A week that began with the purest of horrors in the towns north of Kyiv has ended on a more optimistic note, with Boris Johnson’s surprise appearance in Kyiv for a show of solidarity with Volodymyr Zelensky.
Earlier this week I wrote that Ukraine needs fewer hashtags and illuminated buildings and more military aid. On reflection, that was probably a bit churlish: arms and armour are essential, but symbols do matter, and the visits this week from both Johnson and the EU’s Ursula von der Leyen powerfully conveyed the West’s unity of purpose in supporting Ukraine.
The fact Johnson and Zelensky could stroll through the centre of Ukraine’s unbowed capital – flanked by some extremely robust-looking gentlemen – was also a potent reminder of Russia’s profound military failure. Vladimir Putin might have dreamed of his troops seizing Kyiv’s ‘Independence Square’, but it turned out to be Johnson walking the walk. On a practical note, there was a welcome announcement that the UK is sending 120 armoured vehicles, anti-ship missiles and more financial aid to Ukraine.
All this contrasts rather sharply with the repeated assertions from some quarters that Brexit Britain was hopelessly cast out from the international effort on Ukraine. We were ‘doomed to irrelevance’, one Guardian columnist wrote shortly before the war, while praising Emmanuel Macron’s doomed efforts to talk Putin round. Even this week, after all the aid Britain has sent to Ukraine, another seasoned pundit claimed the UK was ‘failing to play the important role in this alliance for which its size and resources equip it’.
Sometimes you just have to laugh at this kind of reflexive attack on anything the PM does or doesn’t do. Like when Alastair Campbell chastised Johnson for not following von der Leyen’s example and visiting Kyiv, only to swiftly delete his tweet when it became apparent that the PM was, in fact, already in the Ukrainian capital.
What a contrast to Zelensky himself, who said yesterday: ‘I’m grateful to the UK, which continues and intensifies sanctions and also provides significant support to Ukraine by reinforcing our defence capacities. The other democratic Western countries should follow the UK’s example.’
Gratifying though that sentiment might be, this is no time to indulge in self-congratulation, particularly given the Government’s well-documented domestic travails.
The response to the refugee crisis in particular has been plagued by the kind of pettifogging bureaucracy that characterises so much of British life, but particularly when it comes to immigration.
Not only has the UK taken only a fraction of the numbers that other European countries have, but we’ve only issued visas to a fraction of those who have applied to the Homes for Ukraine scheme. By Tuesday we had let in just 12,000 refugees, in Germany the figure is over 320,000.
Such are the delays that Home Secretary Priti Patel this week apologised for a response that has left thousands languishing on the continent, even when they have a sponsor ready and willing to offer them refuge here.
As Zelensky made clear, the UK has not been found wanting in supporting the Ukrainian government. But when it comes to offering sanctuary to ordinary Ukrainians, we should be doing so much better.
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