U.K. Pursues More Muscular Role in Standoff With Russia Over Ukraine

LONDON — Britain grabbed the world’s attention on Saturday by accusing President Vladimir V. Putin of plotting to install a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine, a dramatic late-night announcement that instantly propelled it to the frontline of the most dangerous security crisis in Ukraine. Europe in the decades.

British officials say his release of sensitive intelligence was calculated to foil a potential plot and send a message to Mr Putin. They cast him as part of a concerted strategy to be a tough player in Europe’s confrontation with Russia – a role he’s played since Winston Churchill warned of an ‘iron curtain ” after the Second World War.

And yet, the British approach also bears the imprint of a country wishing to stand out, two years after its exit from the European Union. When Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken landed in Kyiv last week for talks on the muster of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, his plane passed a Royal Air Force C-17 cargo plane that had just arrived from complete the unloading of anti-tank weapons for the Ukrainian army.

“The UK is different from Germany and France, and to some extent even the US,” said Malcolm Chalmers, deputy chief executive of the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London. “It comes from Brexit and the feeling that we have to define ourselves as an independent middle power.”

The theatrical timing and capricious nature of the intelligence release, which came amid a resounding political scandal in the country, raised a more cynical question: were some members of the British government simply keen to distract issues that threaten to topple Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Be that as it may, Britain is moving on several fronts. He is preparing legislation that would allow him to impose sanctions if Mr. Putin carries out an invasion. He has dispatched senior ministers to other NATO countries threatened by Russia. And he has started engaging directly with Moscow, with reports that its foreign and defense secretaries plan to meet their Russian counterparts in the coming weeks.

Britain’s hard-line approach was crystallized in a hard-hitting essay by Defense Secretary Ben Wallace. Writing in The Times of London, Mr Wallace dismissed Mr Putin’s claims of NATO encirclement and accused the Russian leader of crude ‘ethnonationalism’, based on what he called the false assertion that Russians and Ukrainians are one people. The trial made waves in Washington and European capitals.

“Whether Britain is in the EU or out of the EU, it will always push back against bad Russian behavior,” said Karen Pierce, British Ambassador to the United States, in an interview. “When it comes to Russians, you’ll always find the UK at the front end of the spectrum.”

But Mr. Wallace is not the head of the British government, it is Mr. Johnson who is. And the Prime Minister is caught up in an increasingly desperate campaign to save his job amid a scandal over which Downing Street parties breached coronavirus restrictions. Not only has this political circus crowded out public debate about Britain’s role in Ukraine, it has also fueled suspicions that Mr Johnson would appreciate a distraction from the flood of pesky questions about garden parties.

Even Saturday’s announcement of a possible coup in Ukraine seemed timely for Sunday morning headlines and for broadcast on TV news. Britain rarely declassifies intelligence in this way, unlike the United States, although it has done so before on matters involving Russia.

“There is no distraction as attractive as war,” wrote Simon Jenkins, columnist for The Guardian, adding that the only thing more dangerous than a struggling populist leader was two struggling populists – in this case, he said, Mr. Putin and Mr. Johnson.

Some Tory lawmakers are warning that Britain cannot afford a messy leadership battle at a time like this. Tough rhetoric about Russia is also attracting the conservative right, and critics say some ambitious officials are taking advantage of the tensions.

During a visit to British troops in Estonia in November, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss posed in military dress atop a tank. Commentators said she looked like she was channeling Margaret Thatcher, which may not be a bad strategy for someone who is a potential replacement for Mr Johnson.

At the same time, there are many historical and strategic reasons for Britain to take a hard line with Russia. British officials have been furious with the Kremlin since the poisoning of a former Russian intelligence agent and his daughter in Salisbury, England, with a nerve agent in 2018, an operation Britain has blamed on Russian military intelligence and led the British to expel around 150 diplomats. .

The Russians have dismissed antipathy to Britain, viewing it as the vanguard of US efforts to curb its ambitions and dismissing criticism from British officials as moral posturing, given their country’s imperial past. Britain has done little to prevent Russian billionaires from using London as a haven, where they buy property in Mayfair and influence in the House of Lords.

Although Mr Johnson was not as enthusiastic as his defense secretary, he said on Thursday that “any kind of incursion” from Russia “would be a disaster – not just for Ukraine but for Russia, a disaster for the world”.

The Prime Minister, preoccupied with his political setbacks, has largely ceded the limelight on Ukrainian politics to Mr Wallace, a British army veteran who was security minister at the time of the Salisbury bombings. In June, Mr Wallace deployed a Navy destroyer, HMS Defender, to sail near the coast of Russian-occupied Crimea in the Black Sea. Russian planes buzzed the ship in protest.

Britain’s action, analysts said, was deliberately aggressive, reflecting military officials’ frustration that its policy had been too reactive to serial Russian provocations. These go beyond the attack on Salisbury to accusations that Moscow is meddling in Britain’s elections and corrupting its politics with dirty money.

Ambassador Pierce stressed that Britain pursued an independent foreign policy even when it was a member of the European Union. He did, however, participate in EU-wide sanctions when he was part of the bloc, which he will no longer do after Brexit. Officials said that was why the government needed to draft new legislation to target Russian individuals and its financial services sector.

Beyond that, analysts said Britain’s determination to assert itself also reflected its post-Brexit identity. Kim Darroch, who was national security adviser under Prime Minister David Cameron, said Britain once refused to supply arms to Ukraine because it feared they would end up in the wrong hands . Today, these concerns are outweighed by the benefits of acting independently.

“I suspect this is part of demonstrating that we are not tied to the European Union, which is led by the much more equivocal German view on Russia,” said Mr Darroch, who later served as ambassador to the states. -United.

Germany’s equivocation helps explain why RAF planes carrying anti-tank weapons to Ukraine took a circuitous route through Denmark, avoiding German airspace. A senior British official said it reflected Britain’s close consultation with Denmark and Sweden, and that London had not asked the Germans for permission because it would have delayed a mission that depended on speed.

“The most interesting thing is what it says about the fragility of relations between the UK and Germany,” said Jeremy Shapiro, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The disunity was visible to anyone who could follow the planes.”

Ms Truss also skipped a meeting in Berlin with Mr Blinken and his counterparts from Germany and France to discuss Ukraine, sending in her deputy. Instead, she traveled to Australia, where she and Mr Wallace met with officials to discuss a new submarine alliance with Australia, Britain and the United States.

It seemed an odd choice in the midst of a mounting European crisis. But it underlined Britain’s commitment to Asia, another cornerstone of Britain’s post-Brexit foreign policy. Analysts say it has also helped Britain avoid the perception of being unduly subservient to the United States.

“They have to work carefully so they don’t come across as a poodle,” Mr Shapiro said. “They want to show that they are an extra-regional player.”

Michael Schwirtz and Michael Crowley contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Anton Troyanovsky From Moscow.