‘Ukraine has made Russia weaker’

Britain’s former Minister of Defence on how the war has diminished Russia but united Europe

‘Ukraine has made Russia weaker’

UK’s Europe Minister Leo Docherty. Photo: Riccardo De Luca / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

During his recent visit to Riga, the UK’s Europe Minister Leo Docherty found time to speak with Novaya Europe’s Editor-in-Chief Kirill Martynov about how the war in Ukraine has influenced defence policy both for the UK and for Europe as a whole, and whether a global war between democracies and autocracies is a threat to take seriously.

KM: How has the war in Ukraine shaped the defence policy of Brussels and London?

LD: In the Brexit era we do not have a close formal relationship with the EU, but the war has accelerated areas of cooperation that are of great mutual benefit. I think the crisis after the start of the war showed that European countries can actually mobilise and work together and deliver an outcome when faced with a very significant crisis. I think the war has shown that when it comes to the collective priority of supporting an ally in its struggle for self-defence and self-determination, European unity is very clear. And that was quite surprising. So the year and a half since the invasion has shown a remarkable degree of European unity. For example, the major European economies like Germany, even some smaller European economies like Latvia, immediately changed their energy supplier. That was a sign of unity and resolve and speed of action.

Of course, that came at great cost to Russia. Russia’s spending on national defence will be almost 11 trillion rubles (€108 billion) in 2024, which will constitute almost 30% of all government spending. That’s an incredible price for ordinary Russians to be paying for all the young men who aren’t coming back home.

We are working in tandem with our European friends to limit the impacts of this war. I think European unity has been accelerated by this war.

KM: Maybe you can provide an example of this shift in the common defence strategy?

LD: Like never before, the EU came up with a very clear sort of collective policy that everyone was signed up to, which was supporting the Ukrainian people. It’s not for me to comment on whether or not Ukraine will become a member of the EU, because that’s not something we are politically involved in. But I think if you measure the response of the EU to the war by its approach to the accession of other countries, it’s very clear that the EU sees the solution to the current security crisis in Europe. They see the solution as an enlarged EU, including Ukraine, including countries in the Western Balkans and even in the Caucasus. Before the war, that seemed quite unlikely. Now the war has made that more likely. That’s very interesting.

KM: The United Kingdom sanctioned Russian gold companies and other companies. Can you please explain the meaning of this decision in the context of the strategy?

LD: We want to ensure that those who are involved in perpetuating this war are not free to do so. The tragedy of this war is the impact that it has had on the Russian economy and on the very many businesses that will suffer as a consequence of this invasion. And the overall economic impact is very significant. That impacts Russian people very directly because it means the cost of living has increased, economic insecurity has increased. The scale of that is yet to be fully measured because we’re seeing the impact ripple through the Russian economy and the global economy.

The invasion has caused a catastrophic food crisis in the world, but especially in Africa. It has caused a catastrophic inflationary spike that has had very, very bad impacts on many people, but also in Russia. Russians are just as exposed to this as many people, whether they be in Africa or in Central Asia or in Europe. The impact in terms of inflation and the impact in terms of global food shortages and problems with supply are very, very significant.

The international sanctions that have been placed on Russian companies involved in the war effort is one element of that. But the broader point is that this was a war of choice that has had a very, very detrimental impact on living standards in Russia. And that probably will only get worse until Russia can be reintegrated into the global economy in a way that is sustainable.

It’s not the rightful place for Russia to be a junior partner to countries like China buying Russian hydrocarbons at a discounted price.

Russia should really be fully integrated into the global economy to fulfil its potential. This war constrains its potential in a way that is very damaging in the long term. 

KM: What do you think about the situation in Armenia, given that it’s one of the UK’s potential allies to the United Kingdom in the region?

LD: Clearly, there was always a very strong relationship between Armenia and Russia until the conflict. And since then, the Armenians started to really question that relationship. The Armenians judge that the war in Ukraine has made Russia weaker and a less reliable ally, which shows the geopolitical cost of President Putin’s war. It has undermined Russia’s international reputation as a dependable ally. And that’s why Armenia is now seeking other partners, particularly the French, in fact. I think Britain will have a constructive relationship with Armenia. We’re also very close to Azerbaijan because we have the biggest foreign direct investment. But I think the judgement the Armenians make is that Russia, because of the war, is not a reliable ally, which is another cost of the war in Ukraine.

KM: Some experts say that we face a new global war between democracies and dictatorships, and that the general situation in and around Europe is very fragile. What do you say to that?

LD: I think you’re right in the sense that this is an eternal concept, this thought did not emerge in 2022. My belief is that ultimately democracies are more robust because they have internal scrutiny, they have transparency, they have things that might seem inconvenient to politicians, like elections. That might seem to make them weaker. Actually, it makes them stronger because it makes them more sustainable. Clearly tyrants are free to act and they act very decisively, and they can make policy very quickly and they can mobilise military power very quickly. That might seem like a great strength. But in the long term, the most robust, sustainable systems are democracies because ultimately they cater to popular will and they have legitimacy because they want to look after people and they allow people to flourish and create wealth and set up businesses and be journalists, for example, in a way that actually makes them stronger. Democracies endure longer. So you’re right, there is an eternal concept. But I think that the last year and a half shows that when democracies need to support other democracies in defending themselves, they will mobilise capital, military support, and political effort to do that. Before that [war in Ukraine], a lot of people would have said that Western democracies in Europe aren’t really willing to put their money where their mouth is. But I think the last 18 months shows that they are.

KM: In previous decades it was said that democracies are based on technological leadership in the global world. Is it still true?

LD: I think it is. If you look at all of Western Europe plus America and all of Asia other than China, the degree of innovation, freedom of capital to find opportunity and to be allied with technology is remarkable. That’s why democracies still show tremendous leadership in terms of technological innovation. And I think that would always be a competitive edge, because people who want to innovate and set up businesses and develop technology, choose freedom to do that.

KM: Do the European Union and the United Kingdom have a common agenda on the crisis and war in Palestine? It seems there’s a terrible gap between different political approaches to this conflict.

LD: I think our common approach is ultimately to ensure the balance between an absolute commitment to Israeli security in the aftermath of the terrible massacre perpetrated on 7 October and the urgent need to cater for Palestinian humanitarian needs, which are profound. And the UK is doing a lot in that area, coupled with our very clear and longstanding position that the only answer is Palestinian statehood and maybe this crisis can be some sort of accelerant towards a fresh discussion of that. Until we get to that point we’ll be treating the symptoms of this crisis, not addressing the root cause. So I think we have that in common with the EU.

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