1. Foreign Affairs

1.1 Israel and Gaza

1.1.1 Latest developments

Note: casualty estimates cited in this article may be contested. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs collates locally collected data.[1]

On 7 October 2023, the Palestinian militant group Hamas—a proscribed terrorist organisation under UK law[2] which currently has administrative control of the Gaza strip—launched a surprise assault on Israeli territory.[3] Amid a significant rocket barrage, Hamas fighters were able to cross the border in several places, by land, sea and air (using paragliders).[4] Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), another proscribed terrorist group, also claims to have participated in the assault. In a series of attacks, militants killed members of the Israeli defence forces and civilians, including hundreds attending a local music festival and in several communities near the border. Graphic footage has emerged of the death of young people and young children in particular. The latest estimated death toll from the attacks (excluding militants) is 1,400, with more than 5,431 people injured.[5]

Hamas and PIJ forces also took 220 hostages back into Gaza according to the Israeli authorities.[6] In recent days, four hostages have been released though the majority remain in captivity.[7]

Commentators have described the action as the most ambitious operation Hamas has ever launched from Gaza and the most serious attack Israel has experienced in a generation.[8]

Israel has responded by formally declaring war on Hamas.[9] In a video statement filmed in Hebrew, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he was initiating “an extensive mobilization of IDF [Israeli Defence Force] reserves to fight back on a scale and intensity that the enemy has so far not experienced. The enemy will pay an unprecedented price”.[10]

Israeli forces have since launched a campaign of airstrikes which have resulted in civilian casualties.[11] Israel has also called upon the residents of Gaza City to evacuate ahead of reported plans for a ground invasion by IDF forces.[12] The IDF argues that it has identified two evacuation routes from Gaza City through Gazan territory towards the southern city of Rafah.[13] However, there have been reports of further airstrikes on evacuees who have used these routes,[14] and questions raised about how feasible any evacuation of such a large populated area is.[15] Large numbers of people have attempted to leave Gaza City, however, despite reports that Hamas is blocking some evacuation routes.[16] Hamas rocket attacks have also continued on Israeli territory since the original assault. At the same time, Israel has sealed all crossings into its territory and Egypt has reinforced its border crossing with Gaza, saying it would not allow refugees to enter.[17]

According to the Palestinian Health Authority in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, 6,547 people have been killed in Gaza since Israel began its programme of airstrikes and other military action, with a further 17,439 injured.[18] The United Nations reports that more than 1.4 million people in Gaza have also been forced to leave their homes. Also according to the UN, the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Housing in Gaza estimates that at least 30 percent of all housing units in Gaza have been either destroyed (16,441), rendered uninhabitable (11,340) or moderately/lightly damaged (150,000) since the start of the hostilities.

Israeli forces have also launched a “complete siege” of Gaza.[19] Since 2007, Gaza has been subject to a strict blockade by Israel and Egypt that prevents civilians and goods such as food and medicine from easily moving across the border. However, Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defence minister, announced a significant escalation of Israeli restrictions on 9 October 2023, stating that there would be “no electricity, food or fuel [delivered to Gaza]”. Israel has said it will not end this siege until Hamas releases all the captured hostages.[20] Meanwhile, Hamas has claimed that it will release the hostages it is holding if Israeli airstrikes cease, and other conditions are met.[21]

As a result, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA), an “unprecedented catastrophe” is unfolding for civilians in Gaza.[22] Local sources and aid agencies have reported that clean water and food supplies are becoming scarce and that the lack of electricity and fuel are hampering search and rescue efforts.[23] In recent days these fears have become even more acute as the supply of fuel in particular has run severely short as it remains banned by the Israeli authorities over reported fears that it could be seized by Hamas.[24] The UN has said that, as a result, UNRWA, the largest humanitarian provider in Gaza, “has almost exhausted its fuel reserves and began to significantly reduce its operations”.[25] Israel has questioned claims of fuel shortages.[26]

On 21 October 2023, the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt was opened to allow in trucks carrying water, food and medical supplies following a deal brokered by the United States. On 25 October 2023, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHR) reported that 62 trucks had entered since the border crossing was opened.[27] It said that most of this aid had already reached hospitals, ambulances, and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Yet the OCHR also noted that the daily average of trucks allowed into Gaza prior to the hostilities was around 500.

The civilian death toll includes those killed on 17 October 2023 when explosives hit Al-Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza City.[28] US intelligence agencies have assessed that the blast killed between 100 and 300 people, while Gaza’s health ministry has said 471 people died.[29] As a result of the attack, a planned meeting between US President Joe Biden, who was enroute to the region, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, King Abdullah II of Jordan and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt in the Jordanian capital Amman was postponed. Instead, President Biden travelled directly to Tel Aviv where he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.[30]

In the hours that followed the hospital strike, Hamas and Israeli sources traded allegations of blame. Israel has since released intercepted audio recordings claiming to be from Hamas operatives acknowledging the hospital strike had been caused by a misfire from Palestinian militants.[31] Specifically, the Israeli military blamed PIJ.[32] The United States has appeared to endorse this position.[33] Speaking in Parliament on 18 October 2023, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that the British intelligence services were still working to identify the source of the explosion.[34] In a subsequent statement to the House of Commons on 23 October 2023, the Prime Minister said that it was the view of the UK intelligence agencies that the strike was indeed the result of a failed missile launch from Gaza and he pointed to the dangers of early misreporting:

On the basis of the deep knowledge and analysis of our intelligence and weapons experts, the British government judge that the explosion was likely caused by a missile, or part of one, that was launched from within Gaza towards Israel. The misreporting of that incident had a negative effect in the region, including on a vital US diplomatic effort, and on tensions here at home. We need to learn the lessons and ensure that in future there is no rush to judgment.[35]

On 18 October 2023, the United States vetoed a Brazilian-led United Nations Security Council resolution calling for “humanitarian pauses” in the conflict to deliver aid to Gaza, over concerns that the resolution “did not mention Israel’s right of self-defence”.[36] The UK abstained from the vote. As explored below, however, various US officials have made separate calls for such a pause in recent days.

Since the initial Hamas attacks, rising tensions in the West Bank have led to deadly clashes between Israeli security personnel and settlers and Palestinians.[37] The UN reports that 102 Palestinians, including 31 children, and one Israeli soldier have been killed.[38] There are also reports that a US Navy warship has intercepted missiles and drones launched from Yemen by the Iran-aligned Houthi movement potentially aimed at Israel.[39]

On 26 October 2023, it was reported that Israeli forces launched a “targeted raid” using tanks and bulldozers to enter Gaza, reportedly ahead of further military operations.[40]

1.1.2 What could happen next in Gaza?

Israel has reportedly amassed a force of 360,000 IDF troops to launch a ground assault on Gaza.[41] Various Israeli officials have made statements to the effect that the intent of the operation would be to “dismantle” Hamas and permanently remove its capability to threaten Israeli civilians, as well as rescue the Israeli hostages held by militant forces.[42] Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has gone further, stating that every member of Hamas would be killed.[43]

Analysis by Paul Kirby for BBC News notes that any ground invasion could last for months and would be “fraught with risk”.[44] Kirby writes:

Hamas’s armed wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, will have prepared for an Israeli offensive. Explosive devices will have been set, and ambushes planned. It can use its notorious and extensive network of tunnels to attack Israeli forces.

In 2014, Israeli infantry battalions suffered heavy losses from anti-tank mines, snipers and ambushes, while hundreds of civilians died in fighting in a northern neighbourhood of Gaza City. That is one reason Israel has demanded the evacuation of the northern half of the Gaza Strip to the south of the Wadi Gaza river.

Figure 1. Map of Gaza

Image shows map of Gaza and the surrounding area
BBC News, ‘Gaza Strip in maps: What it’s like for the people who live there’, 20 October 2023. The BBC credits the image as originally sourced from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2023.

