British weaponry and military vehicles could be manufactured in Ukraine under plans that would mark a deepening of the country’s ties with Nato.
Senior UK defence industry officials are discussing the plans with their counterparts in Kyiv, with any deal likely to be seen as a significant strengthening of Britain’s relationship with Ukraine.
British executives have travelled there with a view to setting up joint ventures that would manufacture arms and vehicles locally under licence.
Other European defence companies are also in talks with Ukraine, with British companies keen not to be beaten to the punch by French and German rivals. A race is on to put the UK “at the front of the queue”, one executive told The Telegraph.
It comes after Rishi Sunak opened the door to Britain sending fighter jets to Ukraine following a plea from Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, during his surprise trip to the UK last week.
Any joint venture is likely to require sign-off from Mr Sunak. Russia has repeatedly threatened retaliation against the West for sending arms to Ukraine, and any manufacturing support is likely to further inflame tensions.
ukraine pod 080223
On Saturday night, Downing Street and the Ministry of Defence declined to comment, saying it was a matter for industry.
But Ed Arnold, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think tank and a former British army Nato officer, said: “Industry cooperation drives closeness in international relations. This might be initially billed as commercial, but it will need tacit political approval at least.”
Mr Arnold added that a deal on military equipment would “point to future long term cooperation, deepening ties between Britain and Ukraine to a level they haven’t been yet”. He said a deal of this kind would bring Ukraine “closer towards Nato and European security structures”.
Ukraine has applied to join Nato, but the alliance is unlikely to accept while the country is in a state of war. As a Nato member, fellow members would be legally compelled to actively defend it against Russia, a commitment that goes well beyond the supply of weapons.
James Black, a military procurement expert at Rand Corporation, a US security think tank, said a deal seeing a Western power manufacture heavy arms in Ukraine would be a first because the country has little history of industrial co-operation.
He added: “The Ukrainian defence industry has been primarily focused on producing and maintaining Soviet-era or indigenous technologies, and since independence it has suffered from several decades from underinvestment, stalled reforms, corruption issues, and other challenges.”
Ukraine has made some Israeli and US small arms, such as rifles, under licence, and has adapted some of its tanks to incorporate Israeli electronics.
Francis Tusa, an independent defence expert, said any new factories would present themselves as key targets for Russian bombing raids, adding: “A tank factory isn’t small. And quite frankly, if I’m Putin it’ll be one of the first places I take out.”
Deals to make Western armour would be likely be seen as antagonistic by Moscow, but Nato allies are unlikely to be intimidated by these threats in the wake of ever more complex arms donations, he added.
“At this stage anything the West does, the Russians will say that’s provocation,” said Mr Tusa, adding that the West was likely to take the stance: “Well, tough.”
Ukraine is understood to want to build Western-designed artillery, vehicles and weapons itself under licence rather than simply buying them.
Licensing military design for local construction is common because it offers arms companies a revenue source but allows the customer country to retain jobs and build skills. Britain’s Sea King helicopters, built in Yeovil, are licence-built versions of US Sikorsky models, for example.
The move would allow Ukraine to maintain jobs for its tens of thousands of defence workers as it shifts from Russian designed armaments to Nato-standard arms.
An advisor to Ukroboronprom, Ukraine’s state-owned arms manufacturer, last week publicly said it wanted to do deals with Western companies to manufacture Nato-standard Western arms domestically. Serhii Markovskyi told Western representatives that Kyiv was seeking to strike deals to boost security in the region.
“In addition to direct participation in joint ventures and a form of cooperation with Nato industry, we can also act as an important tool for replacing the Russian and Chinese influence in countries of the Middle East, Asia and Africa,” he told defence chiefs at a seminar hosted by the Royal United Services Institute last week.
Ukrainian soldiers are being trained to use Nato equipment, including British armoured vehicles, by various armed forces.
Joint venture manufacturing would help end Kyiv’s reliance on handouts from the West. Billions of pounds of equipment have been sent to the front lines by European allies and the US, but Ukraine continues to require huge amounts of support.
Ukraine’s new weapons
The continued demands have led to concerns that the West will be unable to ramp up production sufficiently to restock its own armouries and continue to supply Ukraine.
While armourers such as France’s Nexter, BAE Systems and Rheinmetall are increasing shell production, building a new line takes two years.
In the meantime, European arms companies rely heavily on just two makers of the propellants that send the shells on their way when fired from artillery tubes.
Mr Markovskyi said: “The main challenges for the Western industry appear to be a shortage of qualified workers and engineers, dependence on China for those materials, insufficient volumes of production of explosive and special chemistry.”
Ukraine is an accomplished arms maker in its own right. During the Soviet era, it was a centre of high-spec military manufacture, with Dnipro known as “Rocket City” because of its prowess in space engineering and intercontinental ballistic missile design.
It was reported on Saturday night that Nato believes British forces are so overstretched they will not be able to take on Russia, according to a source speaking to the Mail on Sunday.
A Ministry of Defence insider backed claims in the German media that Berlin had been asked to remain in charge of its rapid reaction force as the UK was unable to spare the 5,000-strong force needed.