UK defence secretary gets popularity bonus for holding office in Ukraine

Ben Wallace carried out a major mission to Turkey last week, the latest in a series of foreign trips, where he mustered support for Ukraine and worked to thwart a Russian aggression.

The UK defence secretary aims to use his trip to Ankara to assuage Turkey’s opposition to Sweden and Finland joining NATO ahead of a military alliance summit in Madrid this week.

Turkey continues to publicly reject the initiative. Even so, Wallace — a bravado, bald and busy ex-soldier whose rhetoric is full of weapons system details and quotes from war theorists — has been one of the top Western officials involved in the Ukrainian conflict.

That has boosted Wallace’s profile at home, and according to one regular, Wallace, 52, is currently the ruling Conservative party’s most popular cabinet minister. Conservative House Survey, a blog focused on the Conservative Party. The defence secretary is considered a possible successor to the UK’s scandal-ridden Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Wallace’s trip to Turkey, however, was not about domestic politics, but a testament to his military standing outside Britain. His NATO counterpart said his natural understanding of the needs of soldiers and the need for troops in war enhanced Britain’s voice in discussions of the war in Ukraine and the future of NATO.

Whitehall officials said the trip to Ankara took advantage of Wallace’s previous role as Britain’s security minister, when he oversaw counter-terrorism and developed a good relationship with his Turkish counterpart. It also draws on his experience as a former overseas director of British arms maker Qinetiq.

“Wallace was very good at his relationship with the foreign secretary and worked hard — you could tell he was a defense salesman,” said one who worked closely with him.

Ben Wallace and Boris Johnson visit a naval base in Scotland in 2019 © Jeff J Mitchell/AFP/Getty Images

A former captain of the Scottish Guard, Wallace, like other British politicians with a military background and soaring prestige, has endured a “bellicose” while also advocating for peace where possible. Before Russia launched a full-scale offensive, Wallace traveled to Moscow to warn his opponents of the consequences.

Ben Barry, a former brigadier general and now a senior researcher, said: “He has done a good job so far on Ukraine and has worked hard to overcome the initial cautiousness of the Whitehall ‘security bureaucracy’ in order to help when Russia moves troops to the border. Kyiv provides early military assistance.” London think tank International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“He also spearheaded the establishment of an international donor conference to coordinate military supplies to Ukraine. The position has since been taken over by U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, but he remains highly involved in operational details.”

Wallace got along well with rank-and-file soldiers, was outspoken in the House of Commons, and was often seen as a beacon of wisdom in a government that was periodically chaotic. “No one put the word ‘idiot’ after his name like other ministers,” said a military insider.

He opposed the apparent diversion of British military resources to airlifting cats and dogs from a popular charity during the chaotic withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan last year. He advised British volunteers not to fight in Ukraine, contrary to Foreign Secretary Liz Strass, who earlier said she would “absolutely” support anyone who did.

But his military background can sometimes be a liability. “He may get overly involved in tactical details, take views based on incomplete understanding, and then claim his authority that he is the boss; working with him will frustrate him,” one official said.

One example is Wallace’s decision to cut orders for the E-7 Wedgetail, an early warning and control system that defence experts have warned would create a capability gap in British reconnaissance. “He’s not afraid to make decisions, even if they’re not going to please everyone,” Barry said.

An E-7A Wedgetail

E-7A Wedgetail in service with the Royal Australian Air Force © Paul Kane/Getty Images

Wallace was born in the town of Farnborough, Hampshire in 1970 to a military father, he made his way in the army, attending military school at Sandhurst before joining the Scottish Guard, where he left in 1998 The Scottish Guard entered politics, first as a member of the Scottish Parliament.

A loyal supporter of Johnson, despite their different temperaments, he voted to Remain in the 2016 EU referendum and to Russia’s attempted poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal in 2018 Served as Secretary of Security – a defining moment in American history Britain’s tough stance on Moscow.

He was rewarded for his role as manager of Johnson’s Conservative-led campaign, becoming defence minister in 2019, a position that has held 10 ministers in 17 years. He cited the stress of a recent separation from his wife, with whom he has three children.

Wallace may appear to be a thoroughly old-fashioned Conservative, but he seems to have kept pace with the times. He has said the military needs “more women” and bemoaned the failure to “reflect the society we serve, support and defend”. He launched an independent review of the experiences of LGBT+ veterans affected by the pre-2000 gay ban in the Armed Forces.

Ben Wallace presents medals to members of the armed forces
Wallace says the military needs more women © Mark Rawlings/MoD

His next major domestic assignment is for the British shrinking armyhe warned that its arms supplies were being depleted by the need to supply Ukraine.

UK defence spending is around 2% of gross domestic product, but many leading politicians say that needs to be raised to 3% when Ukraine is taken into account. “I’ve always said that as the threat changes, so should the funding,” Wallace said.

At the same time, Britain plans to train thousands of Ukrainian reservists to create a significant second tier of combat readiness, demonstrating strategic thinking that operates within financial and logistical constraints.

Will he be prime minister one day? While ambitious, the betting market gave him a 10-1 perimeter chance, and Wallace clearly enjoyed his job.

“There are a lot of people who want to do more to help Ukraine. I’m going to do that,” Wallace said at a time recent interviews. “But I’m a politician, so feel free to read that answer.”

Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Brussels and Sebastian Payne in London

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