Once again the naysayers are out in force. Even before President Zelensky had begun his inspirational address to Parliament, we were told that giving Ukraine fighter jets would bring Nato closer to war with Russia, would invite further escalation, and would likely trigger retaliation with the first use of nuclear weapons since Hiroshima.
We have heard all this before – before Britain led the way in supplying tanks, before the allies supplied better air missile defence, before we provided the anti-tank weapons and heavy artillery that Ukraine needed from day one. (And I heard it back in 2014 when we refused those same weapons that could have stopped Putin much earlier, and began army training instead.)
First, Nato isn’t at war with Russia: it remains a defensive alliance ready to protect its members from attack. But under the UN charter any country, Nato member or not, is entitled to ask its friends for help. Second, Russia has already escalated. It is shelling civilian infrastructure – apartment blocks, hospitals, nurseries – in breach of all the rules of war. Further atrocities are being committed by its troops on the ground. Third, we have heard Putin’s nuclear bluster before: each time it’s turned out to be just that – bluster.
Putin will in any case be very aware that any tactical use of a nuclear weapon would be strongly opposed by China, India and others. Holding nuclear weapons as a defence against an existential threat to your own country is quite different to deploying them to conquer another. Britain, the US and Russia were guarantors to the treaty by which Ukraine gave up its own nuclear weapons: for Russia to use them now would destroy the Non-Proliferation Treaty to which it is party. The implications for countries such as China, India and Iran are enormous: all are Russia’s trading partners, each faces its own risk of regional conflict.
Nor is it obvious that Russia’s military is anywhere near its last resort. It can still throw thousands of fresh troops into the campaign; its factories can race the West in producing shells; it can buy in more drones from abroad. Putin can fight a long campaign this year and next, and wait for Western resolve to weaken.
The nuclear threat cannot be completely ignored. Nato will want to ensure, privately if not publicly, that Putin fully understands the consequences. And there’s always some risk with such an irrational leader: we should not rule out some minor detonation (or deliberate “accident”). But it’s equally important not to be panicked into linking any decision to supply fighter aircraft or train their pilots with the eventual resolution of this terrible conflict. While Ukrainian sovereignty remains at stake, it would be simply immoral to make our provision of weapons conditional upon any particular outcome.
From the start, Zelensky has simply asked for the weapons he needs to protect his country from the invader. Slowly, and against much expectation, the West has indeed responded. Yes, that response has varied, understandably, across a democratic alliance: the more lethal weapons have often been supplied fitfully, sometimes even fearfully. But why should our fear be greater than that of the Ukrainian people?
At Westminster Hall, Zelensky thanked Britain for its “bravery” in being the first to supply Ukraine with weapons. He noted that in the past both Britain and Ukraine had defeated “the fear of war” ahead of the time to enjoy peace. Again, if Ukraine doesn’t fear Russia or its weapons, why should we?
Sir Michael Fallon is a former defence secretary