Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said it is right to protect Poland as the country takes in the bulk of Ukrainian refugees.
17 March 2022
The UK is to deploy a medium-range missile system and 100 personnel to Poland to “protect her airspace from any further aggression by Russia”, the Defence Secretary has said.
Speaking on a visit to Warsaw, Ben Wallace said Poland – which is taking the brunt of refugees fleeing Ukraine after the country’s invasion by Russia – is a “very old ally”.
He told a news conference: “It is very right that Britain stands by Poland as Poland carries much of the burden of the consequence of this war and stands tall and brave to stand up to the threats from Russia.”
The announcement comes as Nato pledged to send more troops to defend its eastern flank, and just after Russian missiles struck a military base in Yavoriv, Ukraine, just a few miles from the border with Poland.
Downing Street said the deployment of the Sky Sabre system would be “supporting the Polish armed forces at the request of the Polish government”.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “It is, as ever, a purely defensive capability which we are providing on a bilateral basis to Poland.
“It will remain under UK control at all times.”
He said it is a “short-term deployment”.
The increased support comes as Foreign Office minister James Cleverly said a Russian air strike on Ukrainians sheltering in a theatre “looks to be specific targeting” of a civilian building and a “self-evident breach of international law”.
Ukrainian authorities are still attempting to determine the fate of hundreds of civilians who had bunkered down in the theatre in Mariupol after images showed that an entire section of the three-storey building had collapsed after the strike on Wednesday evening.
Several hundred people had taken refuge in the building to seek safety from Moscow’s three-week siege of the port city, with the pavements outside the venue marked with huge white letters spelling out “children” in Russian, according to images released by the Maxar space technology company.
Mr Cleverly said the attack appeared to be a “breach” of internationally-agreed armed conflict rules and called for evidence to be documented of the assault to put together a war crime case.
The minister for Europe in the Foreign Office was asked on ITV’s Good Morning Britain whether he thought the bombing of the shelter “looked like a war crime”.
He said: “The targeting of civilian infrastructure is against international humanitarian law and the law of armed conflict.
“Ultimately it is for international courts and tribunals to make the formal decision, but self-evidently this is civilian infrastructure which we’ve seen had the word ‘Kids’ painted in Russian outside of this building.
“This looks to be specific targeting of civilian infrastructure and, as I say, that is a self-evident breach of international law and the law of armed conflict.”
The Russian defence ministry has denied bombing the theatre in Mariupol.
Britain is one of six nations calling for a United Nations Security Council meeting on Ukraine on Thursday, ahead of an expected Friday vote on a resolution demanding protection for Ukrainian civilians “in vulnerable situations”.
“Russia is committing war crimes and targeting civilians,” the UK’s UN mission tweeted, announcing its joint plea alongside the US, France and others.
It comes amid suggestions that peace talks are beginning to show signs of progress.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said after a meeting on Tuesday that a neutral military status for Ukraine is being “seriously discussed” by the two sides, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia’s demands for ending the war are becoming “more realistic”.
But Mr Cleverly said any peace deal with Russia must be “one the Ukrainians genuinely believe in”.
As part of the resolution discussions, Russia has demanded that Nato pledges never to admit Ukraine to the alliance or station forces there.
In its stipulations, Ukraine has pushed for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of Russian troops and security guarantees for Ukraine from several countries.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “As far as talks are concerned, obviously the Ukrainian people and president will decide for themselves how they take those forward but it is very important that in principle we can’t allow Russian aggression to triumph in any manner or form.”
According to the Associated Press, an official in Mr Zelensky’s office said the main subject under discussion between the warring countries is whether Russian troops would remain in separatist regions in eastern Ukraine after the conflict and where the borders would be.
Ukraine wants one or more Western nuclear powers involved in the negotiations, with the outcome set out in a legally binding document.
Kyiv would be ready to discuss a neutral status if those terms are met, according to AP.
Domestically in Britain, ministers are under pressure to do more to help Ukrainian refugees gathering at the Polish border to reach the UK.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey, in a letter to the Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary following a visit to Poland this week, called for the UK Government to provide free flights to those wanting to come to Britain, with coaches to the nearest Polish airports from key border crossing points.
Meanwhile, more than 150,000 people have now registered their interest in the Homes for Ukraine scheme, Downing Street said.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said when the programme formally launches on Friday “we will see what that translates to”.
He said 6,100 visas had been issued through the Ukraine Family Scheme as of Wednesday afternoon.