Britain shows it can be a force for good by backing Ukraine

Published by The i paper (9th February, 2023)

I am sitting on a train heading back into Ukraine. My compartment has two women alongside me returning home from Warsaw – and both are thrilled to see their leader Volodymyr Zelensky visiting Britain. “It’s so emotional for us to see all those people in parliament clapping our president,” says Oksana, a human resources executive. “This means so much to us after one year of war, to know that there is still such support in your country.”

She tells me that she discusses events in this conflict with a circle of pals – and their consensus is that Ukraine has two “real friends” in Poland and the United Kingdom.

“We are so grateful to them both – the end of this war depends on our friends.” This is something I have heard so much reporting from Ukraine over the past year from both officials and ordinary people in the street: a deep and profound sense of gratitude to Britain for standing by a nation under existential attack.

I have heard heartfelt thanks to our politicians, who warned of impending attack and paved the way for the rest of the West to support their nation – and to the British people who backed this stance, largely without question and even as their energy costs soared.

In the first few weeks, as Russian troops menaced cities such as Kyiv and Kharkiv and massacred people in Mariupol, every official I met would start our conversation by expressing thanks “to your prime minister, your taxpayers and your people.” While some European leaders appeased Vladimir Putin with phone calls, pathetic peace plans and talk of security guarantees for Moscow, Boris Johnson’s government rushed to support Kyiv without equivocation.

Even as his stock plummeted at home, he became a pin-up in Ukraine – something I found difficult given my antipathy to him at first, but I came to see that whatever his reason for making this a personal crusade, it benefitted those people suffering from Putin’s atrocities and war crimes.

This admiration for Britain felt strange at first too. I began covering Putin’s assault on Ukraine in early 2014 with the shooting of 104 pro-democracy protesters in Maidan and his subsequent theft of Crimea.

Many Britons failed to see the reality of these unfolding events, naive folk on both right and left falling for Kremlin propaganda. Meanwhile in Ukraine there was often dismay that Britain and the US would not be coming to their rescue when both nations had signed the 1994 Budapest deal offering Kyiv security assurances in return for giving up their nuclear weapons.

Yet now we can take pride that across the political spectrum, with the exception of a few idiotic extremists on the hard left and right, our support for Ukraine has not wavered through three prime ministers and with resolute support from the opposition. There is much more we need to do, not least in supplying “wings for freedom” fighter jets to Kyiv as Zelensky requested and recognising the need to drastically beef up our own armed forces in this dangerous world.

Having reported on wars and protests in the Middle East, I am well aware that the West is not always a force for good nor that it always demonstrates morality. I also know that journalists such as myself are not always popular in such places. But when it comes to Ukraine, we can celebrate Zelensky’s visit to our country with as much pleasure as my fellow travellers on this train. For once, Britain has proved to be a powerful force for good in the fight against dictatorship and repression.

This is a welcome reminder that sometimes our much-maligned politicians get things right, that our public services in the form of security and intelligence can work well, and that our own people are more united than we might have thought in our troubled democracy.

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