In the same article, Kirby highlights analysis from Michael Milstein, head of the Palestinian studies forum of Tel Aviv University, who contends that destroying or weakening Hamas would be highly complicated. Mr Milstein notes that in addition to the 25,000-plus strength of Hamas’s military wing, the militant group has another 80–90,000 more members who are part of its social welfare infrastructure, or Dawa. PIJ also reportedly has a strength of several hundred fighters.[45]

One key Israeli objective of any ground operation in Gaza is likely to be the destruction, or severe degradation, of Hamas’s network of tunnels beneath the enclave. Used to move combatants and materials, and for the storage of munitions, as well as to provide defensive positions and the launchpads for offensive operations, the tunnel network is currently claimed by Hamas to be “311 miles long”.[46] The Times reports that one tunnel discovered by the IDF in 2022 was 230ft underground, as deep below the earth’s surface as the Channel Tunnel is below sea level.

The IDF launched a crackdown on Hamas’s tunnels as part of a widespread military operation in 2014, destroying 32 tunnels, of which 14 directly linked to Israeli territory.[47] Yet, as the Times reports, locating the tunnels proved difficult and destroying them was equally challenging. Dr Jack Watling, a senior research fellow in land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute, highlighted that such challenges remain:

The IDF has been mapping these tunnels for a long time, using intelligence to understand where they are, using special sensors to monitor digging and other activity. But their understanding of exactly what’s where will be limited.[48]

It is also likely that the IDF will seek out assassination targets amongst the higher echelons of Hamas’s command and control infrastructure. Reportedly at the top of this list, according to IDF spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hecht, is Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas in Gaza.[49]

The potential implications for the wider Middle East region, and indeed tensions in various countries across the world, are explored in section 1.1.4 of this briefing. For a more in-depth examination of the history of events in the Middle East and the peace process see the further reading material provided below.

1.1.3 International response to the crisis

Reaction from the UK

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak gave a statement to the House of Commons on the developing crisis in Israel and Gaza on 16 October 2023.[50] In it, he deplored the nature and scale of the Hamas attacks which sparked the crisis and said that the UK called for the immediate release of all hostages, adding “[w]e stand with you. We stand with Israel”. Mr Sunak said that six British citizens were killed and a further 10 are missing, “some of whom are feared to be among the dead”.[51] He added that the British government was helping those British nationals who wanted to leave Israel and that the UK was working with neighbouring countries on land evacuations for UK citizens in Gaza and the West Bank.

Mr Sunak also addressed the British Jewish community directly. He said that the government was providing an additional £3mn for the Community Security Trust to protect schools, synagogues and other Jewish community buildings, and was working with the police to ensure that hate crime and the glorification of terror were met “with the full force of the law”.

The prime minister also said that he recognised that this was “a moment of great anguish for British Muslim communities, who are also appalled by the actions of Hamas but are fearful of the response”. He said that those concerns must be listened to “with the same attentiveness”. He said that Hamas was using innocent Palestinian people as human shields, with the “tragic loss of more than 2,600 Palestinian lives, including many children”. He added “we stand with British Muslim communities too”.

On how best to respond to the crisis, Mr Sunak said:

One reason this attack is so shocking is that it is a fundamental challenge to any idea of co-existence, which is an essential precursor to peace and stability in the region. The question is: how should we respond? I believe that we must support absolutely Israel’s right to defend itself, to go after Hamas and take back the hostages, to deter further incursions, and to strengthen its security for the long term. That must be done in line with international humanitarian law, while recognising that Israel faces a vicious enemy who embed themselves behind civilians.

The prime minister added that the UK would “continue to call on Israel to take every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians”. He said that there were “three specific areas in which the United Kingdom is helping to shape events”. First, he said that the UK was working to prevent escalation and further threats against Israel, including using RAF surveillance aircraft patrols to track threats to regional security and the deployment of a Royal Navy task group to the eastern Mediterranean.

Second, Mr Sunak announced that the UK was increasing the aid it provided to Palestine “by a third”, with an additional £10mn of support.

Third, the prime minister said that the UK would use “all the tools of British diplomacy to sustain the prospects of peace and stability in the region”. He said that ultimately that required security for Israelis and Palestinians and a two-state solution. The prime minister said that he had spoken to many of the key figures involved, including Prime Minister Netanyahu and the King of Jordan, as well as the leaders of Turkey and Egypt. He added that Foreign Secretary James Cleverly had also visited the region.[52]

Speaking in response to the statement, the Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said that “Israel was the victim of terrorism on an unimaginable scale”.[53] He echoed the prime minister’s words by saying that the Labour Party also “stood with Israel”, adding that “[w]hile Hamas ha[d] the capability to carry out attacks on Israeli territory, there can be no safety”.

Mr Starmer said that Israel had “the right to bring her people home, to defend herself and to keep her people safe”, yet he also recognised that there was a growing humanitarian crisis unfolding in the region. As such, he said that Israel’s response must take into account the need for humanitarian protections:

Israel’s defence must be conducted in accordance with international law, civilians must not be targeted and innocent lives must be protected. There must be humanitarian corridors and humanitarian access, including for food, water, electricity and medicines, so that hospitals can keep people alive and so that innocent people do not needlessly die. And there must be proper protection for all those who work selflessly so that aid can be delivered to victims.

On 19 October 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak arrived in Israel for direct talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli President Isaac Herzog.[54] He later met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and the Amir of Qatar in Riyadh.[55] Meanwhile Foreign Secretary James Cleverly planned to visit Egypt, Turkey and Qatar to discuss preventing further escalation.[56]

In an update to the House of Commons following his return, the prime minister said that he had stressed to Israeli leaders that the UK remained with them, but also the need to act within international humanitarian law:

In my meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Herzog, I told them once again that we stand resolutely with Israel in defending itself against terror, and I stressed again the need to act in line with international humanitarian law and take every possible step to avoid harming civilians. It was a message delivered by a close friend and ally. I say it again: we stand with Israel.[57]

Mr Sunak also said that he recognised that the Palestinian people were “suffering terribly” and that the humanitarian crisis was growing. He said that he had addressed these issues directly with regional leaders, and said that there were “three abiding messages from all these conversations”. First, to continue working together to get more humanitarian aid into Gaza. The prime minister noted the opening of the Rafah crossing but said this was not enough and that a “constant stream” of assistance needed to be going in.

Second, Mr Sunak said that this was not a time for “hyperbole and simplistic solutions” but for “quiet and dogged diplomacy that recognises the hard realities on the ground and delivers help now”. As part of that, the prime minister again reiterated the UK’s support for a two-state solution.

Third, the prime minister said that growing attacks by Hizballah on Israel’s northern border, rising tensions on the West Bank, and missiles and drones launched from Yemen show that “some are seeking escalation, so we need to invest more deeply in regional stability and in the two-state solution”.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Minister Lord Ahmed of Wimbledon during a debate in the House of Lords on Israel and Gaza on 24 October 2023.[58]

Response from the United States

The United States’ relationship with Israel and Palestine has long been critical to efforts to find a lasting peace in the Middle East. Since the beginning of the crisis, US officials and policy makers, notably US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, have been involved in intense diplomatic efforts in the region. This includes with both Israeli figures and Palestinian representatives, such as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas,[59] and with other key powers such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia in a reported attempt to prevent an escalation of the crisis.[60]

As noted above, US President Joe Biden arrived in the region on 17 October 2023. In a speech given in Tel Aviv, President Biden said that Hamas “committed atrocities that recall the worst ravages of ISIS, unleashing pure unadulterated evil upon the world” for which there was “no rationalising” and “no excusing”.[61] Like the UK, President Biden emphasised that the United States stood with Israel, saying that it “must again be a safe place for the Jewish people”. President Biden also said the US was “working with partners throughout the region, pursuing every avenue to bring home those who are being held captive by Hamas”.

