There is only so much news that the cycle can really stay across at once. So with pandemic and the constitutional clashes in Scotland and Northern Ireland – not to mention the nation saying farewell to the Duke of Edinburgh – it perhaps isn’t surprising that foreign affairs are flying under the radar.
But events in Eastern Europe are a reminder that the Prime Minister could end up facing yet another crisis.
Ukraine is pressing its allies in Western Europe to honour their earlier commitments to admit it to NATO – and potentially threatening to re-acquire nuclear weapons, which it surrendered in exchange for Western security guarantees, if it doesn’t. Meanwhile Russia is mobilising troops on its border with the country in an effort to deter any such outcome.
The balance of opinion at present seems to be that Vladimir Putin is not planning a full-blown invasion. But then few thought he would be so bold as to annex the Crimea either. And even if he doesn’t, the pro-Russian separatists entrenched in Donetsk and Luhansk aren’t going anywhere.
But even if the crisis doesn’t devolve into a hot war, it still puts a spotlight on the Government’s strategic priorities, especially in light of the defence review and the planned ‘pivot to Asia’.
Realistically, any British involvement in an Asian theatre is likely to consist of sending a bit of support to an effort spearheaded by the United States and their regional partners, such as Australia and Japan. It may be welcome, but it seems unlikely to be decisive.
Meanwhile the UK has to service more obvious defence commitments closer to home. Even if Ukraine is not admitted to NATO, we are committed to the defence of existing allies such as the Baltic states. Yet our on-the-ground commitment in Estonia is so pitiable it has been nicknamed ‘Operation Tethered Goat’. Nor, as Garvan Walshe noted this week, are other European countries doing anything to pick up the slack.
Boris Johnson’s vision of a small, high-tech Armed Forces seems to suggest that they are not intended to operate independently, but as part of a broader, inevitably American-led coalition. Given that logic, one wonders if Washington wouldn’t prefer a British defence posture geared towards the European theatre, where capable allies are in shorter supply.