Could Europe send troops to Ukraine?

Militari russi prendono parte alla parata del Giorno della Vittoria a Mosca. Bai Xueqi/Alamy

 


It is 2026, and in a downbeat speech at the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin finally announces a withdrawal from Ukraine. Russian troops have done their best – or worst – but a fresh influx of well-trained Ukrainians have finally prevailed. The Donbas is now in Kyiv’s grip, Crimea’s fall only days away.

What has turned the tide, though, is not just the long-awaited F16s, or Washington switching the funding back on. Instead, it is the presence of thousands of European troops across Ukraine’s western half, protecting cities, ports and borders, making Ukraine feel reassured and Russia unnerved. As Kyiv celebrates, Europe quietly pats itself on the back too: after 80 years clutching America’s coat-tails, it finally stepped up to win a war in its own backyard.

The big question is this: what would happen when bodybags started coming home?

As future wargaming strategies go, this one may not be uppermost in Rishi Sunak’s mind when he flies to Poland today to discuss Ukraine with Donald Tusk. For a start, it rather downplays the small issue that putting western troops east of Poland’s border might spark world war three. Yet should Mr Sunak happen to browse the policy journal Foreign Affairs while on the plane to Warsaw, he would learn that in the world of thinktanks, at least, the unthinkable is finally being thought.

In an article published in the journal yesterday, ‘Europe – but Not NATO – Should Send Troops to Ukraine’, three influential military academics argue that there is now ‘a growing bloc of countries open to direct European intervention in the war’. The nations in question have not exactly put it like that so far. France’s President Macron, who first broached the question of intervention back in February, has merely said it can’t be ‘ruled out’, while Poland’s foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, believes it is ‘not unthinkable’.

Intervention, the authors insist, is not as apocalyptic as it sounds. For a start, Article 5 wouldn’t be triggered because the countries would be acting in Europe’s name, not Nato’s. And rather than heading straight to Bakhmut to scrap full-on with the Russians, the Euro-force would stay hundreds of miles back – most likely west of the River Dnipro, the waterway that that divides Ukraine in two.

 

By doing so, they’d signal that they had no intention of starting a fight – only to defend cities like Kyiv should Russia try capturing them again. Their presence would, though, free up large numbers of Ukrainian troops to join the fray further east. Meanwhile, the Euro-force would massively boost rear-echelon support, be it training Ukrainian troops, repairing broken armour, or manning air-defence batteries against incoming Russian missiles.

So what could possibly go wrong? Not much, according to the authors, who say ‘the risk that deploying European soldiers will escalate the conflict is overblown’. Indeed, their proposal gets enthusiastic backing from Glen Grant, a former UK defence attaché to the Baltics, and one-time adviser to Ukraine’s defence ministry.

‘It’s a very good idea, and the western nations would learn valuable lessons from it too, even it was just helping with logistics and maintenance,’ he told me. ‘If Ukraine starts to lose the war, we’re going to have to do this anyway, so we’re only bringing it forward.’

It is not, however, quite as straightforward as it seems. Simon Woodiwiss, a former British Army infantry officer who fought with Ukraine’s International Legion and who now runs ObjectiveUkraine, a Kyiv-based security consultancy, is also broadly supportive. But he’s not so sure that European boots in western Ukraine would free up vast numbers of young, fit Ukrainians to fight further east. ‘The average of the guys at the front is 43 already, and they’re the ones who want to fight – those currently further back are more likely to be the less enthusiastic ones,’ he points out.

Other questions include whether Nato really has much to teach Ukrainian troops, given how much drones have changed the battlefield, and how little Nato tactics seemed to help in the summer’s counteroffensive. How easily, too, could Nato take over backroom tasks like logistics and procurement? According to Woodiwiss, Ukrainian military supply systems operate to their own uniquely chaotic rhythms, which would leave the average European military quartermaster in tears.

The big question is this: what would happen when bodybags started coming home? Troops stationed in significant numbers would be an obvious target for Russian missiles, and with no Article 5 to protect them, the Kremlin would surely be tempted to attack. Mr Grant says that any contributing European government would have to accept possible loss of life. He believes, though, that the benefits outweigh the risks, and that shedding blood would show Europe’s commitment in a way that giving weapons or money never can.

 

Politically, blood is much more expensive than treasure. For many European nations, anything beyond a few dozen fatalities would be unchartered political territory in modern times. In the West’s Afghanistan campaign, for example, America, Britain and Canada bore the brunt of the 3,500 casualties, while most European participant nations lost 50 or less.

 

Were deaths in Ukraine to start mounting in the hundreds, let alone the thousands, the clamour to pull troops out Ukraine would quickly grow. All it would take would be for one nation to buckle, and Mr Putin could say – with some justification – that when the going got tough, Europe wasn’t that resolute after all.

 

Colin Freeman | The Spectator | 23 April 2024

Colin Freeman is former chief foreign correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph and author of ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: The mission to rescue the hostages the world forgot.’

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