Can the British army afford to take on Russia? That’s the burning question that has been left after Defence Secretary Ben Wallace announced this week – to surprisingly little fanfare – that the UK is sending 30 elite troops and 2,000 anti tank weapons to the Ukraine. Wallace clearly intended to send a message to Moscow on where Britain’s allegiance lies, but such political posturing can only be beneficial if it’s backed up by sustained support in the long term – something the British army is in no place to do.
As Britain seeks to reduce the size of its army to just 72,500 regular soldiers, Russia has amassed over 106,000 troops on the Ukraine border. With the British army heading for its smallest size since 1714, how much use is the small British deployment in helping Ukraine to hold off Putin?
While Britain is one of the few Nato countries to meet its pledge to spend at least two per cent of GDP on defence, things are far from rosy. UK military spending has only just returned to 2012/13 levels in real terms, having had a sizeable five year funding dip between 2012 and 2017. Under the current plans overseen by Wallace to reduce the size of the army, the number of tanks will be cut from 227 to 148 upgraded ones; the RAF will lose 24 of its older Typhoon jets and its fleet of Hercules transport aircraft; and the Royal Navy is retiring two of its older frigates early before new ones come into service. That’s before you count the cost of having just flown a brand new £100 million F-35 fighter jet into the sea.
The reason why that particular event was such a political embarrassment is because it feeds into a wider narrative about Britain’s declining military prowess. Despite large amounts of investment, the army simply doesn’t have the resources to take on bigger nations alone.
The government has been careful to dress up its plans for a reduced army as a strategic shift away from ‘mass mobilisation towards information speed’. It argues that the armies of the future will revolve around technological innovation rather than boots on the ground. But this will be of little consolation to Ukraine which is facing a physical army assembling before their very eyes on the border.
There’s no denying the moral and strategic case for intervention: the scope of Putin’s military ambitions remains mercurial: would he stop at Ukraine or go further? And what should Britain make of the diffidence of Germany which seems at pains to do everything it can to placate Moscow, both by resisting economic sanctions and Nato support?
In an ideal world, post Brexit Britain would set itself apart from Europe’s passivity. But the UK government can’t uncouple its political wishes from its military limitations. The army in its current state cannot take on Putin alone.
Nor is it clear what Britain would gain domestically by getting drawn in to a Ukraine/Russia conflict. Unlike much of Europe, our energy supply is not at stake since much of the gas for our domestic supply comes from Norway. And we depend on exports to Russia (£4.2 billion in 2021) more than Germany (2.36 billion euros (£2 billion) in 2021). So any decision to support Ukraine is a moral and strategic one rather than economic.
Britain’s warm words of support will be welcome in Ukraine, but the UK must be wary of overcommitting itself. After all, if we can’t provide the sort of show of military strength that will deter Putin then our involvement becomes increasingly questionable.
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