Starmer addresses first NATO summit, stressing continued support for Ukraine

Starmer addresses first NATO summit, stressing continued support for Ukraine
Starmer addresses first NATO summit, stressing continued support for Ukraine

Keir Starmer flies to a turbulent Washington DC this week to attend a NATO summit aimed at emphasising the UK’s commitment to Ukraine at a time when the upcoming US election calls into question the US medium-term position.

It is the new prime minister’s first international visit, four days after the election, and Starmer can expect to be feted by other leaders facing, in the case of Joe Biden, an uncertain future or, in the case of France’s Emmanuel Macron or Germany’s Olaf Scholz, unpopularity at home.

A montage video of Starmer’s first day in office deliberately included a segment in which he told Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskiy that the switch to a Labour government “makes no difference to the support you will see” from the UK in response to the Russian invasion.

To underline the point, John Healey, Labour’s new defence secretary, announced a new military aid package, consisting of high-calibre munitions, AS 90 artillery and Brimstone land-attack missiles, during an impromptu visit to the southern Ukrainian port of Odessa on his second working day in the job.

Starmer will have time for bilateral meetings with Biden, Zelenskiy and other Western leaders at a two-day summit that will formally begin on Wednesday morning and include a dinner that evening at the White House. A special meeting between NATO and Ukraine will follow on Thursday before closing press conferences are held.

Starmer’s first meeting with Biden as prime minister would normally be a highlight, but with questions about the US president’s age and health, careful choreography may be needed. On Friday, the White House said it fully expected “the leaders to engage at some point,” without offering further details.

Labour spent the election campaign repeatedly emphasising its commitment to a relatively traditional concept of national security, in contrast to the previous leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and Starmer said he would be willing to use the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons if necessary.

The party also strongly emphasised its historic connection to NATO, created in the wake of World War II largely at the behest of the party’s then foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, a point made by the outgoing NATO secretary-general on Friday.

“It was actually the United Kingdom, the current government, in 1949 in London, that was the driving force behind the creation of NATO,” said Jens Stoltenberg. “That is why I also welcome Keir Starmer’s firm commitment to continue down that path.”

But Labour did not match the Conservative pledge to increase defence spending to 2.5% of GDP by a specific date – 2030 – and experts said that if it was not necessary to do so during the election campaign, it obviously would not be necessary at the summit, when such spending pledges are often made.

“I don’t think Starmer is in a rush,” said Peter Ricketts, a former UK national security adviser. “He will want to open the government’s accounts and look at the normal picture, and there is no pressure to make a commitment immediately after the campaign.”

The Conservatives have committed Britain to spending £3bn a year to provide military aid to Ukraine, which Stoltenberg wants to be part of a minimum commitment of £40bn a year in aid to kyiv from members of the 32-nation alliance.

The reality is that Britain is the third-largest donor to Ukraine among NATO members, behind Germany, which gives €7 billion, and the United States, which is by far the largest. This spring, Congress approved a new funding package worth $61 billion, although Republicans aligned with Donald Trump had delayed it so much through the winter and spring that Russia gained ground on the battlefield, particularly on the border near Kharkiv.

The other problem for the UK is that it is somewhat absent from the current round of discussions on how to help Ukraine, as it does not have the weapons that kyiv is desperately seeking. Ukraine wants seven more Patriot air defence systems to protect its cities, infrastructure, aircraft and other key military assets.

At least four are likely to be offered, from the United States, Germany, Romania and another assembled by several countries including the Netherlands, but Britain traditionally has no air defence systems it can supply. It has also not been able to help with fighter aircraft, beyond providing initial training, as Britain does not use F-16s.

Ukraine relies on US support to prevent Russia from gaining ground, and it is hard to imagine any additional level of cooperation from the UK and Europe that could replace Washington’s contribution, especially given Starmer’s caution over public spending in general.

But the most important task for Starmer may not be financial. In four months’ time, he may have to deal with the more challenging prospect of Trump in the White House, whose commitment to helping Ukraine and NATO is uncertain. As a prime minister in a relatively secure position, it may well fall to Starmer and others like him to maintain the long-term integrity of the alliance his party helped create.

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