An estimated 450 Russian soldiers have died in the conflict in Ukraine so far and Vladimir Putin failed in his military objectives on the first day of fighting, the UK defence secretary has said.
Wallace also rebuffed pleas from Ukrainian and some Conservative politicians for the UK to implement a no-fly zone over Ukraine, arguing that introducing one would amount to declaring war on Russia.
“Our assessment as of this morning is that Russia has not taken any of its major objectives, in fact it is behind its hoped-for timetable,” Wallace told Sky News.
“They have lost over 450 personnel. One of the significant airports they were trying to capture with their elite Spetsnaz [special forces] has failed to be taken. In fact, the Ukrainians have taken it back.
‘We are defending our country alone,’ Zelenskiy tells Ukrainians as Russia approaches Kyiv – video
“So, I think contrary to great Russian claims, and indeed President Putin’s sort of vision that somehow the Ukrainians would be liberated and would be flocking to his cause – he’s got that completely wrong. The Russian army has failed to deliver on day one its main objective.”
In a later exchange on BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme, the Ukrainian MP Lesia Vasylenko pleaded with Wallace for the UK and the US to close airspace above Ukraine “in order for these casualties not to escalate”.
However Wallace said this would constitute a direct act of aggression towards Russia, which would prompt a response, and result in “war across Europe” as any attack on the UK would implicate all other Nato members.
Wallace said: “To do a no-fly zone I would have to put British fighter jets against Russian; Nato would have to declare war on Russia.”
He added: “I cannot and won’t trigger a European war but I will help Ukraine fight every street with every piece of equipment we can support them.”
Vasylenko warned that Europe is already at war, since “if Ukraine is allowed to fall others will follow”, and other democratic nations should seek to protect a fellow sovereign country. “What you are witnessing is a restructuring of the defence and security framework we are so used to,” she said.
She said present sanctions were “not enough” and Ukrainians were disappointed by the lack of support. “We are going into over 24 hours of full-on war with the biggest military power in Europe and still nothing.”
Later in the House of Commons, James Heappey, a junior defence minister, said the UK would send extra troops to Estonia “earlier than planned” to reinforce the Nato ally in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Royal Welsh battlegroup will be arriving in Estonia to double force levels in the country, he said. Heappey also echoed warnings against any potential clash between Russian and Nato troops, saying it could become “existential”.
“We must all in this house be clear that British and Nato troops should not, must not, play an active role in Ukraine,” he said. “We must all be clear what the risk of miscalculation could be and how existential that could very quickly become if people miscalculate and things escalate unnecessarily.”
Quick Guide What is Swift? What is it? Swift (the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) is the main secure messaging system banks use to make rapid and secure cross-border payments, allowing international trade to flow smoothly. It has become the principal mechanism for financing international trade. In 2020, about 38m transactions were sent each day over the Swift platform, facilitating trillions of dollars worth of deals.
Who owns it? Swift, founded in the 1970s, is a co-operative of thousands of member institutions that use the service. Based in Belgium, it remains neutral in trade disputes, being run principally as a service to its members.
Why would a Swift ban be so serious? Boris Johnson told MPs it would harm the Russian economy if it was locked out of Swift. Run of the mill transactions would need to be conducted directly between banks, or routed through fledgling rival systems, adding to costs and creating delays.
Why is the US reluctant to effect a ban? One reason is that the impact on Russian businesses might not be so serious. The head of a large Russian bank, VTB, said recently he could use other channels for payments, such as phones, messaging apps or email. Russian banks could also route payments via countries which have not imposed sanctions, such as China, which has set up its own payments system to rival Swift. A ban on Russia using Swift could accelerate a the use of China’s rival Cips system. There is also a fear that it could damage to the US dollar’s status as the global reserve currency, and accelerate the use of alternatives such as cryptocurrencies.
Wallace said the UK had supported accelerating Ukraine’s Nato membership, which would have triggered military intervention from fellow members, but that other countries had been concerned by the pace.
He added that other democratic countries have a “moral duty” to continue to arm the Ukrainian forces since it is widely acknowledged that Putin “won’t stop at Ukraine” and will train his sights on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania after, since he “doesn’t believe the Baltic states are countries”.
He told Sky News: “What you’re seeing on your cameras today is illogical. Putin didn’t need to do this, he didn’t need to occupy a sovereign country. None of the reasons why he would do that stack up. He’s not doing something that’s logical, he’s doing something about his ego and his legacy.”
In that interview, he added that Putin and Russian military commanders of all rankings “will be held responsible” for their involvement. “Putin has to fail … because he’s fighting our values and all the human rights that we stand for. I don’t know if he’ll fail in Ukraine, we’ll do everything to make sure he does, but if he doesn’t we’ll make sure he fails after that.”