At the end of last week, a concerted and widespread cyberattack struck Ukrainian government and civil society websites. Kyiv has made it clear that it believes the Russian government to be behind the attacks as part of Russia’s ongoing attempts to destabilize Ukraine.
Although the Kremlin denies the accusations, the timing of the attack is indeed suspicious: just a few days after the breakdown of talks between the Kremlin and the United States over Russia’s military build-up on the Ukrainian border, a large-scale cyberattack strikes Ukraine.
Since invading Ukraine in 2014 and negating the Budapest Memorandum – whereby Russia, alongside the U.S. and the United Kingdom, guaranteed Ukrainian territorial integrity in 1994 – the Kremlin has undertaken operations designed to destabilize Ukraine. When it seized Crimea and occupied Luhansk and Donbas oblasts, the Kremlin’s stated motivation was to protect Russian-speaking ethnic minorities from the Ukrainian central government.
In reality, the Kremlin’s immediate target was Crimea and its chief port – Sevastopol – which provides the Russian Navy with a base to access the Mediterranean. Russian President Vladimir Putin argues that his moves are defensive in light of NATO enlargement in the 1990s and 2000s and that Ukraine has no right to exist as an independent sovereign state. No doubt, the Kremlin is angry that so many of its near neighbours have sought protection from Russian aggression, which has greatly eroded Russian influence.
But Putin’s wider claims are of course hokum: NATO is a defensive alliance, Ukraine itself is not a member – nor is Georgia, another country invaded by Russia in the last two decades – and although it aspires to join, no Membership Action Plan exists at present. Russia’s claims of being ‘encircled’ or ‘penned in’ by NATO are nothing short of a manufactured myth: less than one-sixteenth (1,215 kilometres) of Russia’s border is shared with NATO members and the Russian military could overpower most of them.
Instead, the Kremlin’s strategic objective has become clearer and clearer: to prevent Ukraine from becoming a stable, prosperous liberal democracy. The Kremlin fears this development more than any other: Should it occur, the Russian people might start to demand the same reforms and freedoms in Russia, undermining the power and authority of Putin’s dreary kleptocracy.
This may be why the Kremlin is now toying with taking control of more of Ukraine’s territory. This prospect has alarmed several NATO governments, which have taken a plethora of responses. One of the most robust – if not the most robust – has been taken by the U.K., whose defense secretary, Ben Wallace, issued his own essay on Jan. 17 to denounce the Russian claims. This builds on over five years of progressively deepening relations between Kyiv and London, built around a shared assessment of Russian intentions and British strategic support for Ukraine.
With Operation ORBITAL, the UK has trained tens of thousands of Ukrainian troops, while British loans worth over 1 billion pounds have enabled the Ukrainian navy to redevelop its shore infrastructure and generate new naval capabilities, including the transfer of Sandown class minehunters and the sale of missile boats.
The Royal Navy has also visited the Black Sea over nine times since 2017, with the most robust visit occuring in June, when HMS Defender challenged illegal Russian claims over Ukrainian waters off the coast of Crimea, the Russian response to which sparked something approaching an international incident.
Now, as Ukraine faces the prospect of a renewed Russian onslaught, the U.K. has stepped forward again. On Jan. 17, Wallace announced to the House of Commons that Britain would provide Ukraine with direct military assistance in the form of anti-tank weapons. Delivered later that week by the Royal Air Force, Ukraine is now in possession of thousands of British missiles – missiles which will almost certainly make a Russian invasion somewhat harder.
Of all Euro-Atlantic countries, the U.K. best understands Russia and its intentions. Dialogue and discussion with the Kremlin may have a place, but only if supported by a robust and principled stance. Appeasing aggressors never works.
Moving forward, Ukraine and the UK ought to work with like-minded countries to build a coalition to constrain Russia’s aggressive thrusts. Britain should also be more determined to support Ukraine in the face of escalating aggression from Russia.
Ukraine has become emblematic of the resistance to Russia’s strong-armed methods. To back down now would only serve to demonstrate to Moscow that it can act in this way with impunity, that lashing out at a sovereign nation that is increasingly aligned with a liberal and open Europe will be met with words only.