‘That’s our guy’: how UK military chief became key Nato liaison in Ukraine


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Jul 15, 2023

‘That’s our guy’: how UK military chief became key Nato liaison in Ukraine

Adm Sir Tony Radakin recognised in Washington and Kyiv as an increasingly important actor Eleven days ago, some of the most senior soldiers in the Nato alliance travelled to a secret location on the

Adm Sir Tony Radakin recognised in Washington and Kyiv as an increasingly important actor

Eleven days ago, some of the most senior soldiers in the Nato alliance travelled to a secret location on the Polish-Ukrainian border to meet Ukraine’s chief military commander, Gen Valerii Zaluzhnyi, for what was privately billed as “a council of war”.

It was no ordinary discussion: Zaluzhnyi brought his entire command team with him on the roughly 300-mile journey from Kyiv. The aim of the five-hour meeting was to help reset Ukraine’s military strategy – top of the agenda was what to do about the halting progress of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, along with battle plans for the gruelling winter ahead plus longer-term strategy as the war inevitably grinds into 2024.

Particularly notable was the presence not just of Nato’s military chief, the American Gen Christopher Cavoli, but also Adm Sir Tony Radakin, Britain’s most senior military officer, who is now acknowledged in Washington and Kyiv as an increasingly important actor in helping Ukraine overcome the Russian invaders.

Nor was it the first such conversation. The summit at the border had partly come about after Radakin travelled without any British ministers to Kyiv, where he held an unpublicised 45-minute meeting with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, aimed, defence sources said, at better understanding Ukraine’s strategy and how the west could help.

White House anxiety about the US appearing to be closely involved in the Ukraine war has meant that Radakin’s opposite number in the Pentagon, Gen Mark Milley, has been barred from travelling to Ukraine. But Britain, whose military is far smaller than the US, has no such concerns.

A few days earlier, Zaluzhnyi had been urged by Milley, in a teleconference on 10 August where Radakin was also dialled in, to focus the counteroffensive on “one main front”, the New York Times reported. But even in the era of secure military communications, some conversations can only be held face to face.

2/2. Russia underestimates Ukraine’s resilience and resolve, continued military strength and expertise, and the solidarity of its allies. pic.twitter.com/ddHIyaLxOw

A photograph of Radakin taken on the Polish border with Zaluzhnyi and Cavoli in military fatigues demonstrates the warmth of the relationship. The Ukrainian general has his arms around both men. Normally Radakin brings a bottle of Glenmorangie, Zaluzhnyi’s favourite whisky, as a gift.

Oleksiy Danilov, secretary to the country’s national security council, said that Zaluzhnyi had told him after the meeting at the border “that’s our guy” – although Danilov prefers to bestow the more machismo compliment “balls of steel”.

British sources are reluctant to say much about the outcome of the meeting at the border. But the indications from the west is that the strategy has changed as a result of the discussions. “I think you can see they are focusing on the Zaporizhzhia front,” said one insider, amid reports of fresh Ukrainian attacks aimed at the city of Tokmak, an initial step towards reaching the Sea of Azov, thereby cutting the land bridge to Crimea.

It is a surprising turn of events for Radakin, 57, who was appointed head of the UK armed forces by Boris Johnson in October 2021, making him the first naval chief to hold the position for 20 years.

The idea then had been to mark a break from the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and focus on “global Britain,” a post-Brexit maritime strategy with a greater emphasis on China and asserting navigation rights around the world, and most notably against Beijing in the far-off South China Sea.

The appointment was keenly contested. Supporters of his chief rival, Gen Sir Patrick Sanders, had argued that the chief military adviser should be somebody who had spent time on the frontline. Those close to Radakin, who trained as a lawyer before joining up, emphasise that he served on three operational tours to Iraq, and that a naval background has its advantages, even in a land war.

“When it comes to an admiral dealing with generals, consider the way navies operate,” said one ally. “They have to think in big strategic terms and don’t get lost in detail about weapons, logistics or battlefield tactics. He knows how to ask the simple questions.”

But many in the British army complain that Radakin has not won extra funding for their service, at a time when the Russian invasion and the rising threat from Moscow have dramatically reasserted the importance of land warfare. There was no additional money for investment in a wonkish mini-review, out last month.

Russia was already massing at Ukraine’s borders at the time of Radakin’s appointment. By the time he started on 30 November, some officials at the Ministry of Defence even had a sweepstake on when Moscow would attack.

John Foreman, the most recent UK defence attache to Moscow, set up a meeting for Radakin and the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, in Moscow with their counterparts in February 2022, less than two weeks before the invasion. After a plenary, one of the more significant meetings between the two countries since 1945, Wallace went off to meet Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, while Radakin met its chief of staff, Valery Gerasimov.

Foreman’s job was to advise on how to handle the encounters, and he describes Radakin as a good, but firm listener. “We told him not to mess around with pleasantries or to be put off by bluster. When Gerasimov told him ‘we have no plans to invade’, Radakin replied ‘then why are you putting armour on the border’. The Russian was not used to being confronted, and he was nonplussed”.

Russia, of course, went on to invade, and since then allies say Radakin has made a virtue of seeking a wide range of advice. He met Henry Kissinger on a visit to London to mark his 100th birthday, holding a 15-minute private discussion with the veteran diplomat over the nuclear threat posed by Russia as it struggles in Ukraine.

In the past year, Britain has gone through three prime ministers, while Wallace is due to step down in a few days. The political turmoil, however, has only served to elevate Radakin’s status. In a short time, the admiral has become a figure of continuity, even a co-strategist, between the west and Kyiv as the war grinds on.