1. Foreign affairs

1.1 War in Ukraine

The foreign policy agenda continues to be dominated by the war in Ukraine. This continues to be a fast-moving conflict where the situation on the ground changes frequently.

At the time of writing, recent developments included:

The UK Government has been vocal in its support for Ukraine and its people since the beginning of the crisis. On a recent visit to Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the “United Kingdom stands unwaveringly with them in this ongoing fight”, and that the UK was “in it for the long run”. In a statement to the House of Commons on 19 April 2022, the Prime Minister indicated that the UK’s objective was to help defeat Russia and strengthen Ukraine to the extent that Russia would never invade again. He said:

[T]he urgency is even greater now because Putin has regrouped his forces and launched a new offensive in the Donbas. We knew that this danger would come. When I welcomed President Duda of Poland to Downing Street on 7 April and Chancellor Scholz the following day, we discussed exactly how we could provide the arms that Ukraine would desperately need to counter Putin’s next onslaught. On 12 April, I spoke to President Biden to brief him on my visit to Kyiv and how we will intensify our support for President Zelenskyy. I proposed that our long-term goal must be to strengthen and fortify Ukraine to the point where Russia will never dare to invade again.

In a recent speech, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said that Russia had to be pushed out of all Ukrainian territory, and said a victory for Ukraine had become a “strategic imperative”.

1.2 Sanctions against the Russian regime and oil and gas prices

In response to Russian military action in Ukraine, western allies and other partners across the globe have imposed an “unprecedented” package of coordinated sanctions against Russia. However, debate over how to address the funding received by Russia through the supply of gas and oil continues. The United States has imposed a total ban on Russian energy exports and the UK is due to follow in respect of oil by the end of 2022. Other countries such as Germany, which is more heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies, have been reluctant to take a similar line, particularly on gas imports. Efforts continue at a national and European level to reduce dependency on Russian gas and oil. In recent days, however, Germany has indicated that it may be prepared to back an immediate European embargo on Russian oil. The measure requires unanimity and, so far, it appears that Hungary is unwilling to back the proposals. At the same time, the disruption has continued to push up prices, reportedly increasing the revenues received by Russian producers.

1.3 How will the conflict end?

Perspectives on how the conflict may end differ significantly between observers. There has been speculation that President Putin is seeking to be able to declare some form of victory in time for Victory Day on 9 May, when Russia celebrates the defeat of Nazi Germany in the second world war. However, some observers and diplomats, including UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, have warned that the war may last for several years.

A selection of commentary on potential resolutions to the war is provided below:

1.4 Other key foreign policy developments

1.4.1 Crisis in Yemen

The conflict in Yemen has now entered its eighth year. The country remains largely divided between the Houthi rebels in the north of the country, which includes the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, and the Hadi Government, which controls much of the south and east. The US and Saudi Arabia have both accused Iran of providing military support to the Houthis whilst they in turn continue to back Government-led forces.

The UK’s aid policy toward Yemen is discussed in greater detail below. In terms of seeking a solution to the crisis, the UK is the ‘penholder’ for Yemen at the UN Security Council. As such, it often takes the lead on activities relating to the country and the drafting of relevant resolutions. The UK is amongst those who have supported UN resolutions calling for a nationwide cease-fire and for continuing sanctions against those committing human rights abuses and obstructing the peace process in the country. Negotiations aimed at ending the conflict continue though so far without resolution.

1.4.2 UK engagement with Afghanistan

The situation in Afghanistan remains dire for much of the civilian population following the re-takeover of the country by the Taliban in 2021. The humanitarian situation is discussed below, but questions remain over the extent to which the UK Government should engage with the new Taliban-led administration.

In a statement in December 2021, the Government reported direct engagement with the Taliban on issues such as aid delivery, terrorism and human rights. However, the Government said that all its aid spending would go to “UN agencies or trusted and experienced international NGOs and not to the Taliban”. Speaking to the House of Commons Liaison Committee in November 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the UK did need to talk directly to the Taliban administration:

We must make our position clear to the Taliban authorities that we expect them to treat women fairly and equally, as is obviously expressly provided for in the Koran. We must also engage with the Taliban. This is slightly controversial, but I was strongly of the view, when Kabul fell and we had the change of regime, that there was no point in the UK just standing on the sidelines and failing to engage with the Taliban. They may not speak for all Afghans—far from it—but they are some kind of authority in Kabul, even if a very imperfect authority. The UK must try to engage, for the sake of the people you are talking about, if we are to get aid through.

This approach was endorsed by the House of Commons International Development Committee in March 2022, which said that it recognised “the necessity of having to work with the Taliban”. The committee added:

We endorse the Government’s policy of developing a pragmatic working relationship with the Taliban to enable humanitarian aid to reach the people of Afghanistan.

However, the Government has been criticised for the speed and adequacy of its response in helping those who helped UK efforts in Afghanistan, and those who may be vulnerable, for example because they belong to a minority ethnic, religious, or LGBT+ group. The International Development Committee said it was very concerned about the time being taken by the Government to implement the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) and whether Afghan aid workers will receive protection under the scheme.

