UK to boost training for Ukrainian soldiers and Navy may help protect grain vessels
Britain will ramp up its training programme for Ukrainian soldiers under plans being discussed with military chiefs, the new Defence Secretary has disclosed.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Grant Shapps said that he had held talks with Army leaders about moving “more training and production” of military equipment into Ukraine. He also called on more British defence firms to set up factories in Ukraine.
Following a trip to Kyiv last week, Mr Shapps also reveals that he has talked to Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, about how Britain’s Navy could play a role in defending commercial vessels from Russian attacks in the Black Sea.
Both moves would mark a significant escalation in the UK’s involvement in defending Ukraine against Vladimir Putin’s onslaught. Speaking in his first newspaper interview as Defence Secretary, Mr Shapps also:
- Suggested Britain should reprise Liz Truss’s pledge to increase defence spending to 3 per cent of GDP, as he said he viewed the Government’s current target of 2.5 per cent as a “staging post”;
- Revealed that Britain was finding ways to help Ukraine “shape up” for Nato membership;
- Ruled out diversity “quotas” in the military;
- Insisted that migrants who settle in the UK should learn English and “be a productive part of society”, as he weighed in behind Suella Braverman in a row over the Home Secretary’s comments on multiculturalism;
- Said it would be “pretty much irresponsible” not to reconsider plans for the HS2 rail line in light of the costs of Covid and the war in Ukraine.
As part of the British-led Operation Interflex, more than 20,000 recruits from the Armed Forces of Ukraine have already received training in the UK since the start of 2022, learning battle skills on bases such as Salisbury Plain, which Mr Shapps visited on Friday.
Nato members including the UK have avoided carrying out formal training programmes in Ukraine, owing to the risk of personnel being drawn into combat with Russia. Last year, Russia apparently struck a base holding foreign fighters with about 30 missiles.
However, following a briefing with General Sir Patrick Sanders, the Chief of the General Staff, and other senior personnel at Salisbury Plain, Mr Shapps said: “I was talking today about eventually getting the training brought closer and actually into Ukraine as well.”
He added: “Particularly in the west of the country, I think the opportunity now is to bring more things ‘in country’, and not just training but also we’re seeing BAE [the UK defence firm], for example, move into manufacturing in country, for example.
“I’m keen to see other British companies do their bit as well by doing the same thing. So I think there will be a move to get more training and production in the country.”
Separately, having assured Mr Zelensky on Wednesday that the UK “will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine”, Mr Shapps suggested that Britain was preparing to play a more active role helping the country to defend itself against attacks in the Black Sea, where Russia has been increasingly targeting cargo ships carrying grain.
Mr Shapps, who replaced Ben Wallace as Defence Secretary in a mini-reshuffle carried out a month ago, said: “We’ve seen in the last month or so, developments, really the first since 2014 in the Black Sea, in Crimea, and Britain is a naval nation so we can help and we can advise, particularly since the water is international water.
“It’s important that we don’t allow a situation to establish by default that somehow international shipping isn’t allowed in that water. So I think there’s a lot of places where Britain can help advise. [I] did discuss it with President Zelensky and many others this week.”
Offering naval support in the Black Sea would escalate the UK’s involvement in the conflict.
The Defence Secretary’s remarks appear to mark a shift in the Government’s approach to publicly discussing stepping up military involvement in Ukraine – a move that was mirrored by France yesterday when the French military revealed that its aircraft were carrying out surveillance over the Black Sea.
It has previously been claimed that up to 50 British personnel were among Western special forces present in Ukraine earlier this year – a matter that the Government would never discuss publicly.
During a short-lived leadership campaign last summer Mr Shapps said the UK must raise defence spending to 3 per cent of GDP from its current level of just above 2 per cent. The higher target was adopted by Ms Truss but then scrapped when Jeremy Hunt became Chancellor in October 2022, in favour of a 2.5 per cent ambition.
Asked if he still wanted to reach a target of 3 per cent, Mr Shapps said: “I think it’s important that we understand that freedom isn’t free. You have to pay for it and it also keeps us prosperous.”