THE weekend’s Sunday Telegraph had a front-page story that British businessmen are visiting Ukraine to discuss building factories to produce British arms there.This followed President Zelensky’s visit to London. While EU leaders fought for photo opportunities, a thoroughly over-excited Rishi Sunak promised British training support in ‘Nato standard fighters’ (whatever they might be). Defence Secretary Ben Wallace had to clarify that we are not sending Typhoons to Ukraine – probably for the simple reason that we can’t spare them.
On Monday there was a long-overdue dose of reality: Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed that Ukraine is using ammunition more quickly than Europe can produce it. Various sources cite Ukrainian usage at around 2,000 to 6,000 155mm artillery rounds per day. Current US production is 18,000 per month. According to the New York Times this will be raised to 90,000 a month by 2025, but the war is now. By contrast the Russians are firing 18,000 artillery rounds per day and have had their ammunition factories working three shifts since the war began.
Be under no illusion: artillery is the god of the battlefield and not having enough is a one-way ticket to the cemetery. It’s heavy stuff: moving it is a challenge and supply is often tight, even for Nato. In the first Gulf War the British Army had to buy some from Belgium. In the Falklands some of the attacks ended with ammunition stocks of a few rounds per gun, perhaps a couple of minutes. Which means that the Ukrainians are outnumbered and outgunned. While this alone doesn’t automatically lead to defeat it makes a bad situation worse.
It also means that our political leaders (I flatter) need to stop behaving like starstruck teenagers meeting a pop idol and start to ask some obvious and long overdue questions. The crucial one is to establish what, if anything, is our direct national strategic interest in Ukraine. The silence is deafening, which is hardly surprising since until we started throwing £2.5billion a year of weaponry at Kiev we did very little trade there at all.
The justification is that we are supporting a democracy against invasion by an autocrat and that is a noble and possibly necessary thing. But if we believe so passionately in the democratic rights of the Ukrainians why aren’t we fighting alongside them, as we did with the Kuwaitis 30 years ago? Three reasons spring to mind. First, we don’t seem to have a mandate from the UN Security Council. Second, Russia is a nuclear power and we’ve wisely spent 80 years scrupulously avoiding combat with such a power, especially since the Cuban blockade. Third, the UK has run down its armed forces to such a point that we probably couldn’t anyway.
It’s not just the British; much of the rest of Nato’s armed forces are in an equally parlous state. The obvious exception is Poland which, with a defence budget of around £12billion, can field four credible divisions and 1,000 tanks. The British, with a defence budget of around £50billion can barely field one not very credible division with 220 tanks. (If you think the British are bad – and you would be right – the Germans are worse, and similarly hindered by the equipment they’re sending to Ukraine.)
That was the reality last year, and indeed every year since the ‘little green men’ invaded the Donbas and Crimea in 2014. Throughout that time the UK’s Conservative government has not bothered itself with armoured warfare. Since last year’s invasion, none of our three Tory Prime Ministers has articulated what we are seeking to achieve in Ukraine, let alone how we will do it. We’ve had plenty of bombast, but that doesn’t knock out T-72s.
The West has probably given sufficient weaponry to help the Ukrainians halt the Russians, but we simply do not have anything like the amount that they might need to recapture their country. And if Nato cannot or will not arm them (for very good reason) then Britain, if it is serious about this cause, would have either to commit to fight alongside the Ukrainians or find a way to impose a peace – which currently would take the wisdom of Solomon and military might that we do not have, unless sanctions work for the first time in history. And who would vote for that?
In this reality I find prime ministerial posturing and posing somewhat distasteful. Mr Sunak needs to get a grip and get leading, asking questions and finding answers rather than sporting vacuous inanities about weaponry he does not possess.