1.4.3 Iran nuclear negotiations

Negotiators are reportedly close to agreeing a new deal to prevent the further development of Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Such a resolution would replace the 2015 Joint Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was severely weakened following criticism by the Trump Administration and Iran subsequently distancing itself from the deal. A new deal would seek to prevent Iran developing weapons-grade nuclear material. However, there have been calls for any such agreement to also address the country’s destabilising role in the region.

2. Defence

2.1 NATO and defence expenditure

The Ukrainian crisis has refocused attention on the role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the commitment of member countries, including the UK, to defence expenditure.

NATO data published in March 2022 shows the UK remains one of the members who are meeting a commitment to spend 2% of gross national income (GNI) on defence:

Source: NATO, Defence Expenditure of NATO Countries (2014-2021), March 2022

Refocusing its attention from theatres such as Afghanistan, NATO has sought to counter Russia’s actions towards Ukraine since 2014 by establishing a continuous air, land, and maritime presence on its eastern flank. NATO states that these measures are part of its deterrence and defence posture, intended to deter any potential aggression against member states.

Initially this deployment involved increasing the number of air policing and surveillance aircraft in NATO airspace, a more prominent naval presence in the Baltic and Black Seas, and more frequent and larger military exercises. This was followed in 2017 by the creation of four multinational battlegroups of 1,000 troops in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.

In early 2022, NATO countries began to increase their military forces in the eastern part of the alliance, both under the NATO umbrella and on a bilateral basis. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, NATO decided to add four further battlegroups in its eastern flank, in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia.

NATO has also been working on a new strategic concept—its first for 12 years—which is expected to identify the threats facing the alliance and how it intends to address them. The concept is due to be adopted at NATO’s next summit in Madrid at the end of June 2022.

In a speech at the NATO summit in Brussels in March 2022, Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined the importance of joint action and said that the UK would be increasing its military commitment to the alliance. He said:

We are bolstering our support for the NATO countries on the frontline, sending a new deployment of UK troops to Bulgaria on top of the doubling our troops both in Poland and in Estonia.

This is just the beginning. We must support a free and democratic Ukraine in the long term. This is a fellow European democracy fighting a war of national defence.

NATO and G7 leaders were also united today in our determination to continue turning the screws on the Kremlin’s war machine, including by weaning ourselves off Russian oil and gas and reshaping global energy security.

This commitment was further confirmed in response to a recent parliamentary question, where James Heappey, Minister for the Armed Forces, said:

To strengthen NATO’s deterrence and defence posture, increase interoperability with our allies, and reinforce our bilateral relationships, the UK has played a leading role in NATO enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) since its inception, acting as framework nation in Estonia, and contributing to the US-led deployment in Poland. As part of the UK’s multi-domain and coordinated response to Russia’s unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine, the Prime Minister announced last month that, alongside other deployments in support of allies, the UK would temporarily double its presence in Estonia to brigade strength. The Ministry of Defence keeps the UK’s defence posture under constant review.

The UK has also deployed troops to Poland, though under a bilateral basis and not under NATO command.

Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace further elaborated on these deployments in a statement made to MPs on 25 April 2022. He said:

On top of our military aid to Ukraine, we contribute to strengthening NATO’s collective security, both for the immediate challenge and for the long term. We have temporarily doubled the number of defensive personnel in Estonia. We have sent military personnel to support Lithuanian intelligence, resilience and reconnaissance efforts. We have deployed hundreds of Royal Marines to Poland and sent offshore vessels and Navy destroyers to the eastern Mediterranean. We have also increased our presence in the skies over south-eastern Europe with four additional Typhoons based in Romania. That means that we now have a full squadron of RAF fighter jets in southern Europe, ready to support NATO tasking. As the Prime Minister announced on Friday, we are also offering a deployment of British Challenger 2 tanks to Poland, to bridge the gap between Poland donating tanks to Ukraine and their replacements arriving from a third country.

There is also speculation that Sweden and Finland may submit applications to join NATO in the coming period.

2.2 Provision of UK military equipment to Ukraine

Since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, the UK Government has not provided full details of what military equipment it is supplying to Ukrainian forces for “operational security reasons”. However, it did announce on 9 March 2022 that it had supplied 3,615 NLAWs (Next-Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapon Systems) to the country.

The Prime Minister announced at the meeting of NATO members in Brussels on 24 March 2022 that the UK would send an additional 6,000 missiles and provide £25 million in unrestricted funding for the Ukrainian armed forces. The Government’s answer to a recent parliamentary question said this was “more than doubling the lethal aid we have provided to date”.

On 25 April 2022, Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace said that the UK had provided Ukraine with more than 5,000 anti-tank missiles, five air defence systems with more than 100 missiles, 1,360 anti-structure munitions, and 4.5 tonnes of plastic explosive. In his update on Ukraine to MPs, he also said Ukrainian forces had been using British Starstreak high-velocity and low-velocity anti-air missiles.

