Larisa Brown, Defence Editor

October 21, 2021

The Times


Britain is in discussions with Ukraine to sell it weapons for the first time amid concerns that Russia could exploit the gas crisis to seize territory.

Under the plans, Britain would provide surface-to-surface missiles for Ukrainian patrol boats and missiles for aircraft as the nations increase co-operation after Brexit. The Ministry of Defence is discussing the sale of surface-to-surface maritime Brimstone missiles designed by MBDA UK that can hit “swarms” of targets simultaneously and would be deployed on vessels that the Ukrainian navy has in service.

The proposals come amid anxiety in the Ukrainian defence ministry that Russia could try to exploit the gas crisis to seize more of its territory. A Ukrainian diplomat told The Times that any escalation in fighting between Russia and Ukraine would have “unpredictable consequences” for European security, as details emerged of plans for a new arms deal between the UK and Ukraine.

Sources said they believed the main reason Russia had not tried to take the rest of Ukraine was because it was reliant on the country acting as a transit for its gas pipelines to Europe and because of resistance from the Ukrainian armed forces.

However, Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline will divert gas flows so Europe will be solely dependent on Moscow for its gas delivery and President Putin will no longer need Ukraine’s co-operation. Plans for the pipeline are under consideration by German regulators before being sent to the European Commission for review.

One Ukrainian diplomat said his country feared that Russia was planning a winter military operation, which would see Moscow escalate tensions in the Donbas region. It believes Russia thinks European nations will be reluctant to respond.

The diplomat pointed to the Zapad 2021 military exercise, in which 200,000 troops carried out drills for six days, suggesting Russia was preparing for further conflict. The diplomat said: “I think an escalation between Russia and Ukraine is highly possible and it could have unpredictable consequences for European security. They don’t need Crimea, they need all of Ukraine, because the heart of the history, religion and culture is in Kyiv, not in Moscow. Putin’s main ambition is the restoration of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was nothing without Ukraine. As long as Ukraine remains resistant, such countries as Georgia, Moldova and Kazakhstan feel themselves more or less safe because Russia is still busy with Ukraine.”

It is understood Russian diplomats have hinted privately to foreign colleagues that they believe “we can do what we want” after President Biden effectively approved the pipeline project and also turned his back on Afghanistan by withdrawing all US troops.

As the concerns grow, Britain is in discussion with Ukraine about selling the country lethal weapons for the first time, including surface-to-surface maritime Brimstone missiles for Ukraine’s navy patrol boats and also missiles for its aircraft.

Although the UK has sent soldiers to Ukraine for training missions, a Ukrainian source said the missile sale would be the first time that the UK had sold the country arms. The UK has supplied Ukraine with equipment such as first aid kits, night-vision goggles, helmets and GPS units in the past. Ukraine has previously bought ships from America and drones from Turkey.

The Ukrainian navy is also set to receive two of the UK’s Sandown-class minehunters and eight Babcock-developed missile boats after a memorandum of implementation signed in Odessa this year.

The two countries are also discussing air-to-surface Brimstone missiles, thought to cost more than £100,000 each, for Ukrainian aircraft. The RAF used Brimstones against Islamic State because they can hit small, fast-moving targets.

Surface-to-surface missiles could hit targets either on land or at sea.

MBDA, Europe’s biggest missile maker, is headquartered in France but has substantial design and manufacturing capabilities in Britain. It is jointly owned by French, British and Italian defence companies and has a British subsidiary, MBDA UK.

Fighting has continued in Ukrainian border regions, with Russian-backed forces using armed drones to attack Ukrainian troops.

Shots are still being fired from the trenches in the east of Ukraine in scenes reminiscent of World War I battles. Troops in the Donbas have been fighting Russian-backed forces since 2014 and Kyiv estimates more than 14,000 people have been killed.

European nations have publicly backed Ukraine, but they have not risked exacerbating the war by selling it arms. Previously, the UK had provided only training and non-lethal equipment.

Now the move to sell Ukraine missiles for the first time will be a warning to Russia that Britain is prepared to help defend its ally.

It comes after the warship HMS Defender was sent to waters off Crimea in June in a direct challenge to the Kremlin, which sees the annexation as returning the peninsula to its rightful owner.

While military chiefs privately stress that the “tilt” towards the Indo-Pacific region outlined in the integrated review does not mean attention will be diverted from Eastern Europe, analysts have warned that Britain’s ever-shrinking armed forces should not be stretched too thin. There are concerns that, as countries turn to face China, Russia could exploit the distraction.

Ukraine fears that its European allies, such as Germany, are too reliant on Russia for gas supplies, especially after the Biden administration waived sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.