British government under Keir Starmer promises to give priority to the fight against Ukraine
British government under Keir Starmer promises to give priority to the fight against Ukraine

The new British Labour government will make support for Ukraine’s war against Russia an international Priority, said the country’s defense minister-designate, as he takes on the mission of countering Kremlin adventurism and strengthening British military power at a time of financial constraints.

Prime Minister Keir Starmer’s government, which ended Labour’s long opposition role after a clear election victory last week, is faced with the task of expanding services for the British people, improving the economic situation and increasing military readiness – all at a time when the state coffers, its ministers say, are largely empty.

The task of ensuring that the British military – a close but smaller partner of the US – can meet global security requirements in this context falls to John Healey, an experienced Labour politician whom Starmer has appointed as defence secretary.

On his second day in office, Healey visited the Ukrainian Black Sea city of Odessa, where he held talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and stressed Britain’s determination to block Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to overwhelm Ukraine by force.

“Defending Britain begins with defending Ukraine,” Healey said on Wednesday in his first interview with an American newspaper since taking office, comparing the conflict in global terms. “We know that if Putin wins in Ukraine, he will not stop.”

Although Starmer campaigned on promises of change after his long rule as a Conservative, he is not expected to make dramatic changes to his foreign or defence policy. He will maintain strong British support for NATO, protect his relationship with Washington and take a tough stance on Russia.

Healey declined to give a detailed assessment of Ukraine’s battlefield chances in the coming months after arriving in Washington, where he, Starmer and Foreign Secretary David Lammy are attending the NATO summit this week, but noted that the country’s powerful military had kept Russia at bay for much longer than expected, pushing the Russian Black Sea Fleet out of areas crucial to Kyiv’s maritime exports.

He said the conflict was as much an industrial and economic competition between Russia and the West as it was a military battle between Kyiv and Moscow. He also acknowledged that it would likely be difficult for Ukraine to retake occupied territories by force, and said most wars end with negotiated settlements.

“We need to see how we can combine economic, political, diplomatic and military support to give the Ukrainians the best chance of putting Putin on the defensive, reclaiming their territory and enabling them to start negotiations for a long-term peace on their terms,” ​​he said.

Healey also pointed to new commitments by NATO countries to Ukraine in air defense and investments in the defense industry. Both, he believes, would signal to Russia that the West intends to maintain its course.

Like other countries concerned about what the upcoming US election might mean for Europe, British politicians believe the continent needs to invest more in its own defence and reduce its dependence on the United States – regardless of whether President Biden or former President Donald Trump prevails in November.

While Starmer has kept the previous government’s pledge to increase defence spending from around 2.3 per cent of GDP to 2.5 per cent, he has backed away from his promise to do so by 2030. Instead, he has said he will meet that target when conditions allow.

Elisabeth Braw, Senior Fellow at The Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, said Britain’s budget problems would make it difficult for the British military to fulfill the global mandate it has given itself in recent years.

“There is an expectation in the UK and the US that the British military will always be there as a kind of stooge or junior partner when the US needs or wants support,” Braw said. “But the UK is actually the poor cousin in this relationship, and there really aren’t enough resources to do everything that the UK expects of itself and everything that the US expects of it.”

In a possible signal change, Germany is expected to overtake Britain in defense spending in 2024, according to NATO.

“This is a painful reality for Britain and that is exactly what John Healey faces,” said Braw. “He would have to set priorities and essentially live within budget.”

Healey expressed hope for reform of Britain’s defence institutions and close cooperation with industry to increase defence production.

In a speech on Wednesday, Healey said the new government would review the previous government’s policy on licensing arms sales to Israel. As elsewhere, the issue of British arms sales to Israel has become a controversial issue in the wake of the Gaza war.

By Everly