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London View: With Boris's Bluster on Russia-Ukraine War, UK Punching above Its Weight, into The Air

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (right) and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson pose for a picture with a woman, after she presented the gifts they hold, in Kyiv on April 9, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (right) and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson pose for a picture with a woman, after she presented the gifts they hold, in Kyiv on April 9, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

The fact is there is little Britain has militarily that it can support Sweden and Finland with in the event of any Russian attack

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s visit to Sweden and Finland to offer support against Russia comes in a historic line of Britain punching above its weight internationally. When it works, it’s impressive; when it doesn’t, it’s embarrassing. Johnson’s visit appears to fall sadly into the second category.

Johnson offered the Finns and the Swedes military support in the event of a Russian invasion. The fact is there is little Britain has militarily that it can support those Nordic nations with in the event of any Russian attack.

British rhetoric over Ukraine earlier was followed by what Britain called a military move; it sent all of 350 soldiers to Poland. To Finland, which has a 1,340 km border with Russia, it would need to send 350,000 troops. It simply does not have any to send that may be even a tiny fraction of the requirement.

The Royal Air Force has no British aircraft that could match the Russian ones. Britain’s strength militarily is its membership of NATO, and its reliance along with others on advanced US aircraft and defence systems. The Eurofighter produced jointly by a group of European countries is already a generation behind time.

Britain has no doubt supported Ukrainian fighters with anti-tank systems, a part of the NATO arsenal. But the most significant Ukrainian success against Russian forces has come through the Javelin and Stinger missiles produced and supplied by the United States. The US has in fact supplied so many of these that some military experts have been pointing out that America is running short of these for its own defence and for that of its strategic units worldwide.

Bid to outdo NATO

Boris Johnson’s brave words of promise in Sweden and Finland mark a move to overtake NATO itself in a show of defence for those countries. To the extent that NATO is a joint defence front, Johnson has in fact broken ranks with the organisation in making a pledge unilaterally without alliance partners on board.

The rest of NATO has not reacted publicly because this offer is seen largely as a move by Boris Johnson to project himself domestically as a tough international statesman in the mould of Winston Churchill – he is a biographer of the former PM. Johnson has been projecting himself for months now as a leader getting on with big things like taking on Russia, not little matters like partygate – over which his party suffered heavily in the local elections held on May 5.

Boris Johnson rushed his move to Finland and Sweden amidst efforts by both the countries to join NATO in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The other Nordic countries, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland, are already NATO members. Both Finland and Sweden have launched moves to join NATO. Typically that process can take a year because parliaments of member countries must each ratify a new member.

This they inevitably will. Finland and Sweden have both been seeking NATO protection in effect even before such ratification can be completed, and NATO leaders have promised to consider a degree of protection before full ratification. Johnson’s visit seeks to pre-empt that move NATO is preparing. Under Article 5 of the NATO treaty, an attack on any one country is considered an attack on all. It is under this clause that leading NATO members joined the US operations in Afghanistan and the war on Iraq earlier.

Tall claims

Away from operational moves from NATO that could give effect to an agreement, and its interim moves ahead of that, Johnson launched a photo-op visit and a war of words. He called his offer of support “historic” in the face of “the empty conceit of a 21st-century tyrant”. By way of specifics, he said his agreement with Sweden will mean sharing more intelligence, and a bid to “bolster our military exercises and further our joint development of technology”. Self-evidently not quite the sort of thing that could fight off a Putin invasion.

Johnson claimed that “Swedish-developed and British built NLAWs (next-generation light anti-tank weapons) have led to the “many carcasses of Russian tanks” in Ukraine. There is little evidence of how effective this has been in the Ukrainian military challenge to the Russian advance.

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first published:May 14, 2022, 08:30 IST