Reports of divisions between the US and UK over their support for Ukraine are growing says Terina Hine

Reports of divisions between the US and UK over their support for Ukraine are growing. The two countries provide the bulk of military assistance for Ukraine’s war effort but their tolerance for risk is beginning to diverge.

The current stalemate on the front line has led to a ramping up of pressure by Ukraine for the supply of fighter jets and more sophisticated and offensive weaponry. Concern that supplying jets would be escalatory has made the White House reluctant to agree.

The UK, however, are gung-ho in their support. The UK, it seems, is happy for Ukraine to use British weapons to attack targets inside Russia. The US is not.

At the outbreak of the war western allies were reluctant to provide offensive weaponry. Since then, several red lines in military aid have been crossed with Britain more often than not at the fore. Britain’s role as cheerleader-in-chief for increasing the supply of weapons to Ukraine has remained one constant in the war.

Britain led the charge on the supply of tanks, recently provided long range cruise missiles and drones, and has now successfully pressurised the US into supporting the supply of F-16 fighter jets.

The White House has repeatedly ruled out sending F-16s currently held by the US Air Force, with Biden maintaining all discussions around the supply of F-16s should be deferred until after the war has concluded. For other countries to send jets purchased from the US permission is required from Washington, which until now had not been granted.

In an attempt to whittle away US reserve, last week the UK announced it would begin procuring the F-16s for Ukraine, and that it would start training pilots to fly them. At the G7 summit Biden finally agreed.

The UK has been the most belligerent partner in the transatlantic alliance. Although the US has provided the vast bulk of weaponry and financial assistance to Ukraine (it does of course have far greater stockpiles of weapons at its disposal) unlike the UK it has failed to provide its most recent and sophisticated weapons.

And it’s not just weapons. UK special forces operate inside Ukraine close to the front line. They act as on the ground support providing intelligence and logistics advice. It is hardly surprising that the British army is considered by Ukraine’s military its most reliable partner.

According to a recent report by the Wall Street Journal, Britain and the Baltic states are increasingly unhappy with the ‘lethargy’ of the Biden administration when it comes to the supply of more advanced weapons.

Discussions over Ukraine joining NATO may also reveal divisions in the alliance. Ukraine is pushing for a formal invitation to be issued when NATO leaders meet in Vilnius, Lithuania in July. Currently most NATO countries are refusing to commit to such an invitation, and the US has made it clear that although it supports Ukraine joining NATO at some point in the future, a formal timetable and invitation should remain part of the settlement at the end of the war. But at Chequers last week, Rishi Sunak announced his formal backing for Ukraine’s NATO membership once the war was over and agreed to press other allies to do the same.

For all his talk of ‘unwavering support’ Biden is constrained, both domestically and internationally. He is about to enter an election period and there is little domestic support for US involvement in another never-ending war. In global affairs Washington’s primary concern is with China not Russia. Plus, key US goals in Europe may already have been achieved – Putin is considered a pariah across Europe, NATO’s influence is expanding, and the US recently replaced Russia as Europe’s main supplier of gas.

Although for now Washington and London remain pretty much in sync over Ukraine, focus on China, the US election cycle and fear of provoking Russia threaten this unity. London, it seems, is happy to step into the breach when it perceives Washington to be sleeping at the helm. And dangerously the UK does not share America’s fear of poking the Russian bear.

22 May 2023 by Terina Hine

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