Jack Clayton argues why the UK Government must act to address domestic concerns caused by the Ukraine war, to maintain public support for continuing to stand up against Putin’s Russia.
When Boris Johnson visited Ukraine to celebrate the country’s independence day, it was a symbolic act of solidarity. Britain and Johnson’s government have provided more than just symbolic support as well, as he announced that an extra £54 million in military aid will be sent to Ukraine on top of the approximate £2.3 billion that has been sent so far. I am not suspicious of Johnson and the Conservative Party’s outrage at Putin’s act of aggression that has brutally caused so much destruction and death in Ukraine.
Even though Johnson had his own political crises, of which one too many ended his premiership, it would be too cynical to say that his support for Ukraine, that will rightly continue now Liz Truss has taken office, was purely to save himself, though it was relevant. However, higher energy prices and the cost of living crisis means that a difficult winter lies ahead. Even worse, the lack of leadership in a governing party mired in dishonesty and self-interest means that maintaining support for the war is going to face its toughest phase yet. Moreover, there is the possibility whereby the public’s concerns about the government’s poor handling of war’s consequences will become increasingly vilified with accusations of siding with Putin.
This is in no way suggesting that Putin should therefore be ‘negotiated’ with to alleviate the war’s effects. It is my hope that Britain alongside the West continues to support Ukraine. However, the government must be transparent about the effects of this war with measures put into place to mitigate its challenges. Not doing this will actually be counterproductive to Ukrainians who are paying the ultimate price. More than this, it is important for Britain’s democratic values that there is proper discourse about the war’s strategy and the sacrifice that it will entail.
Foreign policy and international relations in governmental politics and academia are frequently framed as completely separate from the domestic. In government, it often involves people of expertise in different regions and countries making decisions away from the public. Most political theories look at foreign policymaking like a monolith whereby state leaders represent everyone and only make decisions based on international factors. This is not the case especially in democracies, but also autocracies, as Putin’s actions by no means represent all Russians. The general public of course does not have expertise about geopolitics and nor would it claim to. Nevertheless, it does have an important role because it carries many of the consequences of foreign policymaking, and it should have an even more important role during the most high stake situations in international affairs such as warfare.
Too often the opposite can happen. Trying to have proper discourse during a war can result in polarisation and dichotomous debates framed as being on one side or the other. This happened during the Vietnam War in America during the Cold War and in Britain and America over the Iraq War. The two key differences with Ukraine is that the West is not directly involved militarily, as it mostly provides economic support, and secondly and more importantly, unlike the two previous wars mentioned, it is right to be supporting Ukraine’s legitimate young democracy. Unfortunately, this does not mean that similar challenges of having proper discourse do not exist. Criticism of the government’s approach to the domestic challenges whilst Britain supports Ukraine has been vilified. For instance, the war has had soaring effects on inflation, resulting in numerous strikes. However, the Tory MP Tobias Ellwood accused workers concerned about paying bills of being “Putin’s friend”. This divisive approach will backfire if people cannot pay bills, and not because they are heartless towards Ukrainians, but because they are worried. The government must carry the public to continue supporting Ukraine and not just say that the cause is above accountability.
This is not to say that Putin has the upper-hand by not worrying about public opinion, quite the opposite. One of the myths about foreign policymaking, particularly during warfare, is that autocracies are more effective because they are not as constrained by public opinion. Studies by Margaret Herrmann and Lawrence Freedman consistently disprove this, however. In reality, autocrats often have poor judgement because they are unchallenged, and consequently do not have the best grip of reality. To help Ukraine therefore, the strongest weapon is our democracy, not historical analogies of standing up to Hitler or evoking the spirit of Dunkirk to dismiss concerns as siding with Putin. Sadly, the governing party is covered in scandals with little public trust and no credible plan to tackle today’s challenges. Subsequently, it too often resorts to exploiting the war, thus neglecting geopolitical or domestic strategy.
Jack Clayton is a SOAS PhD student researching the Vietnam Syndrome and the influence of American public opinion towards US military intervention post-Iraq War. He tweets at @claytonj944.