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25 February 2022updated 01 Mar 2022 1:59pm

Tobias Ellwood: The UK should support a no-fly zone over Ukraine

The chair of the defence select committee warns that the “scale of atrocity will get so bad that eventually we will have to step forward.”

By Harry Lambert

Tobias Ellwood – the Tory MP, former infantry captain, and chair of the House of Commons defence select committee – is clear on what must be done now in Ukraine. “I’m getting messages from the front line, from MPs and the senior military that I met recently when I was in Ukraine,” he tells the New Statesman, “and they’re calling for satellite phones, for drones, for helicopters, for bulletproof vests.”

Ukraine’s armed forces are offering strong resistance to Russian offensives across the country, while men aged between 18 and 60 have been banned from leaving the country, with many of them – from former president Petro Poroshenko; to former world heavyweight champion, and current mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko; along with innumerable unknown soldiers, including women – now readying to defend Ukraine. But reports suggest the country lacks the armour, air support, rifles, and ammunition to hold off Russian attacks for long.

On Friday, a Western official described Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a war of choice that has become “a war of necessity”. Officials fear that Putin will deploy “indiscriminate” force to defeat the Ukrainians, having been stymied in his bid to seize the country rapidly.

Ellwood is equally concerned. He fears the “scale of atrocity will get so bad that eventually we will have to step forward.” Given that further military support and economic sanctions will be necessary, he thinks Britain should and must act now. “If we see massacres taking place over Ukraine,” he adds, “there’s actually a UN convention duty of care to step in. The minimum we could do is offer a no-fly zone.”

A no-fly zone over the skies of Ukraine has been proposed this week by both Ellwood and David Davis, a fellow Tory MP. The British government has rejected it on the basis that British fighter planes would be put into conflict with Russian jets, but Ellwood thinks this should not deter the UK.

“Of course it will put us in direct confrontation with Russia. But if you don’t do that, we’re just pushing the battles, which will be bigger, further down the road.” Ellwood fears Putin will target the Balkans next. “He’s on a mission in a major way, and we can dismiss him as being crazy but he’s following a plan and everything we’re doing right now is not altering that. Everything we’re doing is just reacting and following.” 

Although Ellwood notes that Britain has “superior aircraft” to Russia, he is under no illusion that the UK could implement a no-fly zone in Ukraine alone. To do so, Britain would need to work with a “coalition of the willing”. Being able to “swiftly form” such coalitions was supposed to be a major upshot of Brexit, as Johnson’s team stressed last year during the release of the Integrated Review into Britain’s foreign and defence policy. But Ellwood thinks “we’re not even having those conversations” at present.

There is currently “no appetite” for a no-fly zone, he says, because Western nations are still “playing catch-up with the seriousness of the situation. The penny is only just dropping”. And while there is “nothing Britain could do independently”, he says, “there is one thing we could do, and that is lead, because that’s what other nations are looking to Britain to do. This is a European problem. America isn’t there to help. We need to step forward.” 

Ellwood, who recently called for a no-confidence vote in Johnson, describes No 10’s current approach to both diplomacy and sanctions as “very haphazard”. But he is notably complimentary of Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, who he says “gets the situation 100 per cent”, but is “tied by the limitations of what No 10 is willing to do”.

Many fear that a no-fly zone over Ukraine would drag Britain into a direct war with Russia. Ellwood disagrees. In such a situation, he says, we would “not be at war with Russia, but defending Ukraine”. “You can describe it in whatever words you like,” he says, “and those words can either haunt you and put you off and make you panic and scare you to distraction – or we can pluck up the courage and say we need to stand firm, because where does this go? Where does Putin’s agenda take him next? We’ve been down this road before. We saw it in the Sudetenland, we saw it in 1938.”

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Ellwood thinks the West has been paralysed by fears of escalation, and the spectre of nuclear conflict. “It takes calm and measured heads that are able to strategically advise the government on options that prevent this from rattling out of control. What we don’t do is make this gargantuan assumption that it [instituting a no-fly] is going to lead to nuclear war.”

Ellwood regrets the West’s “failure to date in recognising the direction of travel”. The invasion of Ukraine stunned many, despite US intelligence having made Russia’s invasion plans public three months ago. But Ellwood believes the invasion could have been wholly averted by “moving a Nato division back in six months ago”, something he called for. There is “no chance”, Ellwood thinks, “that Putin would have risked taking on a more superior military capability than his own, even with nuclear weapons. But we’ve lost our appetite, we’ve lost our confidence to stand up – to stand tall.”

History may look back in amazement at why the West let a country as large, well-led and resolute as Ukraine fight Russia alone. There are as many men in Ukraine as Poland and the Baltic states combined. Sanctions applied by Western countries have been slow and piecemeal, and are in any case irrelevant to the immediate task of staving off Russian invasion. 

Putin’s position hinges on winning in Ukraine. If he fails, his regime may falter or fall. The West may never get a better chance to assist in his defeat. Yet Germany appears to have offered Ukraine little more than token supplies, and the UK, as Ellwood argues, appears to be doing far less than it might.

The prospects for Ukraine remain forbidding, however remarkable its resistance up to now. Russia is only estimated to have deployed between a third and a half of its assembled battalion groups so far, and Putin could likely call on other forces from across the country if necessary. Ukraine is in an armoured battle for every inch of its land, three months after Boris Johnson told an MP that “the old concepts of fighting big tank battles on the European land mass are over.”

The MP Johnson was addressing then was Tobias Ellwood. It was his concerns that Johnson brushed aside in a select committee session in November, when Ellwood noted the tanks lining Ukraine’s border, and pressed Johnson on cuts to Britain’s armoured and aerial capabilities. Johnson told him that new rounds of military funding were instead best spent on new technologies and scientific advances. “I don’t think going back to a 1940s-style approach will work,” said Johnson, as Ellwood protested that “you can’t hold ground with cyber, you can’t hold ground with AI.”

The “folly”, Ellwood tells me today, is that Johnson’s government assumed “that warfare has changed”. In reality, the facts of war are little changed, but the West came to see traditional war as unthinkable. Now, after 30-year peace on the European continent, says Ellwood, “we’re going back to type, with tyrants using brutal force to pursue their own agendas. The carnage we’re seeing in Ukraine now is absolutely horrific, but it’s a reminder that that’s what war is: it’s violent, it’s grim, it’s all these things which we’d forgotten.”

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