However, President Biden also warned Israel not to repeat the same mistakes that he suggested the US had made after 9/11:

Justice must be done. But I caution this: [w]hile you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it. After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. And while we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.

[…] There’s always costs. But it requires being deliberate. It requires asking very hard questions. It requires clarity about the objectives and an honest assessment about whether the path you are on will achieve those objectives.

The vast majority of Palestinians are not Hamas. Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people. Hamas uses innocents—innocent families in Gaza as human shields, putting their command centres, their weapons, their communications tunnels in residential areas. The Palestinian people are suffering greatly as well.[62]

As part of the same speech, the president announced $100mn in aid to help civilians in Gaza and the West Bank, and said he had secured a commitment from Israel’s government to allow food, water and medicine into Gaza through Egypt as discussed above.

According to recent reports, President Biden has given “private backing” for a ground invasion of Gaza by Israeli forces, but sources also said he has urged IDF forces to show some restraint in their operations.[63] Other reports have noted remarks from President Biden that a ground assault may not be inevitable, and that other forms of response were being explored.[64]

Some news outlets have suggested that the tone of remarks by US officials has changed in recent days as concerns over the humanitarian situation in Gaza has risen. NBC News reported what it said was a deliberate shift in emphasis from the White House:

The Biden administration is pushing for more aid to get into Gaza and signalling Israel to “pause” its military offensive against Hamas militants, amid concerns that days of heavy bombardment and a siege of the Palestinian enclave are creating a growing humanitarian disaster and raising the risk of a wider conflict.

At a news conference […] President Joe Biden expressed strong solidarity with Israel but said the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza needed to “increase,” that Israel needed to do “everything in its power to protect innocent civilians” and condemned reports of “extremist” Israeli settlers in the West Bank targeting Palestinians.

The president’s comments came a day after Secretary of State Anthony Blinken for the first time said publicly that “humanitarian pauses must be considered” so that food, water, medicine and other essential humanitarian assistance can flow into Gaza.[65]

NBC reported that the Israeli government was “hearing” those calls and that they were “actively being discussed” according to US officials.

Other key regional and international actors

There has been a variety of international reaction to the situation in the region.

The European Council issued a joint statement on 15 October 2023 which said that EU leaders condemned in the “strongest possible terms Hamas and its brutal and indiscriminate terrorist attacks across Israel and deeply deplores the loss of lives”.[66] It added that the council “strongly emphasize[d]” Israel’s right to defend itself “in line with humanitarian and international law in the face of such violent and indiscriminate attacks”. The statement also called on Hamas to “immediately release all hostages without any precondition”. In addition, EU leaders reiterated the importance of the provision of urgent humanitarian aid and said that member states remained committed to “a lasting and sustainable peace based on the two-state solution”. Most recently, at a summit of EU leaders in Brussels, a unanimous statement was agreed calling for “humanitarian corridors and pauses” of the shelling in Gaza to allow food, water and medical supplies to reach Palestinians.[67]

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres has described the region as “on the edge of the abyss”.[68] He called on Hamas to immediately release the hostages it was holding without conditions and on Israel to grant rapid and unimpeded access for humanitarian aid for civilians in Gaza. He has also called for an immediate ceasefire.[69] The UN Secretary General has drawn an angry reaction from Israel over recent days, however, over remarks he made which Israeli officials claimed sought to justify the actions by Hamas.[70] In turn, Mr Guterres has said his remarks had been misinterpreted and misrepresented.

In contrast, Qatar has drawn rare praise from Israeli officials for its role in facilitating the release of hostages held by Hamas and its wider diplomatic moves.[71] Qatar is reportedly one of Hamas’ main backers in the region, yet Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi posted a message to social media stating:

I’m pleased to say that Qatar is becoming an essential party and stakeholder in the facilitation of humanitarian solutions. Qatar’s diplomatic efforts are crucial at this time.[72]

King Abdullah of Jordan also described the situation in Gaza as near the “abyss”.[73] At a press conference in Berlin with the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, King Abdullah said that “the threat that this conflict spreads is real; the costs are too high for everyone”. At the same time, Saudi Arabia has paused talks on the potential normalisation of relations with Israel as a result of the crisis and has reportedly been involved in significant diplomatic outreach in an attempt to prevent an escalation of the crisis, including with Iranian representatives.[74]

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has said that Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip had “exceeded the right to self-defence” and amounted to collective punishment.[75] Writing for the Council on Foreign Relations, Steven Cook notes that Egypt’s presidents and its General Intelligence Service have in the past played important roles in securing cease-fires between Israel and Hamas.[76] However, Mr Cook argues that neither Israel nor Hamas appear interested in de-escalation at this stage of the current war, and that President al-Sisi has a difficult path to tread due to the popularity of the Palestinian cause within Egypt, his government’s reluctance to accept Palestinian refugees, and cooperation between Egypt and Israel on securing the Sinai peninsula.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has described Israel’s siege and bombing of Gaza as a “massacre”.[77] During a phone call with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak he also reportedly said that western countries should avoid taking “provocative steps” that could escalate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.[78]

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has accused Israel of carrying out a “genocide” against Palestinians in Gaza as a result of recent airstrikes and warned Israel that it must pull back from its attacks on the besieged territory.[79] Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has also reportedly warned of the risk of regional escalation if Israel should launch a ground assault.[80]

1.1.4 Potential for a wider regional conflict and a global rise in tensions

As above, many international actors have stressed the need to avoid a regional escalation of the crisis, especially following the comments by actors such as Iran. In particular, there are fears that Hizballah, also known as Hezbollah—the militant group active within Lebanon, which like Hamas is designated as a terrorist organisation under UK law[81]—may seek to use the crisis to promote further violence. Indeed, Hizballah forces have reportedly been exchanging fire with IDF forces across the Lebanese-Israeli frontier in the days since the original Hamas assault.[82] In addition, PIJ forces have also reportedly attacked Israeli territory from Lebanon.[83] Whilst Hamas and Hizballah have not always seen eye to eye, particularly over the Syrian civil war for example, some experts have described the original Hamas assault as “straight out of the Hizballah playbook”.[84]

According to Naveed Ahmed, an independent Gulf-based analyst cited in the Guardian, Hizballah has a force of 20,000 fighters, many highly trained and well-armed.[85] Naveed Ahmed said these could be rapidly expanded by calling up 30,000 part-timers, then augmented further with less well-trained auxiliaries. The same article reports the views of some analysts who believe that Hizballah has too much to lose to risk an all-out conflict with Israel and its allies, given its political and extensive commercial interests. Still, it adds that many observers believe that Hizballah has for some time been looking to provoke a short, limited war. There was widespread agreement amongst those analysts that, regardless, there was a considerable risk of miscalculation with significant consequences in such a tense environment.

Iran has warned of “multiple fronts” if Israeli attacks continue, involving its so-called ‘axis of resistance’ in the region.[86] The Institute for the Study of War notes that this axis includes militant groups such as Hizballah, Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces units, the Afghan Fatemiyoun and Pakistani Zeynabiyoun, as well as ties to the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.[87]

Rising tensions in the West Bank could also lead to a so-called ‘third front’ according to reports.[88] As above, given the recent missile launches by Houthi rebels in Yemen, there are fears that this could also be a step towards further regional escalation.[89]

Out of concern for such escalation, the US and the UK have both moved military assets to the region. As mentioned below, UK military assets have been deployed to the eastern Mediterranean to “support Israel, reinforce regional stability and prevent escalation”.[90] The US has positioned the USS Ford carrier strike group in the Eastern Mediterranean, with the USS Eisenhower on the way, in the words of President Biden, “to deter […] further aggression against Israel and to prevent this conflict from spreading”.[91]

On 26 October 2023, the Pentagon announced that the US military had launched airstrikes on two locations in eastern Syria linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).[92] The US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd J Austin, said these were a response to a “series of ongoing and mostly unsuccessful attacks against US personnel in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-backed militia groups that began on October 17”.

