Published On: Thu, Feb 29th, 2024

Western troops in Ukraine ‘don’t have to mean nuclear war’ – but the risk is real | World | News


Western soldiers could be sent into Ukraine without it amounting to a “declaration of war”, a UK-based defence expert has said.

However, speaking after French President Emmanuel Macron hinted at a possible troop deployment, Bryden Spurling also warned the risk of “conflict escalation” would be real in such circumstances.

Mr Macron’s refusal to rule out the possibility during a press conference on Monday drew a sharp rebuke from Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who insisted such a move would trigger direct conflict between Russia and the West.

Other NATO member states including the UK, as well as the alliance’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, moved swiftly to downplay any suggestion of military personnel being sent to Ukraine.

The comments triggered faced significant criticism domestically from political opponents included Marine Le Pen.

But Mr Spurling, a senior research leader with RAND Europe, focusing on defence and security, suggested Mr Macron’s faith in what the French leader called “strategic ambiguity” was not misplaced.

He explained: “It was an interesting – and I think worthwhile – intervention from President Macron. One of the things it can be good to do in a strategic campaign is to keep your adversary guessing about how far you’ll go.

“But for democracies, that is often in tension with the need to reassure domestic constituents.

“We saw it in Afghanistan, when the US government announced it would withdraw, obviously feeling the pressure from a population tired of conflict.”

The announcement by the administration of then-President Donald Trump that all US troops would be withdrawn by May 1, 2021 “reportedly reassured the Taliban that they just needed to outlast the US until then, when they might otherwise have been open to talks”, Mr Spurling said.

He continued: “That can apply here in the Russian invasion of Ukraine too. It’s worthwhile keeping Russia guessing how far we’ll go to defend European security and international order.”

There were a wide range of options for what “boots on the ground” would actually look like in practice, Mr Spurling emphasised.

He said: “Some are lower risk than others. There have been suggestions of de-mining crews or medical care.

“Further help sustaining capability – of which the Ukrainians now have a bewildering and expensive array – is another possibility that could technically avoid being on the front lines.”

Mr Spurling continued: “More interventionist options could be defensive in nature, such as deploying air defence to protect civilian sites, or Black Sea deployments by Western naval forces.

“And of course, there are even more forward-leaning options than that. These deployments wouldn’t need to be a declaration of war. Armed forces deploy all the time to conflict zones without being at war, although Russia may well see it as such regardless.”

Even establishing and deploying what Mr Spurling described as a “Western proxy force” was an option, although it was not something Western countries typically do in the modern era given the danger that such forces “may behave in a way that doesn’t reflect our values”, he stressed.

Nevertheless he acknowledged: “None of these are risk-free. Even a minor non-combat deployment would likely be seen by Russia as the beginning of a slippery slope, and be targeted by them in an effort to fracture Western will and cohesion.

“So any deployment would need to be such that what we and Ukraine get out of it justifies the risk to the personnel, and the risk of the conflict escalating.

“In these conversations we tend to focus a lot on that risk of conflict escalation, which is indeed a possibility. It just needs to be balanced against the fact that Russia would also face great risk if it decided to escalate beyond Ukraine. And the risks of Russia succeeding in Ukraine are also profound.”

Mr Spurling did not see a great likelihood of a “declared operation” by Western forces in Ukraine “any time soon” while arguing that it “should stay part of the conversation”.

He concluded: “President Macron is right that there is a lot at stake here.

“The consequences from how this conflict plays out will already stretch far beyond Ukraine.”



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