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From military training to music: what unites Ukraine and Great Britain

Great Britain is truly one of the closest allies of Ukraine today. We can see it from the British military, humanitarian, and financial support, as well as historical encounters. In dark times, we can see the people who stand with Ukrainians for democratic values. 

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy following the negotiations with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the Bovington Camp military base.
Photo: Presidential Office of Ukraine

History matters

In medieval times, dynastic marriages brought together distant England and Rus. The daughter of the last Anglo-Saxon king Harold II, Gytha of Wessex was the first wife of Grand Prince of Kyiv Volodymyr Monomakh. 

British army built the first railway on the Ukrainian territory near Balaklava during the Crimean War (1853-1856). Grand Central Crimean Railway, as well as raglan clothing, named after the commander of the British troops in Crimea Field Marshal FitzRoy James Henry Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan are the symbols of that war. 

Main street of Balaclava showing the railway.
Painting by William Simpson / Wikipedia

Moreover, Welsh engineer John Hughes helped to develop the coal industry in the East of Ukraine in the second half of the XIX century. Contemporary Donetsk city was named after him – Yuzivka (Hughesivka). 

One of the first, who reported on the terrible truth of Holodomor 1932-1933 (an artificial famine and genocide of Ukrainians organised by Joseph Stalin and Soviet authorities), was a British journalist of Welsh origin Gareth Jones. After his two visits to Moscow and Soviet Russia, Jones traveled to the Ukrainian SSR in March 1933, where he witnessed man-made famine, described in the press release, which was published, for example, by «The Manchester Guardian». 

Stefan Terlezki, arriving without any money in Britain in 1948, through hard work in local restaurant and hotel business has become a preeminent figure in Welsh politics and sport in the 1960-1970s (local Councillor and Chairman of Cardiff Football Club). Telezki was the first MP (1983-1987) of the British Parliament of Ukrainian origin. He was also the economic adviser of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. For his service to Great Britain and the British nation, Terlezki was appointed the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 1992. 

The UK recognized the independence of Ukraine on December 31, 1991, and opened the British Embassy in Kyiv at the beginning of 1992.   

The official visit of British Prime Minister, Conservative John Major to Ukraine in April 1996 was remembered by the photogenic eating of the lightly salted cucumbers on the Bessarabian Market in the center of Kyiv. John Major called Kyiv «the most beautiful city in the world». 

Prime Minister John Major on the Bessarabian Market, 1996.
Photo: Ukrinform

Only once Prince Charles visited Ukraine in November 1996 as a part of his tour. During the 2-days trip, he visited the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv and the British War Memorial near Sevastopol, where the battle of Balaclava took place in 1854. 

In general, British policy towards Ukraine from 1991 until the Revolution of Dignity (2013-2014) concentrated on multilateral cooperation through supporting the integration of Ukraine into the European Union and NATO. The first joint Ukrainian-British military exercises «Cossack steppe» in the second half of the 1990s were a part of «Partnership for Peace» program of NATO. 

How Britain reassured its strategic partnership with Ukraine after 2014

Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine started in February 2014 with the attempted annexation of Crimea. 

Great Britain was actively involved in SMM OSCE mission in the east of Ukraine as well as providing non-lethal military aid to Ukraine since the autumn of 2014. Apart from humanitarian support for internally displaced persons within the country, affected by the Russian hostilities in the east of Ukraine. 

Operation «Orbital», which main aim was training the Armed Forces of Ukraine by British instructors, started in March 2015. These trainings were pivotal for the interoperability among units of the Ukrainian army. During the 7 years (2015-2022) of the Operation Orbital, more than 22 thousand of Ukrainian service people were trained.

The 2016 Brexit referendum reoriented British foreign policy from a focus on the European Union to a focus on bilateral and trilateral relationships.

The visits of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to Kyiv in September 2016 and March 2017 were moments of reaffirming the British support of Ukraine in terms of prolonging Operation «Orbital» as well as personnel reinforcement of SMM OSCE on the frontline in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.  

The official visit of the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky to London in October 2020 became a turning point of the Ukrainian-British relations, which transformed into bilateral strategic partnership. The signing of Political, Free Trade and Strategic Partnership Agreement between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Ukraine opened a new chapter in our cooperation.  