Further, Mr Wallace announced that “we shall be gifting a small number of armoured vehicles fitted with launchers for those anti-air [Starstreak] missiles”. He added that the UK had supplied non-lethal equipment to Ukraine, including 90,000 ration packs, more than 10 pallets of medical equipment, more than 3,000 pieces of body armour, nearly 77,000 helmets, 3,000 pairs of boots and communications equipment and ear defence. On funding, Mr Wallace added in response to questions from MPs that “we have gifted in aid £200 million to Ukraine, which we propose will grow to £500 million, and the Treasury has agreed to old for new in funding that replacement”.

Most recently, in his speech to the Ukrainian Parliament on 3 May 2022, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said:

I can announce today from the UK government a new package of support totalling £300 million, including radars to pinpoint the artillery bombarding your cities, heavy lift drones to supply your forces, and thousands of night vision devices.

2.3 Future of the UK armed forces

In 2021, the Government published Global Britain in a Competitive Age, the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, which described its vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade and the action it will take to 2025.

This has been followed by a number of subsequent publications under the umbrella of the integrated review, including Future Soldier: Transforming the British Army, in November 2021. This contained a commitment to reduce the size of the army to 73,000 trained regulars (initially 72,500 and subsequently amended by 500), which drew criticism from General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, the outgoing head of the army. In response, the Government said that it was investing an extra £24 billion in defence over four years, helping to provide the army with new tanks, armoured vehicles and attack helicopters.

2.4 Forthcoming review of the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme (AFCS)

The operation of the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme (AFCS) is due to be reviewed in 2022. The scheme enables current and former armed forces personnel to claim compensation for injuries and illnesses caused by service. Family members may claim for compensation for personnel whose death was caused by service.

The operation of the scheme was the subject of a recent Westminster Hall debate in the House of Commons. Several members, including Owen Thompson (SNP MP for Midlothian) who secured the debate, raised concerns about the operation of the scheme and the difficulties those attempting to secure money had faced. In response, the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, Leo Docherty, said the Government would be seeking to improve the speed and quality of the scheme. He added:

We will not be just tinkering in the way we improve things; we are serious, because we know that we will be judged on our failures in this regard.

3. International development

3.1 0.7% aid target

Since 2015, the UK Government has been under a statutory duty to spend 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) on international aid. This target is one recommended by the UN for overseas developmental assistance (ODA). In 2020, the UK was one of only seven countries reporting to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that had met the 0.7% target.

However, citing the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the Government announced in November 2020 that it would spend 0.5% of GNI for ODA in 2021 as a “temporary measure”. Given that the 0.7% target was imposed by legislation, there has been debate whether legislation was also required to reduce it. However, the Government argued that legislation was unnecessary because the reduction was temporary. No proposals were announced in the Queen’s Speech in 2021.

In July 2021, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak set out a number of ‘tests’ to be met to restore the 0.7% target. They included that the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) shows that “on a sustainable basis” the country is not borrowing for day-to-day spending and the ratio of underlying debt to GDP is falling. The House of Commons voted in support of the tests in July 2021.

In the Autumn 2021 Budget and Spending Review, the Government said the tests were forecast to be met in 2024/25, and has provisionally set aside additional funding to take ODA to 0.7% of GNI in that year. As part of the March 2022 spring statement, the Government said that these tests were now expected to be met in 2023/24. However, because of the uncertainty of these forecasts, ministers will decide whether to return to spending 0.7% of GNI on aid in 2023/24 at the 2022 Autumn Budget.

3.2 Aid to Afghanistan and Yemen

Afghanistan is one of the world’s least developed countries. It is highly dependent on foreign aid. The withdrawal of coalition forces and the Taliban’s takeover of the country in 2021 exacerbated the challenges the country faces.

Though debate remains on how far the UK Government should engage with the Taliban administration, immediately following the Taliban takeover the UK Government announced that it would double its ODA spend on Afghanistan in 2021 to £286 million. In March 2022, the Government announced that it would match this commitment in 2022/23. It is intended that UK funding will help address “urgent humanitarian needs” such as providing food and shelter, and wider goals such as protecting women and girls from gender-based violence.

The UK is working with the UN and other international partners to deliver that aid. Along with those actors, it has said that the provision of assistance (other than that to address humanitarian needs) should be partly dependent on the actions of the Taliban. This includes ensuring the protection of girls, women, and ethnic minorities, such as the Hazaras.

In Yemen, the UN has stated that the country is experiencing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Two-thirds of the population, or 20.7 million people, required humanitarian assistance in 2021. The UN further notes that multiple emergencies have “pummelled the country”. These include violent conflict, an economic blockade, currency collapse, flooding and the Covid-19 pandemic in a country where only half of health facilities are operational.

The UK has provided more than £1 billion in aid to Yemen since 2015. However, the House of Commons Library notes that its pledges have fallen in recent years: from £160 million in 2020/21, to £87 million in 2021/22 and £88 million for 2022/23. At the UN pledging conference for Yemen in March 2022, the UK was the fourth largest donor to the country.

Cover image by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.