Gavin Williamson commits extra British troops in Ukraine to stop Russia 'reversing Cold War outcome'
Dominic Nicholls, defence correspondent
20 SEPTEMBER 2018 • 10:00PM
Only a month ago, a Ukrainian soldier was killed by sniper fire at the spot where Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary, is now standing.
This is the front line of the West’s new war with Russia. Two hundred yards away, Russian-backed separatists are in position, their sniper rifles at the ready.
Protected by helmet and body armour, Mr Williamson is surveying the remains of a hospital, its walls bullet-riddled and the windows blown out. Separatist fighters had targeted it with mortars and machine gun fire from across the fields that now represent an illegal de facto border between Ukraine and Russian-occupied territory outside Marinka, a satellite town about three miles to the west of Donetsk.
Mr Williamson had deployed forward from the safety of Kiev, Ukraine’s capital city, to see for himself the effects of what he called Russia’s “brazen and reckless” act of initiating the conflict in the east of the country.
Britain will increase military support to its ally by sending Royal Marines later this year and increase the presence of Royal Navy patrols in the Black Sea in 2019. Odessa, Ukraine’s biggest port, located in the west of the country, is expected to come under pressure from the Russian Navy over the coming months as they try to effect an economic blockade.
Tension with Russia after Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution in 2014 led to separatists, backed by regular Russian military units, seizing Crimea and a large swathe of Ukrainian territory along the border. More than 10,000 lives have been lost in the conflict.
Mr Williamson’s Ukrainian hosts watched nervously as the Secretary of State surveyed the damage, mindful that he stay on the paved surface. The fields either side are now feared to have been planted with landmines hidden beneath the soil.
The Ukrainian soldier killed last month had been shot at from a house on the Russian separatist side of the frontline. Mr Williamson became on Tuesday the first western minister outside of Ukraine to experience the frontline - and Vladimir Putin’s land grab - at such close proximity. He may as well have been sauntering down Whitehall.
“The Kremlin is trying to undermine our values, destroy our way of life, and reverse the outcome of the Cold War,” said Mr Williamson, 42. “Its behaviour only increases the risk of miscalculation and the prospect of crisis turning to chaos.”
The Mi-8 Hip helicopter taking us east towards the 300 mile-long Line of Control, the new, illegal border with Russia, had raced forward at 120 knots, pulling up sharply to get over trees and power lines. Twenty-six Ukrainian aircraft have been shot down by Russian-supplied surface to air missiles since the conflict started, so the pilots take no chances and cling to the safety of the folds in the earth.
Some 35,000 Russian-backed separatists and an estimated 4,000 regular Russian troops are located in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine. Holding them back are around 60,000 Ukrainian forces. The Kremlin tried to break the will of the Ukrainian people, Mr Williamson said, but the nation came together against such a blatant act of aggression.
“What you’ve seen is an independent free nation that has been attacked by a powerful neighbour and we’ve seen men and women come together to repel that invasion and push back those that would wish to do them harm,” he told the Telegraph, accompanying him on the visit.
“Vladimir Putin and his cronies around him want to abuse their power. This is not the type of behaviour we expect of any nation, let alone one that sits as a permanent member of the Security Council. [Russia is becoming] a pariah nation.”
Around 300,000 people live without clean water after the treatment plant supplying this region of Ukraine was destroyed by shelling. Just inside Russia an estimated 700 tanks are available to push further into Ukraine should the order come. Cyber attacks are common with Ukrainian military personnel regularly harassed on their personal mobile phones. The message from Russia is clear: we can get to you any time we want.
Russia’s military intelligence arm, the GRU, blamed by Britain for the nerve agent attack in Salisbury, is also present. Two GRU operatives were caught inside Ukraine in 2016 and exchanged for a pilot that had been shot down.
They are all constant reminders of how easily Russia and the separatists can raise or lower the pressure, according to the wider agenda of destabilising Ukraine and making it an unattractive prospect for Nato or EU membership.
Gavin Williamson stayed at the front line for about 20 minutes, accompanied by Ukraine’s Joint Force Operation Commander, Lieutenant General Serhiy Nayev. The protection party of around 50 soldiers, scanning the scrub and battered buildings nearby for signs of movement, were eager to move on.
Despite all the security measures, including having two Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships cover our approach, the soldiers admitted Russia probably knew the British Defence Secretary was here. To attack the British minister would, of course, be an outrageous and provocative act, but after Salisbury all rules have changed.
Mr Williamson was undeterred and happy to stay chatting with Ukrainian troops. “We have common values and we believe in standing up for those common values,” he said, “It’s important that we stand up for the international rules-based order.
“There is a constant pattern where Russia is pushing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour [and] there needs to be a response to Russian encroachment. We’ve got to make it clear that there is a price to be paid for such actions.”
Mr Williamson is in no doubt that blame lies directly with Mr Putin. “The behaviour of the Putin-led regime is not acceptable. We want to be able to ensure that the people who are on the front line, where we are today, have the best ability to survive and defend their homeland.”
He also fears Mr Putin is widening his new Cold War with the West. Mr Williamson added: “We’re seeing Russian aggression, not just on the front line but an increasingly more assertive posture in the Black Sea. They want to open up new fronts.”
The Defence Secretary is pledging to stand firm. “We’re going to be upping our training and support efforts with the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, making sure that the Ukrainian Navy and Ukrainian forces have the skills and the technical ability to deal with these increasing threats.”
Mr Williamson was criticised in the past for saying Russia should “go away and shut up”. Invited by the Telegraph to repeat his suggestion at full volume towards the trenches just a few hundred yards away, he politely declined.
It was time to get back in the heavily armoured vehicles and head West, to the relative safety of Kiev. Mr Williamson’s full-throated support for his Ukrainian hosts and promise of increased British military personnel had earned much praise. “You are very brave for coming here,” one Ukrainian soldier told him.
“Our commitment remains unwavering,” Gavin Williamson said. “As long as the danger lasts we will continue to stand by your side. The safer you are here, the safer we are in the UK.”