The UK is not an “Amazon” delivery service for weapons to Ukraine and Kyiv might be wise to let its supporters “see gratitude”, Britain’s defence secretary has said.
In a blunt intervention, Ben Wallace said his “counsel” to the Ukrainians was to keep in mind that they need to persuade some doubting politicians in Washington and other capitals that the tens of billions of pounds they are spending on military aid to their country for its war with Russia is worthwhile.
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‘Risk’ as NATO gives Ukraine ‘permanent seat’
He was responding to a question from Sky News about whether the failure of allies to give President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a timeframe for NATO membership at a major summit this week would undermine the morale of his troops on the frontline.
Mr Zelenskyy later told Sky News that he was confused by what the defence secretary said, adding that “we were always grateful”.
“I didn’t know what he meant and how else I should express my words of gratitude,” the Ukrainian president said.
He jokingly added: “We could get up in the morning and express our words of gratitude personally to the minister. We are grateful to the UK.”
Mr Wallace earlier told Sky News that he did not believe Ukrainian troops’ morale would be affected by NATO splits, before describing how Ukraine is always asking for more even after receiving the latest batch of arms.
“There is a slight word of caution here, which is that whether we like it or not people want to see gratitude,” Mr Wallace said in a briefing to journalists on the sidelines of the two-day NATO summit in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius.
“My counsel to the Ukrainians is sometimes you’re persuading countries to give up their own stocks [of weapons] and yes the war is a noble war and yes we see it as you doing a war for – not just yourself – but our freedoms.
“But sometimes you’ve got to persuade lawmakers on the Hill in America, you’ve got to persuade doubting politicians in other countries that you know that it’s worth it and it’s worthwhile and that they’re getting something for it.
“And whether you like that or not, that is just the reality of it.”
Mr Wallace said you sometimes hear “grumbles” from American politicians – not the administration – about support to Ukraine that “we’ve given $83bn worth or whatever [and] you know, we’re not Amazon.”
The defence secretary said he too had told the Ukrainians in June last year that the UK was not the online delivery service when it came to supplying arms.
“I said to the Ukrainians last year, when I drove 11 hours to [Kyiv to] be given a list – I said, I am not Amazon.”
The PM can consider this summit a success – despite ‘Amazon’ comments
For a leader who has worked tirelessly to repair the damage from some of the provocative and loose language of his two predecessors, Rishi Sunak was understandably terse when asked about his defence secretary’s comments on the sidelines of the summit.
As the prime minister met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and signed off a G7 declaration on security arrangements for Kyiv, Ben Wallace decided to tell journalists the UK was “not Amazon” when it came to supplying weapons and suggested Ukraine should show more gratitude.
The remarks threatened to overshadow what has been a successful summit for the prime minister.
Mr Sunak gave the comments short shrift at his closing news conference, telling reporters Mr Zelenskyy had shown gratitude, both to him privately and to the British people publicly – not least when he addressed the UK parliament earlier this year.
He went on to talk about “very significant movements, moments along Ukraine’s journey to membership” at the NATO summit, as he stressed what he saw as meaningful progress on its path to join.
This included, he said, the removal of the requirement for a Membership Action Plan, to simplify the conditions Ukraine needs to meet once the war is over, as well as the long-term multilateral security guarantees that the G7 had signed up for and that he expects other nations to follow.
What he wouldn’t comment on was the speed of that accession once the conflict was over.
While Finland – and soon Sweden – have gained entry in just over a year, the prime minister was not willing to give a timeframe for Ukraine. That will be determined, of course, by the pace of the US, rather than European allies.
But, for a PM who is struggling so desperately back home, he can consider this NATO summit a success.
It may seem a distant memory once those by-election results come in at the end of next week, but he can at least chalk this up as a foreign policy win – even if it doesn’t win him votes back home.
He also said he warned them that they needed to provide better training for their troops to stop them from suffering such a high weekly rate of casualties as that would risk them losing political support.
He instead offered to provide a training programme in the UK.
But Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pushed back against the defence secretary’s comments, saying Mr Zelenskyy had “expressed his gratitude for what we’ve done on a number of occasions”.
“Not least in his incredibly moving address that he made to parliament earlier this year,” the prime minister added.
“He’s done so again as he’s done countless times when I’ve met him so I know he and his people are incredibly grateful for the support the UK has shown, the welcome that we have provided to many Ukrainian families but also the leadership that we’ve shown throughout this conflict – often being the first to move support forward whether it was the provision of tanks or long-range weapons,” he said.
“People across Ukraine are also fighting for their lives and freedom every single day and they’re paying a terrible price for it so I completely understand Volodymyr’s desire to do everything he can protect his people and to stop this war.
“We will continue to give him the support he needs.”