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Keir Starmer’s British government vows to prioritize Ukraine fight

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Britain’s new Labour government will make supporting Ukraine’s war against Russia a top international priority, the country’s incoming defense chief said, as he takes on a mission to counter Kremlin adventurism and bolster British military might at a time of fiscal constraints.

The government of Prime Minister Keir Starmer, which ended the Labour Party’s long opposition exile following a major electoral victory last week, faces a mandate to strengthen services for Britons, improve economic conditions and fortify military readiness — all at a time when, its ministers say, government coffers are largely bare.

Tasked with ensuring Britain’s military, a close but smaller partner of the United States, can meet global security demands in that context is John Healey, a veteran Labour politician whom Starmer named as defense secretary.

Healey visited Ukraine’s Black Sea city of Odessa on his second day in the job, holding talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and emphasizing the United Kingdom’s commitment to blocking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to overwhelm Ukraine by force.

“The defense of the U.K. starts with the defense of Ukraine,” Healey said Wednesday in his first interview with an American newspaper since taking the job, casting the conflict in global terms. “We know that if Putin wins in Ukraine, he won’t stop there.”

While Starmer ran on promises of change following a long rule by the Conservative Party, he is not expected to make dramatic changes to foreign or defense policy, maintaining strong British support for NATO, safeguarding ties with Washington and staking out a hawkish position on Russia.

Healey, speaking after his arrival in Washington, where he, Starmer and Foreign Minister David Lammy are attending this week’s NATO summit, declined to share a detailed view of Ukraine’s battlefield chances in coming months but noted that the country’s scrappy military had held off Russia far longer than expected and had pushed Russia’s Black Sea fleet out of areas vital to Kyiv’s maritime exports.

He said the conflict is as much an industrial and economic contest between Russia and the West as it is a military battle between Kyiv and Moscow. He acknowledged, too, the difficulty Ukraine probably would have in recapturing occupied territory by force, saying that most wars conclude with negotiated settlements.

“We’ve got to see how the economic, the political, the diplomatic and military support can be brought together to give the Ukrainians the best chance of putting Putin on the back foot, reclaiming their territory and being in a position to start to negotiate a long-term peace on their terms,” he said.

Healey also pointed to new air defense commitments to Ukraine and defense industry investments by NATO nations, both of which he said would telegraph to Russia the West’s intent to stay the course.

Like other nations wary about what the upcoming U.S. election could portend for Europe, British officials say the continent must invest more in its own defense and decrease reliance on the United States, regardless of whether President Biden or former president Donald Trump prevails in November.

While Starmer has embraced the previous government’s pledge to increase defense spending from about 2.3 percent of GDP to 2.5 percent, he has set aside the promise to do so by 2030, saying instead it will meet that target when conditions permit.

Elisabeth Braw, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, said Britain’s budgetary realities would make it difficult for the U.K. military to meet the global mandate it had given itself in years past.

“There is this expectation in the U.K. and the U.S. [that] the U.K. military will always be there as a sort of the sidekick or the junior partner whenever the U.S. needs or wants assistance,” Braw said. “But the U.K. is really like the poor cousin in this relationship, and there really aren’t resources enough to do everything that the U.K. expects of itself and the U.S. expects of it.”

In a possible signal change, Germany is expected to surpass Britain in defense spending in 2024, according to NATO.

“It’s a painful reality for the U.K., and that is what’s facing John Healey,” Braw said. “He would have to set priorities and essentially live within the budget.”

Healey has voiced hope of reforming Britain’s defense institutions and working closely with industry to increase defense output.

Speaking Wednesday, Healey said the new government would review the previous government’s policy in granting licenses for weapons sales to Israel. As it has elsewhere, the issue of British defense sales to Israel has emerged as a controversial issue amid the war in Gaza.

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