There are also concerns that the current tensions in the region may spike a rise in violence and terrorist attacks across the world. Several incidents have already been reported which appear to be connected to the crisis in Israel and Gaza. For example, Jewish schools in London were temporarily closed recently after a Jewish charity that provides security recorded an increase of 400% in antisemitic incidents since the attacks when compared to the same period last year.[93]

In addition, France was put on high security alert after a teacher was killed in an Islamist attack and bomb alerts forced the evacuation of the Louvre museum. Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said the attack bore a link to events in the Middle East.[94] Also, in Illinois in the United States, a landlord was charged with hate crimes and accused of stabbing a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy to death and wounding his mother, who were his tenants.[95] The sheriff’s office said they were “targeted by the suspect due to them being Muslim and the on-going Middle Eastern conflict involving Hamas and the Israelis”.

There are also fears that online misinformation and disinformation are increasing tensions both in the Middle East and elsewhere as a result of the crisis.[96] In particular, this has involved the circulation of fake news reports and the mixing of old and new footage or footage from other wars and conflicts to create misleading narratives. In its statement on the crisis on 26 October 2023, the European Council “stresses the need to fight dissemination of disinformation and illegal content” and “highlight[ed] the legal responsibility of platforms in this context”.[97]

1.1.5 Read more

1.2 Ukraine and Russia

1.2.1 Latest developments

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has now lasted for over 600 days. The latest stage of the ongoing war in Ukraine has been largely defined by the progress of the Ukrainian counteroffensive against occupying Russian forces, launched in June 2023.[98] Since June 2023, Ukraine has committed significant resources, in terms of both personnel and sophisticated weapon systems provided by allied countries such as the UK, to attacking Russian forces in the south and east of the country.[99]

However, Ukrainian officials acknowledged from the outset that this would be a very different operation to the rapid counterattack in late 2022 which saw Ukrainian forces quickly retake territory around the towns of Kherson and Kupiansk.[100] Since then, while the conflict has continued particularly around the contested city of Bakhmut, Russian forces have had months in which to fortify and barricade their positions, digging anti-tank trenches and laying large numbers of mines.[101]

The success or otherwise of the offensive to date has been the subject of considerable debate. Since June 2023, Ukrainian territorial gains have been relatively minor.[102] In August 2023, unnamed American security officials were quoted in prominent news outlets such as the New York Times criticising the pace of the Ukrainian advance, arguing that resources had been misallocated and tactically misused.[103] They also argued that time was running out for Ukraine to make significant military gains before rainy conditions force a pause in the counteroffensive.[104] This prompted an angry response from Kyiv, particularly from Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba.[105]

In early September 2023, there were reports of significant Ukrainian progress, particularly in the Zaporizhzhia area.[106] Ukrainian Brigadier General Oleksandr Tarnavski claimed that Ukrainian forces had “decisively breached” Russia’s first defensive line near Zaporizhzhia after weeks of painstaking mine clearance.[107] He contended that there was also an expectation of faster gains as Ukrainian forces press a weaker second line. In a sign that such moves were putting pressure on Russian forces, Moscow reportedly moved some of its elite troops to reinforce existing forces.[108] It has been reported that this could be particularly significant given a reported lack of Russian operational and strategic reserves.[109]

Since that time, whilst a decisive breakthrough continues to appear elusive, according to BBC News on 18 September 2023 there were confirmed sightings of Ukrainian troops breaching Russia’s defensive structures along the southern front.[110] The BBC noted these sources showed incursions, not that Ukraine managed to take control of the areas involved. Yet more recent reports in late October 2023 have claimed that Ukrainian forces have not only crossed into Russian occupied territory but held a position, apparently for the first time, on the fiercely defended east bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson region.[111]

Russia has continued to launch offensive operations of its own, however. In late October 2023, fighting has been particularly fierce around the Ukrainian-held town of Avdiivka in the east of the country.[112] Avdiivka is described as a gateway to the city of Donetsk, the capital of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. As noted by the BBC, the town is of considerable strategic and symbolic importance:

Although Russia and its proxy forces have occupied Donetsk city since 2014, they have been unable to use its resources as a key military communications hub because it is too close to the front line. By capturing Avdiivka, the occupying force could push the front line away.

But Avdiivka is important not just because of its strategic role. This town has been right on the front line since Moscow annexed Crimea nine years ago and the conflict in eastern Ukraine began. As a result, the town of Avdiivka has turned into a symbol of Ukrainian resistance and resilience.[113]

Despite reportedly taking heavy losses,[114] Russian forces have continued a sustained offensive on the town and Russia is reportedly moving further reserves to the region.[115]

The result of these developments is that the perceived success or otherwise of the Ukrainian counteroffensive remains fiercely contested. Russia has continued to claim that the counter-offensive has “failed”.[116] Yet Ukrainian officials and Ukraine’s allies have been equally robust in rejecting such assessments. In response to an urgent question on Ukraine in the House of Commons on 24 October 2023, minister for the armed forces James Heappey said that “slow and steady progress is being made by the Ukrainian armed forces, which continue to grind their way through the main Russian defensive position”.[117]

Some analysts have also suggested that Russia’s willingness to expend so many of its soldiers and so much material in the battle for Avdiivka—in the name of what some see as a predominately symbolic victory—may benefit Ukraine in the longer term by potentially creating weak points along the 600-mile front line for Ukrainian commanders to exploit.[118] Yet, others highlight the ongoing need for Ukraine to be able to demonstrate rapid progress at a time of such wider international instability given the developments in the Middle East, political change, and reports of war fatigue amongst the populaces of key supporting nations such as the United States.[119]

The impending ‘muddy season’ in Ukraine before winter fully sets in (and the ground freezes/hardens once more, allowing for the freer movement of equipment) could hamper progress on both sides.[120] At the same time, Ukrainian officials are also reportedly preparing for renewed attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure over the winter.[121]

1.2.2 Support to Ukraine from the UK

The UK has been a prominent supporter of Ukraine since the start of the invasion. The UK is the second-largest donor of military support to Ukraine, after the US[122] (explored in greater detail below as part of the defence section of this briefing). Between 21 and 22 June 2023, the Ukraine Recovery Conference (URC) took place in London, co-hosted by the UK and Ukraine. At the conference, the UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a “major support package” for Ukraine, including $3bn of World Bank loan guarantees to bolster Ukraine’s economic stability as it continues to push back Russian forces and a further £240mn of bilateral assistance.[123] The UK government said this was the first bilateral package of multi-year fiscal assistance to be set out by a G7 country, “underlining the UK’s unwavering commitment to the country, both now and in the future”. Ministers said this brought the UK’s non-military assistance to Ukraine to more than £4.7bn, including £4.1bn of fiscal support and £640mn of bilateral assistance.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly also announced further measures at the London URC which included funding for urgent repairs and early recovery, support for Ukraine’s energy sector, and programmes to bolster wider rebuilding efforts.[124] As part of the conference, the UK also called on the private sector to boost Ukraine’s recovery and to support both urgent recovery needs and long-term reconstruction.

In addition, on 11 October 2023, the new defence secretary, Grant Shapps, announced a further package of support for Ukraine worth £100mn from the International Fund for Ukraine (IFU).[125] Those measures, which were announced in tandem by the defence secretary and his counterparts from IFU nations, will reportedly assist Ukraine in clearing minefields, maintaining its vehicles, and shoring up defensive fortifications to protect critical national infrastructure. The package was also announced at the same time as the final contract from the previously announced IFU package of air defence capability was signed. According to the UK government, this will see “more than £70mn of capabilities provided to Ukraine—including the MSI-DS Terrahawk Paladin, a platform which can track and destroy drones and protect critical national infrastructure”. Further information specifically on the military support provided to Ukraine is contained in section 2.4 below.

