Rishi Sunak has made clear that Defence Secretary Grant Shapps’ suggestion that British troops could train forces in Ukraine is not for the “here and now” during the war against the Russian invasion.
The Prime Minister on Sunday ruled out UK forces going to Ukraine and said that the recently appointed political head of the Ministry of Defence was discussing possible plans for the “long term”.
Mr Shapps had said in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph that “eventually” he would like to get Britain’s long-standing training of Volodymyr Zelensky’s troops “in country” rather than in the UK.
Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev said any British troops in Ukraine would be legitimate targets for the Kremlin’s forces.
But, on a visit to Burnley ahead of the Tory party conference getting under way in Manchester, Mr Sunak said he wants to be “absolutely clear” about the situation following “some misreporting”.
He said that Britain has been training Ukrainian citizens and soldiers “for a long time” within the UK.
“And what the Defence Secretary was saying was that it might well be possible one day in the future for us to do some of that training in Ukraine,” the Prime Minister said.
“But that’s something for the long term, not the here and now, there are no British soldiers that will be sent to fight in the current conflict. That’s not what’s happening. What we are doing is training Ukrainians. We’re doing that here in the UK.”
Mr Shapps had said he has spoken with Army chiefs about moving “more training” into Ukraine and called on British defence firms to set up production in the country.
Having taken over as Defence Secretary from Ben Wallace at the end of August, he said he has also spoken to Mr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, about the Royal Navy helping to defend commercial vessels in the Black Sea.
He said Britain is also looking for ways to help Ukraine get in shape for membership of Nato.
Mr Shapps visited a military base on Salisbury Plain on Friday where he was briefed by General Sir Patrick Sanders, Chief of the General Staff, and other senior figures.
He said: “I was talking about eventually getting the training brought closer and actually into Ukraine as well.
“Particularly in the west of the country, I think the opportunity now is to bring more things in country, and not just training. We’re seeing BAE, for example, move into manufacturing in country.
“I’m keen to see other British companies do their bit as well by doing the same thing.”
More than 20,000 recruits from Ukraine have received training in the UK since the start of 2022, but Nato members have avoided training programmes in Ukraine due to the risk of personnel being drawn into combat with Russia.
The Defence Secretary said he had spoken to Mr Zelensky on Wednesday and hinted Britain could play a more active role in the Black Sea, where Russia has targeted cargo ships.
“Britain is a naval nation so we can help and we can advise, particularly since the water is international water,” he said.
“It’s important we don’t allow a situation to establish by default that somehow international shipping isn’t allowed in that water.
“There’s a lot of places where Britain can help advise.”
Ahead of the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, Mr Shapps told the Telegraph that Britain should reinstate former prime minister Liz Truss’s pledge to increase defence spending to 3% of GDP.
“I think it’s really important that we understand that freedom isn’t free,” he said.
“You have to pay for it and it also keeps us prosperous, not only because we keep out invaders, but we also help shape the world around us and do good in the world.”
Speaking at a fringe event at the conference, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly stressed that UK backing for Ukraine would continue, regardless of who wins the next US election.
It comes amid the prospect of Donald Trump returning to the White House and speculation that could see an upending of Washington’s current stance on the conflict.
“We’ve been ahead of the curve throughout on this and we’ve defined our position because of our values,” Mr Cleverly said.
On any future American position, he said: “We will do what we believe to be right. We have made a commitment to continue to support the Ukrainians. Now they can join in or they can watch us do it, but it is going to happen.”