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British Armed Forces Minister: 'Each iteration of aid we have given is a consequence of Putin's escalation'

by Theo Prouvost March 9, 2023 2:45 PM 6 min read
British Minister of State for the Armed Forces James Stephen Heappey speaks to the media in London on Dec. 14, 2022. (Photo by Victoria Jones/PA Images via Getty Images)
This audio is created with AI assistance

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Britain has been among the frontrunners in providing support to Ukraine, ranking second only behind the U.S.

A month prior to Russia's all-out war, the U.K. was able to provide around 3,000 NLAW anti-tank missile systems helping Ukraine deter Russia's initial offensive.

Soon, the U.K. was supplying Ukraine with air defense, artillery, and financial aid to survive the invasion, with the total assistance reaching $2.75 billion.

In 2023, the U.K. became the first country to pledge Western-made tanks – at least 14 modern Challenger 2s.

In an exclusive interview with the Kyiv Independent, the British Minister of State for the Armed Forces, James Heappey, discussed the U.K.'s initial support for Ukraine, why he thinks Kyiv doesn't need fighter jets, and the West's strategy before the all-out war.

Heappey, the second highest U.K. government official on defense, brushed off the idea of providing Ukraine with Western-made fighter jets, saying that the U.K. is responding to Russian escalation, not increasing support for Ukraine unilaterally.

"Each iteration of the aid we have given has been the consequence of an escalation from (Russian President Vladimir) Putin," he told the Kyiv Independent.

The Kyiv Independent: As the second largest donor to Ukraine, can you explain why the United Kingdom delivers so many weapons compared to other western nations to Ukraine?

James Heappey: We believe that with every fiber of our being, Putin has committed an outrage on the European continent that cannot be ignored.

It's for others to talk about their contributions, especially our allies in the Baltic, who would point to what they give as a proportion of their GDP or the size of their inventory.

For the U.K., It is clear that this is a very significant donation, even if not in an absolute sense, as big as the Americans.

The U.K. chooses to give as much and as willingly as it does because the Ukrainian people need to be given the tools to end this on their terms.

This is not only what is best for Ukraine. This was best for the entire European continent.

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The Kyiv Independent: According to Reuters, Great Britain wants to send fighter jets to Ukraine only after the war, why?

James Heappey: I think that the reality is that jets are very complicated to hand over. Pilot training is a significant task.

Even when pilots are trained, the sustainability of jets is extraordinarily challenging. Just making them fly, mission-to-mission, requires many spare parts. There is also logistics support and engineering training.

The U.K.'s commitment was to train pilots. That is not an insignificant commitment. That means that some of the pilots in the Ukrainian Air Force are currently not required to fly, given the number of planes the Ukrainian army has available at the moment. Pilots can start to reroll into being able to fly the sort of NATO standard planes that the Ukrainian Air Force would definitely have after the war.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak confirmed at the Munich conference that the U.K.'s current position is to train Ukrainian pilots. The decision on the jets was for another day. The decision to train pilots is not directly connected to providing jets.

However, the prime minister has also said that nothing was off the table when President Volodymyr Zelensky came to the U.K. There are many other things that the U.K. has committed to Ukraine, including longer-range precision weapons.

The Kyiv Independent: How did the U.K. apprehend the Russian threat?

James Heappey: I started reading intelligence at the end of 2021. Compared to everybody else, London and Washington were privileged.

We were seeing stuff that had more fidelity than, I think, was being seen in other agencies.

Thus, we had a degree of certainty, whereas others did not. Ministries of defense are paid to hope for the best but plan for the worst. And so we did.

We read the intelligence and started making a plan. Just over a year ago, I came to Kyiv to announce to (Defense Minister) Oleksii Reznikov and his team the delivery of the first 6,000 NLAW anti-tank missiles.

The Kyiv Independent: Having such good information about the outbreak of the war in February 2022, does the United Kingdom regret not giving weapons sooner to help Ukraine defend itself?

James Heappey: No, definitely. We do not regret not giving weapons sooner. I mean, the U.K. was the first to give Ukraine each different type of weapon system.

Our job has really been to embolden the wider international community to support Ukraine. Those who say now that what we should have done back in November 2021 was to put a division into Ukraine or give 100 fighter jets they're just rewriting history.

They're ignoring that at that point, there was far from consensus within the international community over whether or not the intelligence of the U.S. and the U.K. was correct.

There were plenty of people arguing that it was incorrect and that the war would not happen.

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Even in Kyiv, there was, at least publicly, the view that was being espoused at the back end of 2021 that it was not going to happen.

Thus, I think the reality is that the U.K. and the U.S. had intelligence that said that it was going to happen. It was a case of when not if.

We began to provide a level of support. However, it is not realistic to think that we could have made a decision back then. It would be utterly unthinkable to have looked at all the things we have given you since and to have thought back in November 2021, would we have been able to just say, give you all of that in one go.

There is just no way because each iteration of the aid we have given has been the consequence of an escalation from Putin. That's the key.

I accept that this was an absolutely miserable experience for Ukrainians. However, this could have led to World War III. I think if it had been the other way around, if the international community had gone big with donations up front, that would have escalated.

At the time, we were looking at how we might work with the Ukrainian government to make the best possible defense, principally to support resistance that might follow an invasion.

And I am not sure it would have deterred Russia. I think it might have actually massively changed the trajectory of the war in a quite disastrous way, to be honest.

The Kyiv Independent: What do you think about Ukraine's ability to successfully resist those Russian offensives?

James Heappey: Ukrainian Armed Forces have just seen off those initial attempts at invasion.

When the Russians were pushed back from Kyiv and came into the Donbas, Ukrainians stood firm against them there.

Later in the summer, Ukrainians re-took the outskirts of Kharkiv, and the offensive towards Kherson was successful. The army has pushed them back across the river, and you are in the process of arming yourself for a counteroffensive.

They have come to Ukraine with more offensives. Ukraine has held firm. I just have every confidence that because of this incredible way, Ukrainian Armed Forces succeed against the odds seemingly every time, based on incredible courage, commitment, sacrifice, and professionalism.

The Kyiv Independent: According to you, does Ukraine have sufficient military capabilities to liberate the occupied territories?

James Heappey: What I've learned in the last 14 months is that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are capable of everything. Ukrainian Armed Forces can achieve vastly more than anybody ever thought that they could.

Therefore, the answer to the question is that I genuinely believe that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are capable of liberating Ukrainian soil and that they will continue to fight no matter what the odds are. They will do so with incredible heroism.

And I think that frankly, whatever the West provides Ukrainian Armed Forces will make do with. Whenever we thought that we had given Ukraine enough to do one thing, it has done three things with it, and it's been amazing. We know what you need. We are working hard to deliver that, even if there is still a gap.

You are just the most brilliantly innovative, courageous, incredible people you have survived for a year, frankly, against the odds. Ukraine needs to succeed because the future of Europe really depends on defending Ukraine on your own terms.

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