The UK is also maintaining its sanctions regime against Russian interests.[126] According to recent data:

  • 1,637 individuals and 239 entities are subject to UK sanctions under the Russia regime.[127]
  • The UK has targeted over 130 oligarchs with a net worth of over £145bn.[128]

In tandem with international trade and financial restrictions, these sanctions mean Russia is now the most sanctioned country in the world.[129]

1.2.3 Russia’s strategic response

Russia has increasingly sought to develop its political and military relationships with various strategic partners across the world, and this has only accelerated in response to Western support for Ukraine and the sanctions regime imposed upon its interests. For example, Russia is reportedly importing munitions from North Korea and drone technology from Iran.[130]

However, arguably the most important of these relationships is Russia’s ties with China. In early February 2022 Russia and China announced a “no limits” partnership and following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine there has been a marked increase in the trade between the two countries.[131] Russia and China signed further economic trade agreements in May 2023, following a visit to Beijing by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin.[132] As part of the visit, Mr Mishustin claimed that trade between the two nations could reach $200bn this year. President Putin has also visited China in October 2023, reportedly to further strengthen Russian Chinese ties.[133]

Russia has also sought to build its influence elsewhere in the world, particularly in Africa. Russia is the chief arms supplier to African nations, accounting for 40 percent of African imports of major weapons systems between 2018 and 2022.[134] Russian private military companies (PMCs) including the Wagner group are also known to be active in many African countries.[135] Indeed, the Wagner group is accused of significant human rights abuses in Mali and seeking to take advantage of instability in Niger following the recent coup in the country.[136] There have also been allegations that the Wagner group was directly or indirectly involved in the Niger coup itself, and protesters taking to the streets have been seen waving Russian flags.[137] The US is also reportedly worried about similar Russian PMC involvement in other countries in the Sahel region.[138]

In other significant recent international moves, in March 2023 Russia agreed a deal with neighbouring Belarus to station tactical nuclear weapons on its territory.[139] In addition, Russia has declared its noncompliance with the New START Treaty, designed to reduce the number of nuclear weapons held by the US and the Russian Federation, and indeed Russia has claimed that the treaty is now suspended.[140] The US has called these actions “irresponsible and unlawful”. On 26 October 2023, Russia announced that it had staged a wide-scale military exercise to rehearse its ability to deliver a “massive nuclear strike by strategic offensive forces in response to an enemy nuclear strike”.[141] It followed news earlier in October that Russia had reportedly successfully tested a nuclear-powered cruise missile.[142]

1.3 China

The UK government has described China as an “epoch-defining and systemic challenge” to the UK.[143] Its approach towards China is based on several factors, including shared economic interests, security concerns and human rights considerations.

In recent decades, relations between the UK and China have encountered several challenges including geopolitical differences such as China’s use of force around Taiwan and its militarisation of disputed islands in the South China Sea.[144] There have also been tensions between the UK and China over the latter’s imposition of the national security law (NSL) in Hong Kong in June 2020 and in relation to human rights more broadly,[145] cybersecurity concerns including risks and potential threats posed by Chinese companies,[146] sanctions imposed on British parliamentarians by China, and allegations that China has been spying on UK interests. In March 2023, two men were arrested in the UK under the Official Secrets Act 1989 for allegedly spying for China.[147] One of the men arrested was a parliamentary researcher. In September 2023, the researcher released a statement through his lawyers stating that he was “completely innocent”.[148]

The UK government’s 2023 refresh of the 2021 integrated review,[149], updated the UK’s China policy in response to two overarching factors which it said had continued to evolve since the 2021 review. The first was China’s “size and significance on almost every global issue”, which the government said it expected to continue to increase in the years ahead “in ways that will be felt in the UK and around the world”. For example, the government said that China’s position as both the largest investor in sustainable energy and the leading emitter of carbon made its choices “critical” in collectively addressing climate change. The second was growing concerns about the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) actions and intentions, including strengthening ties with Russia; disregard for human rights and international commitments; militarisation of disputed islands in the South China Sea; refusal to renounce the use of force in relation to Taiwan; using economic power for coercion such as in Lithuania; and engaging in espionage and interference in the UK.

Despite these factors, the government said that its preference for the UK’s relationship with China was for “better cooperation and understanding, and predictability and stability for global public good”. However, the government noted that achieving this preferred relationship would be “made harder if trends towards greater authoritarianism and assertiveness overseas continue”.

The government said that it would pursue its policy towards China through three interrelated strands:

  • Protect. The UK would strengthen its national security protections in areas where the actions of the CCP posed a threat to the UK’s people, prosperity and security. This included safeguarding the economy, democratic freedoms, critical infrastructure, supply chains, and the UK’s ability to generate strategic advantages in science and technology. The government said that the UK would prioritise cybersecurity and defensive capabilities while also strengthening protections for academic freedom and university research.
  • Align. The UK would deepen cooperation and alignment with key allies and partners to shape the broader strategic environment. Recognising the UK’s “limited” influence when working by itself, the government said the UK aimed to work collectively with its allies and partners to encourage China to contribute transparently and proportionately to financial stability and economic development. The government also pledged to work towards strengthening collective security, balancing and competing when necessary, and to “push back” against behaviours that undermined international law, violated human rights, or sought to coerce or create dependencies. Regarding Taiwan, the government said that it maintained its position that the issue should be resolved peacefully through dialogue.
  • Engage. The UK would engage directly with China through bilateral channels and international forums, seeking to “preserve and create space for open, constructive, predictable, and stable relations that reflect China’s global significance”. The government also stated that it believed in the potential benefits of a positive trade and investment relationship with China while at the same time safeguarding critical supply chains and national security. It committed to working with industry to ensure safe, reciprocal and mutually beneficial engagements.

As part of the UK’s approach to engagement, the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, travelled to Beijing in August 2023. Mr Cleverly said that it was important the UK manage its relationship with China across a range of issues, adding “no significant global problem—from climate change to pandemic prevention, from economic instability to nuclear proliferation—can be solved without China”.[150]

The visit was criticised by Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former leader of the Conservative Party and one of the MPs sanctioned by the CCP. Sir Iain stated that the meeting “smells terribly of appeasement”. In addition, the government has extended an invitation to China to participate in its global AI safety summit in November 2023. Again, however, some concerns have been expressed, including from Japan which reportedly said that it was too early to include China in such discussions before the G7 group of countries reached a consensus on generative AI.[151]

In July 2023, the joint Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC) published its report on China.[152] The committee stated that the UK was of “significant interest” to China when it came to espionage and interference, not least due to its close relationship with the US, membership of international bodies and the “perception of the UK as an opinion-former—which plays into China’s strategy to reshape international systems in its favour”. The committee argued that this would appear to place the UK “just below China’s top priority targets”, as it sought to build support for its core interests, which were to “mute international criticism” and to “gain economically”.

The committee also expressed concerns at China’s “whole-of-state” approach, which means Chinese state-owned and non-state-owned companies, in addition to academic and cultural establishments and ordinary Chinese citizens, were liable to be (either willingly or unwillingly) co-opted into espionage and interference operations overseas. In addition, the committee warned that the UK was “severely handicapped” by the “short-termist approach currently being taken”.

The committee recommended the government “adopt a longer-term planning cycle” for the future security of the UK, which it stated may require opposition support. In terms of funding, it also called on the government to explore a multi-year spending review for the UK’s security agencies, to allow them to develop long-term strategic programmes on China and “respond to the enduring threat”.

In September 2023, the government responded to the committee’s report.[153] The government noted that it recognised the need for further investment in capabilities to address the “systemic challenge” that China posed and that the 2023 integrated review refresh had taken the “first step towards this”. The government also said that it would continue to build expertise to better address the long-term challenge posed by China.

