The prime minister said Russia would have hit “new lows” if it turns out that Moscow is responsible for what he described as the largest attack on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine since the start of the war, following the destruction of a critical dam.
Speaking en route to Washington, Rishi Sunak told reporters that the intelligence agencies had yet to make a definitive judgement on whether President Putin was behind the “appalling attack” on the Nova Kakhova dam as he condemned the incident.
“If it’s intentional, it would represent, I think, the largest attack on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine since the start of the war, and just demonstrate the new lows that we would have seen from Russian aggression,” he told the press ahead of his two-day trip to Washington.
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“Attacks on civilian infrastructure are appalling and wrong. We’ve seen previous instances of that in this conflict so far, but it’s too early to say definitively.”
The prime minister also said that the UK’s immediate response to this attack was to offer humanitarian assistance.
“We had already put resources and funding in place to support both the UN and the Red Cross to respond to situations like this,” he said. “And they are now being able to divert those resources to particularly help humanitarian response and the evacuation in this area as a result of what’s happened.”
As with the G7 in Japan but two weeks ago, the matter of Ukraine and how Western allies can best support Kyiv in its battle against Russia will be a central part of discussions between the UK and US leaders when Mr Sunak holds bi-lateral talks in the Oval Office on Thursday.
“One of the things the prime minister and President Biden will discuss is how we can sustain the huge level of global support for Ukraine while providing them with the capabilities they need, including air defence,” the prime minister’s spokesperson said ahead of the trip.
These discussions come as allies intensify support before Ukraine’s expected summer counteroffensive.
A big breakthrough came at the G7 last month when the US signalled it and allies would provide training and F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, a request President Zelenskyy hammered home to allies for months before the US moved.
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Number 10 is keen to stress not just the Rishi Sunak reset after the testy era of the Boris Johnson and Liz Truss reigns, but the strengthening of relations between the US and UK under a Sunak premiership.
In his favour has been the resolution with the EU over post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland, and Mr Sunak’s steadfast support for Ukraine.
And this will certainly be a trip full of photo-ops to reinforce the “special relationship”. As well as the images of the prime minister on Capitol Hill and in the Oval Office finished off with a White House press conference, Mr Sunak will also attend the Washington Nationals baseball game as the guest of honour to celebrate the annual UK-US friendship day – although he won’t be throwing the ceremonial first pitch, instead leaving that task to a British veteran.
A prime minister with a background in finance and an interest in tech – he met his wife in California while studying at Stanford – Mr Sunak is trying to play to his strengths with his emphasis on greater economic interoperability and deeper trade ties, while also making a pitch to President Biden to get the UK more deeply involved in the regulation of AI.
But as he tries to forge a post-Brexit place in the world for the UK – Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak’s leadership on Ukraine an undoubted positive – London is disadvantaged: When it comes to AI, it is the US, China and the EU at the leading edge with the UK largely on the sidelines.
When it comes to trade, the Biden administration has put the much-vaunted US-UK free trade deal into the deep freeze, so much so that neither side plan to even raise it in these bilateral talks.
While Mr Sunak will use the trip to try to drum up more US investment, with an announcement of £14bn of US backing into the UK and an address to the “business roundtable chief executive” forum, the absence of any trade deal is another broken Conservative manifesto promise.
Mr Johnson and his government had championed a US trade deal as a big Brexit bonus, while President Trump insisted in 2017 the UK was “at the front of the queue”.
It now appears that President Obama’s “back of the queue” warning ahead of the 2016 EU referendum is more apposite, with no timeline as to when, if ever, a bilateral trade deal will be dusted down.
“Neither side is pursuing a US free trade deal currently, but our trading relationship with the US is vital,” the prime minister’s spokesperson said.
Trade between the countries now stands at £279bn a year. Back in 2020, government analysis suggested a trade deal could increase trade – which then stood at £221bn – by £15.8bn and also said wages could get a long-term bounce worth £1.8bn from a US deal.
On Artificial Intelligence, the PM wants to take a lead in setting a regulatory framework, something he has raised as the G7, but post-Brexit, the UK has been locked out of key forums between the EU and The US where AI governance plans are negotiated on a bilateral basis. Britain’s requests for a similar dialogue with Washington have been repeatedly rebuffed, which has left Mr Sunak forced to pursue direct channels to president Biden, which he will do this week.
The PM hopes to make the UK the venue for an international summit on generative AI summit later in the year, and is also pushing for a new inter-governmental regulator for this emerging technology to be based in the UK.
And some do see a post-Brexit opportunity for Britain, offering the US a more flexible middle ground between the EU and US approach to standards and regulations, while also being potentially tougher on Beijing than Brussels might be.
AI could be a policy area where the UK could act as a transatlantic bridge between the US and Europe – if Mr Sunak can land it.
Darren Jones, chair of the business select committee, said a “key test” for the PM will be to “successfully pitch the UK as a useful partner that offers a different approach to the EU. Failure will leave us out of the room, not at the table and out in the cold.”
For the Prime Minister, the continue focus on Ukraine amplifies a global issue in which the UK has been able to demonstrate strong leadership post Brexit, and claim the US can work together on building stronger ties on trade and regulating AI.
But without a trade deal in sight, or even on the horizon, and struggling to insert the Uk into the EU-US discussions on AI, he really does have his work cut out.