Britain could send tanks to Poland to allow the eastern European Nato member to supply Ukraine with its own Soviet-era armoured vehicles, Boris Johnson has revealed.
The announcement came as the prime minister set out plans for a new long-term “security guarantee” for Ukraine after the end of the current war, which would stop short of Nato membership but be tough enough to deter Moscow from a repeat invasion.
The guarantee, coupled with massive provision of protective arms, would offer “deterrence by denial and make sure their territory is so fortified as to be impregnable”, said the PM.
But it would not replicate Nato’s Article 5 principle that an attack on one member is an attack on all, depriving Kyiv of the shield of Western military engagement in the event of any future assault.
As the focus of the war moves away from Kyiv to the eastern Donbas region, Mr Johnson also said that the UK will next week reopen its embassy in the capital in a gesture of support for the Ukrainian people.
But he accepted the gloomy recent assessment of Western defence officials that the war could drag on until the end of 2023 and end with Vladimir Putin able to claim some sort of victory.
Sending Challenger 2 tanks to Poland to “backfill” for T72s supplied to the Ukrainians would come close to crossing the line that Mr Johnson has so far carefully observed, of providing only defensive kit in order to avoid being accused of provoking Moscow.
No request has yet been received from Warsaw, but it is understood that delivery could be arranged within days if needed.
Observers suggested that the bold proposal appeared to be an attempt by the PM to distract attention away from his travails over Downing Street parties, which have overshadowed his two-day trip to India.
In talks with prime minister Narendra Modi in Delhi, Mr Johnson made no attempt to persuade the Indian premier to condemn Putin, in what was seen as an effort to avoid jeopardising a planned free trade agreement which he said he wanted “done by Divali” in October.
Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said later that Johnson had put “no pressure” on Modi to ditch his neutral stance on the war, which has seen India abstain in key votes censuring Russia at the United Nations.
But Mr Johnson told a press conference at the conclusion of the visit that Modi assured him that he had asked Putin several times in private conversations “what on Earth he thinks he’s doing and where he thinks this is going”.
Glossing over the deep differences on Ukraine between London and Delhi – which is calling for a ceasefire and diplomatic dialogue – Mr Johnson said: “What the Indians want is peace and they want the Russians out, and I totally agree with that.”
Appearing alongside Modi earlier, the PM avoiding ruffling his hosts’ feathers by making no mention of Russia or Ukraine at all in a seven-minute statement, saying only that “autocratic coercion” around the world made it important for democracies to work closely together.
He sealed a “new and expanded” Defence and Security Partnership which will ease UK arms exports to India and provide UK expertise for the development of Indian-built fighter jets.
But he acknowledged concerns raised by defence thinktank Rusi that Western components – including some made in the UK – were being used in Russian weapons after being laundered through countries like India, telling reporters that Britain needs to “take steps to make sure this stuff doesn’t go through other routes to Russia”.
Mr Johnson, who has previously insisted that the Russian president “must fail” in his military adventure, agreed that a lengthy war ending with Putin claiming victory at least in the south and east of Ukraine was now a “realistic possibility”.
Mr Johnson said: “Putin has a huge army. He has a very difficult political position because he’s made a catastrophic blunder.
“The only option he now has, really, is to continue to try to use his appalling, grinding approach driven by artillery, trying to grind the Ukrainians down.
“No matter what military superiority Vladimir Putin may be able to bring to bear in the next few months – I agree, it may be a long period – he will not be able to conquer the spirit of the Ukrainian people. That is an observable fact.
“On the contrary, what he is doing is reinforcing that will to resist in the people of Ukraine.”
Looking ahead to security guarantees to protect Ukraine from a repeat assault, he said: “What the Ukrainians want – and I think are now going to get – is a collection of guarantees from like-minded countries about what we can do to back them up with weaponry, with training and with intelligence-sharing.
“It will, I hope, enable the Ukrainians to offer deterrence by denial and make sure their territory is so fortified as to be impregnable to further attack from Russia. That is what we need to do.”
It emerged on Thursday that a small number of Ukrainian troops are being trained in Britain for the first time since the start of the Russian invasion.
Britain is providing Ukraine with 150 armoured patrol vehicles, including the Mastiff, which can be used as a reconnaissance or patrol vehicle.
The prime minister’s spokesman said the UK, in conjunction with its allies, was providing new types of equipment to Ukrainian soldiers that they may not have used before.
“It is only sensible that they get requisite training to make best use of it,” the spokesman said. “We are always conscious of anything perceived to be escalatory, but clearly what is escalatory is the actions of Putin’s regime.”