Addressing the committee’s recommendation for there to be a multi-year spending review for the UK’s security agencies, the government said that it was committed to multi-year spending settlements; however, spending reviews “usually result” in multi-year financial settlements. The government stated that the 2021 spending review had given the security agencies “certainty” over the funding available to them until 2024. The government also noted that China-related capabilities would “continue to be a priority area of investment”. It said the government was “planning for the long-term with a clear strategy”, which it stated would take place over several spending periods and parliaments.

Some commentators have welcomed the government’s approach to the long-term challenges posed by China, arguing that it is necessary to protect the UK’s national security and human rights interests, while also recognising the importance of trade relations for mutual economic benefit. For example, in April 2023, the director of Chatham House, Bronwen Maddox, praised a speech made by James Cleverly on the government’s position on China.[154] She stated that it had the “value of making open what has so far been only half-said” which was “that the UK wants to deal with China but intends to also protect itself and to speak up for its principles”. She further said that “given the circumstances”, it was the “best judgment that could have been made”.

Similarly, Scott Singer, a co-founder of the Oxford China Policy Lab, also welcomed the current approach, arguing that UK-China dialogue was still “critical” for future crisis prevention. Speaking to the Guardian in August 2023, Mr Singer said that “certain types of cooperation can enhance human and global security and thus makes Britain safer”.[155]

Stephen Morgan, professor of Chinese economic history at the University of Nottingham, also welcomed the government’s approach to China. In an article for the Conversation in September 2023, Mr Morgan admitted that although there were “very real risks” to UK security from China, “continued engagement” was “needed” to ensure that the UK was able to “tap into the technological advances it has made in green technologies and other sectors vital to an advanced economy”.[156] Concluding, he stated that China “needs to be kept inside the tent”, and, if left outside, it risked becoming more difficult to observe or share economic developments beneficial to western countries.

However, some commentators have said that the UK’s approach to China remained problematic. For instance, following the publication of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report into China, Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London Kerry Brown said that the UK and its institutions remained “ill-prepared” to address China’s evolving approach to international relations:

The worrying fact is not that China is engaged in acts that promote and further its interests; what is far worse is that conceptually the UK is so ill prepared, that in 2023 a report like this stands as the result of the best efforts of a body meant to more effectively define and further its security interests.[157]

Additionally, speaking to Radio 4’s Today programme in September 2023, the former head of MI6, Sir Alex Younger, stated that while the UK needed to “find ways of engaging” China, for example, on climate change, the country should still be designated as a “state of concern” under the National Security Act 2023.[158] This would bring in additional reporting requirements for organisations linked to China. Sir Alex stated that the UK had to be “absolutely prepared to confront it [China] when we believe that our security interests are threatened”. He argued that it is “exactly how they will behave towards us”.

2. Defence

2.1 2023 Refresh of the Integrated review and defence command paper

The defence landscape for the UK has changed markedly in recent years. In 2023 the government refreshed both its 2021 integrated review, ‘Global Britain in a competitive age’ (also known as IR2021) and its 2021 defence command paper, ‘Defence in a competitive age’. These documents set the strategic aims for the UK’s international relations and its defence policy. In March 2023, the government published the integrated review refresh, ‘Responding to a more contested and volatile world’ (IR2023). In July 2023 it published a refreshed defence command paper, ‘Defence’s response to a more contested and volatile world’ (DCP23).

The government noted that IR2023 had identified that “the transition to a multipolar, fragmented and contested world had happened more quickly and definitively than anticipated in IR2021”. In the foreword to IR2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak detailed the factors since 2021 that had led to the government undertaking a refresh:

[…] What could not be fully foreseen in 2021 was the pace of the geopolitical change and the extent of its impact on the UK and our people. We learned from Covid-19 just how much impact events that begin overseas can have on our lives and livelihoods at home. Since then, Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, weaponisation of energy and food supplies and irresponsible nuclear rhetoric, combined with China’s more aggressive stance in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, are threatening to create a world defined by danger, disorder and division—and an international order more favourable to authoritarianism.[159]

The change in the international environment was also reflected in the foreword to DCP23, in which the secretary of state for defence and the minister for the armed forces said they had not planned on producing a new command paper “just two years since the last”, but “we have gone from a competitive age to a contested and volatile world”.

The government has stated that the purpose of defence is to “protect the nation and help it prosper”. In DCP23 the government set out how defence contributes to the four pillars of the IR2023 strategic framework as follows:

  • Shape the international environment. Defence contributes through: global approach to campaigning and competition; alliances and partnerships; bilateral relationships and multilateral and minilateral groupings; engagement with middle ground powers; supporting others to deliver their security; an integrated global network of people and bases.
  • Deter, defend and compete across all domains. Defence contributes through: credible capabilities, nuclear and conventional, cyber and space; our role in NATO; our support to Ukraine; a resilient underpinning of stockpiles, enablers, and intelligence.
  • Address vulnerabilities through resilience. Defence contributes through: defence of the homeland; protection of airspace and critical national infrastructure, including subsurface; support to the civil authorities; economic security; use of our reserves.
  • Generate strategic advantage. Defence contributes through: our people; a strong relationship between Defence and industry; slicker acquisition processes; modernisation through innovation; digital and data, science and technology; our role in supporting economic growth and national prosperity, including defence exports.[160]

2.2 Strength of the UK armed forces

The UK’s regular armed forces consist of the army, the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and strategic command.

In the 2021 defence command paper, the government announced that the army would be reduced to a full-time trained strength of 72,500 by 2025. This replaced a previous target set in the 2015 strategic defence and security review of 82,000:

The army of the future will be leaner, more lethal, nimbler, and more effectively matched to current and future threats. The new structure will reorganise the army into more self-sufficient brigade combat teams (BCT) able to meet demand by drawing on their own dedicated logistics and combat support units. A new Deep Recce Strike BCT will combine the Ajax’s formidable sensors with enhanced fires systems to provide long-range persistent surveillance for the coordination of deep fires. Overall, this restructuring will see a reduction from the current full time trade trained strength of 76,000 to 72,500 by 2025.[161]

In November 2021, the government published ‘Future soldier: Transforming the British army’, which stated that the regular army would reduce in size to 73,000 (this is 500 higher than the figure set in DCP21) and the strength of the army reserve would grow to 30,100. DCP23 stated that the government would maintain the UK’s force levels broadly at the levels announced in DCP21.

In its most recent quarterly service personnel statistics[162], the MoD identified the following key points and trends:

Table 1. Trends in UK defence capability

185,980 Strength of UK Forces Service Personnel
at 1 July 2023
A decrease of 7,910 (4.1 per cent) since 1 July 2022
132,350 Full-Time Trained Strength (Royal Navy/Royal Marines & RAF) and Full-Time Trade Trained Strength (Army)
at 1 July 2023
A decrease of 3,830 (2.8 per cent) since 1 July 2022
10,470 People joined the UK Regular Armed Forces
in the past 12 months (1 July 2022 – 30 June 2023)
A decrease of 2,130 (16.9 per cent) compared with the previous 12 month period
16,460 People left the UK Regular Armed Forces
in the past 12 months (1 July 2022 – 30 June 2023)
An increase of 940 (6.0 per cent) compared with the previous 12 month period
30,000 Strength of the Trained Future Reserves 2020
at 1 July 2023
A decrease of 1,230 (3.9 per cent) since 1 July 2022
3,690 People joined the Future Reserves 2020
in the past 12 months (1 July 2022 – 30 June 2023)
A decrease of 310 (7.8 per cent) compared with the previous 12 month period
5,700 People left the Future Reserves 2020
in the past 12 months (1 July 2022 – 30 June 2023)
A decrease of 320 (5.4 per cent) compared with the previous 12 month period

Source: Ministry of Defence, ‘Quarterly service personnel statistics 1 July 2023’, September 2023

2.3 UK defence expenditure

In 2021/22, the UK spent £45.9bn on defence.[163] This was £3.6bn higher than the previous year in absolute terms, and the House of Commons Library reports that it is £2.5bn higher after accounting for the effects of inflation.