British support of Ukraine after February 24, 2022 

The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine that started on February 24, 2022, has drastically changed European and global security. Great Britain reacted by providing Ukraine with military, financial, and humanitarian support and condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine. 

Even beforehand, in late January 2022, Great Britain gave Ukraine military aid with NLAW missile systems that played a vital part in the defense efforts in the first months of the full-scale war. The trilateral British-Polish-Ukrainian security alliance was also formed with the goal of jointly improving cybersecurity, increasing energy security, and countering disinformation. The idea originated from the Foreign Minister of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba in October 2021, and it was negotiated with London and Warsaw at the end of January 2022. The alliance was officially announced during the visit of Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to Kyiv in mid-February 2022. 

During his visit to Ukraine, Boris Johnson was gifted a ceramic cockerel, which became one of the many symbols of Ukrainian resistance.
Photo: Associated Press

Three visits of PM Boris Johnson to Ukraine after February 24 were an example of bravery and a true partnership. During his June visit to Kyiv, Johnson announced the start of the UK-based training mission of the Armed Forces of Ukraine – Operation INTERFLEX. Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, New Zealand, Lithuania, the Netherlands, and Australia joined it. 

10 thousand Ukrainian defenders have been trained in Britain during 2022, and 20 thousand more are expected in 2023. 

The next PM Liz Truss and the current leader of the Cabinet, Rishi Sunak, continued the policy regarding Ukraine. For instance, in January 2023 the UK announced the provision of Ukraine with 14 Challenger II main battle tanks, becoming a pioneer of the tank coalition. And on May 11, the UK government announced the decision to transfer Storm Shadow missiles with an operational range of up to almost 200 miles to Ukraine. 

Cultural diplomacy and British-Ukrainian relations

Cultural diplomacy as a way of communicating with the world became more widely practiced within the Ukrainian government and civil society after 2014. Dmytro Kuleba was among those diplomats who established public and cultural diplomacy as a particular vector of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs activities. One of the main tasks has been to put Ukrainian history and culture into a more global context. UK/Ukraine season culture, co-organized by Ukrainian Institute and British Council, started in 2022 and has a very ambitious goal – to present Ukrainian culture to the British, and British culture to the Ukrainians. It is done through cinema festivals, literary exhibitions, and performances.

Ukrainian Institute (London) and Cambridge Ukrainian Studies are key organizations, which help with explaining the peculiarities of Ukraine’s past and present in Great Britain. You can study the Ukrainian language, literature, and art in a wider context through their educational and cultural projects. For example, the play «Cassandra» written by Lesia Ukrainka and brilliantly translated into English by Nina Murray has recently been staged in Cambridge and Oxford.     

Moreover, those cultural connections are built not just by institutions, but by people. For instance, London-based Ukrainian chef and food writer Olia Hercules describes the traditions of Ukrainian cuisine in her books, which became bestsellers in Great Britain. For Hercules cooking is about solidarity and supporting each other. 

Chef Yurii Kovryzhenko co-founded a restaurant of Ukrainian cuisine Mriya. Mriya is «Ukraine’s culinary embassy» for him and his colleagues, who opened it in London in July 2022. They are cooking a «lighter version of Ukrainian cuisine», following trends of healthy food with less cholesterol. Yurii proved that such stolen by Russia/Soviet Union dishes as borshch or Chicken Kyiv are actually Ukrainian ones. 

Varenyky with duck meat filling from the Mriya restaurant.
Photo: Mriya / Facebook

Eurovision Song Contest has also been an event that could unite nations throughout the years. In 2023, UK is hosting on behalf of Ukraine after the Ukrainian band «Kalush Orchestra» won in 2022. Due to the ongoing war, it was impossible to host the contest in Ukraine, so Liverpool hospitably welcomed the event along with many Ukrainian artists, musical performances, and exhibitions. Liverpool is famous for being a British music center, where, for example, the Beatles started their career.  

The slogan of Liverpool Eurovision is «United by music». British and Ukrainian people are united by democratic values, the willingness to fight for freedom and never give up, even during the dark times.   

Author: Yehor Brailian, PhD (History), postgraduate member of the Royal Historical Society (London)