraine” is how to “make peace with someone who refuses to admit they are waging war”. Up until now, Kiev has been “confronted by the brick wall of Moscow’s blanket denials”.

Ukrainians are so far “coping stoically with Russian aggression”, The Economist said, adding that while “ceasefires have come and gone since September 2014” the “sporadic shooting continues in eastern Ukraine”.

But “Putin’s gas diplomacy terrifies them”, with fears mounting that once Nord Stream 2 opens for business, Russia “will be able to choke off supplies to Ukraine almost at will”. Moscow also has form for such aggression, having cut off supplies to Ukraine for two weeks in 2009.

The radio silence from the Kremlin with regards to the shots being fired in the east of Ukraine has failed to convince the international community that hostilities have cooled. US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has repeatedly reiterated Washington’s “unwavering” support for Ukraine.

During what Radio Free Europe described as a “three-nation tour to the Black Sea region aimed at underlining the White House’s support for allies and partner states”, Austin this month directly criticised Russia’s behaviour.

“Russia started this war and Russia is the obstacle to a peaceful resolution,” Austin said during a joint press conference with Ukrainian Defence Minister Andriy Taran. “We will continue to do everything we can to support Ukraine’s efforts to develop a capability to defend itself and protect its sovereign territory.”

And the UK’s openness to selling arms to Kiev underlines a commitment to that same principle.

“European nations have publicly backed Ukraine” in the conflict, but “have not risked exacerbating the war by selling it arms”, The Times said.

Plans to sell weapons to Kiev will therefore serve as a “warning to Russia that Britain is prepared to help defend its ally”.

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