The government allocated an additional £16.5bn to the defence budget over the period 2020/21 to 2024/25 as part of the 2020 spending review 2020.[164] Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and renewed calls for an increase to defence spending, the spring budget 2023 allocated an additional £5bn to defence spending over the next two years (2023/24 and 2024/25), and a further £2bn per year in subsequent years up to 2027/28. This increases defence spending by a total of £11bn over this five-year period.

As a result, the annual defence budget will be £5.8bn higher in cash terms by the end of the current spending review period (£51.7bn in 2024/25 compared with £45.9bn in 2021/22). However, again the House of Commons Library reports that, when adjusted for inflation, the increase in defence spending over this period is expected to be £1.1bn. That analysis adds that most of this additional funding has been allocated to capital budgets and the Ministry of Defence’s day-to-day budget is set to decline in real terms over this period.

As a member of NATO, the UK is committed to spending 2% of GDP on defence each year. It was one of just nine NATO member countries to have met this target in 2022, spending 2.1% of GDP on defence. The comparative spending on defence between 2014 and 2022 by various NATO countries is visualised below. As part of the integrated review refresh 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak set out a longer-term ambition to increase defence spending to 2.5% of GDP. No timeframe was given for achieving this goal.

Figure 2. Defence spending by NATO countries 2014–22

Chart showing the GDP % spent on defence in 2014 and 2022
NATO, ‘Defence expenditures of NATO countries (2014–2022)’, last updated 27 June 2022

2.4 UK military support to Ukraine

The UK is the second-largest donor of military support to Ukraine, after the US.[165] It has provided £4.6bn in military assistance to Ukraine so far—£2.3bn in 2022 and a commitment to match that funding in 2023. Combined with economic and humanitarian assistance, the UK has committed a total of £6.5 billion to Ukraine since February 2022.

The UK has provided Ukraine with a range of lethal weaponry, including anti-tank missiles, artillery guns, air defence systems, armoured fighting vehicles, anti-structure munitions, and M270 long-range multiple launch rocket systems.[166] In 2023, the UK has also provided 14 Challenger II main battle tanks and spare parts, Storm Shadow missiles which have long-range precision strike capability, and long-range attack drones. The UK has also provided over 200,000 items of non-lethal aid, including unmanned aerial systems, body armour, helmets, night vision equipment, mine detection equipment, medical equipment and winter clothing.

In addition, through Operation Interflex the UK is hosting a training programme which is supported by several allies, with the aim of training 30,000 new and existing Ukrainian personnel by the end of 2023. The UK has committed to training Ukrainian fast jet pilots and marines but has said that combat fighter aircraft will not be provided, at least in the short term.

As detailed above, the UK has also recently announced further measures in tandem with other International Fund for Ukraine (IFU) partner nations.[167]

Cover image by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash.


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  6. As above. Return to text
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  74. France 24, ‘Saudi Arabia pauses normalisation talks with Israel amid ongoing war with Hamas’, 14 October 2023. Return to text
  75. Al Jazeera, ‘Egypt’s tricky calculation as Israel’s assault on Gaza continues’, 16 October 2023. Return to text
  76. Stephen A Cook, ‘Will Egypt play a role in easing the Gaza War?’, Council on Foreign Relations’, 16 October 2023. Return to text
  77. Al Jazeera, ‘Turkey’s Erdogan calls Israeli siege and bombing of Gaza a ‘massacre’’, 11 October 2023. Return to text
  78. Politico, ‘Erdoğan warns Sunak: Don’t stoke Israel-Hamas crisis’, 16 October 2023. Return to text
  79. Al Jazeera, ‘Iran’s Khamenei demands Israel stop bombardment of Gaza’, 17 October 2023. Return to text
  80. Al Jazeera, ‘Iran warns Israel of regional escalation if Gaza ground offensive launched’, 15 October 2023. Return to text
  81. Home Office, ‘Proscribed terrorist groups or organisations’, 15 September 2023. Return to text
  82. Al Jazeera, ‘Iran warns of ‘preemptive’ action against Israel amid Gaza war’, 17 October 2023. Return to text
  83. Al Jazeera, ‘Hezbollah fires on Israel after several members killed in shelling’, 9 October 2023. Return to text
  84. Guardian, ‘What is Hezbollah, and how will it influence the Israel-Hamas war?’, 19 October 2023. Return to text
  85. As above. Return to text
  86. New York Times (£), ‘Iran warns of ‘multiple fronts’ if Israel’s Gaza attacks continue’, 16 October 2023. Return to text
  87. Institute for the Study of War, ‘Israel-Hamas war: Iran updates’, 17 October 2023. Return to text
  88. Reuters, ‘West Bank a possible ‘third front’ for Israel’’, 20 October 2023. Return to text
  89. Financial Times (£), ‘US moves to deter Iran ahead of Israel’s invasion of Gaza’, 25 October 2023. Return to text
  90. Prime Minister’s Office, ‘Prime minister deploys UK military to Eastern Mediterranean to support Israel’, 13 October 2023. Return to text
  91. White House, ‘Remarks by President Biden on the October 7th terrorist attacks and the resilience of the state of Israel and its people’, 18 October 2023. Return to text
  92. US Department of Defense, ‘Secretary of Defense Lloyd J Austin III’s Statement on US Military Strikes in Eastern Syria’, 26 October 2023. Return to text
  93. Reuters, ‘UK PM Sunak: There has been a ‘disgusting’ rise in antisemitic incidents’, 13 October 2023. Return to text
  94. Reuters, ‘Suspect in killing of French teacher pledged allegiance to Islamic State-prosecutor’, 17 October 2023. Return to text
  95. Reuters, ‘Slain Palestinian boy mourned in Illinois; stabbing suspect appears in court’, 16 October 2023. Return to text
  96. Reuters, ‘Disinformation surge threatens to fuel Israel-Hamas conflict’, 18 October 2023. Return to text
  97. European Council, ‘European Council conclusions on Middle East, 26 October 2023’, 26 October 2023. Return to text
  98. Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russia in maps—latest updates’, Financial Times (£), 5 October 2023. Return to text
  99. Ruby Mellen and Samuel Granados, ‘Ukraine’s counteroffensive is underway. Here’s what’s at stake’, Washington Post (£), 9 June 2023. Return to text
  100. Holly Ellyatt, ‘Ukraine inflicts ‘major operational defeat’ on Russia as its forces retreat’, CNBC, 12 September 2022. Return to text
  101. Tom Balmforth, ‘Insight: Russia digs in as Ukraine prepares to attack’, Reuters, 27 April 2023. Return to text
  102. Frederick W Kagan, Karolina Hird and Kateryna Stepanenko, ‘How the Ukraine counteroffensive can still succeed’, Time, 3 August 2023. Return to text
  103. Eric Schmitt, Julian E Barnes, Helene Cooper and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, ‘Ukraine’s forces and firepower are misallocated, US officials say’, New York Times (£), 22 August 2023. Return to text
  104. Michael R Gordon, Gordon Lubbold, James Marson and Vivian Salama, ‘US, Ukraine clash over counteroffensive strategy’, Wall Street Journal, 24 August 2023. Return to text
  105. Tom Balmforth, ‘Ukraine tells critics of slow counteroffensive to ‘shut up’’, Reuters, 31 August 2023. Return to text
  106. Guardian, ‘Ukrainian counteroffensive has made ‘notable’ progress in south over past three days, US says’, 2 September 2023. Return to text
  107. Emma Graham-Harrison, ‘‘Everything is ahead of us’: Ukraine breaks Russian stronghold’s first line of defence’, Guardian, 2 September 2023. Return to text
  108. BBC News, ‘Ukraine war: Counter-offensive troops punch through Russia line, generals claim’, 3 September 2023. Return to text
  109. Frederick W Kagan, Karolina Hird and Kateryna Stepanenko, ‘How the Ukraine counteroffensive can still succeed’, Time, 3 August 2023. Return to text
  110. BBC News, ‘War in Ukraine: Is the counter-offensive making progress?’, 18 September 2023. Return to text
  111. BBC News, ‘Ukraine war: Why Kyiv’s Dnipro east bank gain could be significant’, 22 October 2023. Return to text
  112. BBC News, ‘Ukraine war: Avdiivka civilians cling on amid Russian assault’, 24 October 2023. Return to text
  113. BBC News, ‘Ukraine war: Russia attacks Avdiivka stronghold in eastern Ukraine’, 12 October 2023. Return to text
  114. Patrick Reevell, ‘Russia taking heavy losses as it wages new offensive in Ukraine’, ABC News, 23 October 2023 Return to text
  115. Telegraph (£), ‘Russia deploys reinforcements to Avdiivka front line despite heavy losses’, 23 October 2023. Return to text
  116. Al Jazeera, ‘Putin says again Ukraine counteroffensive ‘has failed’ as Kyiv claims gains’, 5 September 2023. Return to text
  117. HC Hansard, 24 October 2023, col 731. Return to text
  118. Olivia Yanchik, ‘Battle of Avdiivka: Putin’s new offensive continues despite heavy Russian losses’, Atlantic Council, 24 October 2023. Return to text
  119. Holly Ellyatt, ‘Russia smells blood as Ukraine tries to stop war fatigue spreading among allies’, CNBC, 26 September 2023. Return to text
  120. Holly Ellyatt, ‘‘They’re running out of time’: Ukraine’s counteroffensive is gaining urgency as winter approaches’, CNBC, 25 October 2023. Return to text
  121. Andrew Roth, ‘Ukraine ready to counterattack if Russia strikes energy plant, says Zelenskiy’, Guardian, 25 October 2023. Return to text
  122. House of Commons Library, ‘Military assistance to Ukraine since the Russian invasion’, 4 October 2023. Return to text
  123. Prime Minister’s Office, ‘Global businesses pledge to back Ukraine’s recovery as PM sets out major financial package’, 21 June 2023. Return to text
  124. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, ‘UK boosts Ukraine’s recovery at major London summit’, 21 June 2023. Return to text
  125. Ministry of Defence, ‘Major new package of support for Ukraine’s counter-offensive announced by Defence Secretary Grant Shapps’, 11 October 2023. Return to text
  126. House of Commons Library, ‘Sanctions against Russia’, 20 September 2023. Return to text
  127. Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation, HM Treasury, ‘Consolidated list of financial sanctions targets in the UK’, last updated 26 October 2023. Return to text
  128. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, ‘UK announces new sanctions in response to Russia’s forced deportation of Ukrainian children’, 18 July 2023. Return to text
  129. Max Bergman, Ilke Toygür and Otto Svendsen, ‘A continent forged in crisis: Assessing Europe one year into the war’, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 16 February 2023. Return to text
  130. Julian E Barnes, ‘Russia is buying North Korean artillery, according to US intelligence’, New York Times (£), 5 September 2022; and Farnaz Fassihi and Julian E Barnes, ‘The first shipment of Iranian military drones arrives in Russia’, New York Times (£), 29 August 2022. Return to text
  131. Ian Bond, ‘China and Russia: Are there limits to ‘no limits’ friendship?’, Centre for European Reform, 15 December 2022. Return to text
  132. Amy Hawkins, ‘Russia and China deepen economic ties amid surge in trade since Ukraine invasion’, Guardian, 24 May 2023. Return to text
  133. BBC News, ‘Putin in China aiming to strengthen anti-West coalition’, 17 October 2023. Return to text
  134. Mathieu Droin and Tina Dolbaia, ‘Russia is still progressing in Africa. What’s the limit?’, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 15 August 2023. Return to text
  135. Congressional Research Service, ‘Russia’s Wagner Group in Africa: Issues for Congress’, 3 August 2023. Return to text
  136. Jason Burke, ‘Russian mercenaries behind slaughter of 500 in Mali village, UN report finds’, Observer, 20 May 2023; and BBC News, ‘Niger coup: Wagner taking advantage of instability—Antony Blinken’, 8 August 2023. Return to text
  137. BBC News, ‘Niger coup: Simple guide to what’s happening’, 28 July 2023. Return to text
  138. BBC News, ‘Niger coup: Wagner taking advantage of instability—Antony Blinken’, 8 August 2023. Return to text
  139. Dan Sabbagh, ‘Russia to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus’, Guardian, 25 March 2023. Return to text
  140. US Department of State, ‘Russian noncompliance with and invalid suspension of the New START Treaty’, 1 June 2023. Return to text
  141. BBC News, ‘Russia says it rehearsed ‘massive’ nuclear strike’, 25 October 2023. Return to text
  142. BBC News, ‘Putin makes nuclear-powered Burevestnik missile test claim’, 5 October 2023. Return to text
  143. Cabinet Office, ‘Integrated review refresh 2023: Responding to a more contested and volatile world’, March 2023, CP 811. Return to text
  144. Guardian, ‘China-Taiwan relations: what’s behind the tensions—in 30 seconds’, 3 August 2023; and Politico, ‘US admiral says China has fully militarized islands’, 20 March 2022. Return to text
  145. BBC News, ‘Hong Kong national security law: What is it and is it worrying?’, June 2022. Return to text
  146. National Cyber Security Centre, ‘CYBERUK 2023: Welcome from Lindy Cameron, NCSC CEO’, 19 April 2023. Return to text
  147. BBC News, ‘China spy claims as Parliament researcher arrested’, 10 September 2023. Return to text
  148. Guardian, ‘UK parliamentary researcher arrested for alleged Chinese spying says he is innocent’, 11 September 2023. Return to text
  149. Cabinet Office, ‘Integrated review refresh 2023: Responding to a more contested and volatile world’, March 2023, CP 811 Return to text
  150. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, ‘Foreign Secretary visits Beijing to further British interests’, 29 August 2023. Return to text
  151. Nikkei Asia, ‘UK weighs inviting China to AI summit, but Japan favors G7 leadership’, 24 August 2023. Return to text
  152. Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, ‘China’, 13 July 2023, HC 1605 of session 2022–23. Return to text
  153. Cabinet Office, ‘Government response to the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament report ‘China’, 14 September 2023. Return to text
  154. Chatham House, ‘Cleverly’s calculation makes ambivalence a clear policy’, 26 April 2023. Return to text
  155. Guardian, ‘Western politicians face tough balancing act on visits to Beijing’, 30 August 2023. Return to text
  156. The Conversation, ‘How action over parliamentary spying scandal could affect the UK’s economic relationship with China’, 13 September 2023. Return to text
  157. Kerry Brown, ‘The Intelligence and Security Committee report on China’, UK in a Changing Europe, 20 July 2023. Return to text
  158. BBC News, ‘Spy claim prompts call for rethink on UK’s China stance’, 11 September 2023. Return to text
  159. Ministry of Defence, ‘Responding to a more contested and volatile world’, March 2023, CP 811. Return to text
  160. Ministry of Defence, ‘Defence’s response to a more contested and volatile world’. July 2023, CP 901, p 13. Return to text
  161. Ministry of Defence, ‘Defence in a competitive age’, 2021, CP 411. Return to text
  162. Ministry of Defence, ‘Quarterly service personnel statistics 1 July 2023’, 14 September 2023. Return to text
  163. House of Commons Library, ‘UK defence expenditure’, 20 April 2023. Return to text
  164. As above. Return to text
  165. House of Commons Library, ‘Military assistance to Ukraine since the Russian invasion’, 4 October 2023. Return to text
  166. House of Lords Library, ‘Ukraine update: September 2023’, 14 September 2023. Return to text
  167. Ministry of Defence, ‘Major new package of support for Ukraine’s counter-offensive announced by Defence Secretary Grant Shapps’, 11 October 2023. Return to text