Soldiers in Soft Shoes: British military advisors head for Ukraine

The British government’s decision to send 75 military advisors to aid the Ukrainian army has been seen by many experts as more symbolic than significant. If this is the case: why bother?

Rewind the clock fifty years, to 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis: the news of British and American military personnel heading for Ukrainian soil may well have been the trigger for a nuclear launch. Back then, the reasons would have been purely provocative, but this time the answer may lie in a combination of a need to put action behind rhetoric and British pride.

If we were back at the beginning of the 60s, the western coalition would have been landing in Ukraine armed to teeth and in military fatigues but next month they will be putting shoes, rather than boots on the ground. Once they have arrived, via a civilian aircraft and not escorted by fighter jets, they will be stationed in Kiev – over 700km from the frontline.

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, may have announced this deployment over a month after President Obama but it’s the British troops that will touchdown on Ukrainian soil first. It seems Cameron is keen to continue his hardline stance on Russia. A stance that started with economic sanctions and has continued throughout, with the Prime Minister even likening Putin to Hitler.

The only thing missing on the British résumé of “pressure on Russia” was their omission from the Minsk talks in January. Cameron was left sitting in the wings, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande took centre stage.

Cameron, now, seems keen to push himself back to the forefront of the western side of the conflict. Shashank Joshi, Senior Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, believes that this “British marginalisation” led to an “added pressure on Downing Street” to react to the, apparent, breakdown of the Minsk agreement.

Cameron proclaimed his desire to make Britain the “strongest pole in the tent”, as he announced the deployment before the British Security Council at the end of February. He also refused to rule out following up this deployment with weaponry for the Ukrainian Army – giving the swift justification that the Americans were also “thinking carefully” about providing weapons.

Richard Whitman, Senior Fellow at Chatham House believes that the UK’s much discussed special relationship with the US is the reason behind the deployment. Thus, it is whom the advisors will await, rather than whom they won’t, that was a major part in Cameron’s decision. Whitman told inEurope:

“The UK government’s actions are best viewed in terms of transatlantic relations. They are making a contribution to a US led position on Ukraine.”

It may be difficult for Cameron to become the strongest pole when he’s taking his lead from another country that is sending more than ten times the number of military personnel – 800 Americans compared with 75 Brits.

The problem for both Obama and Cameron may be how strong both these poles actually are. With the Ukrainian Army outnumbered and outgunned by the Russian-backed separatists, training can only go so far. According to Global Firepower’s 2015 report, the Ukrainian Army is the 25th strongest in the World – Russia comes in 2nd, just behind the United States.

Despite being dwarfed by the Russian army, it’s corruption that seems to be the army’s largest problem, at least according to Jana Kobzova. Kobzova, a Research Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told inEurope that she believes the debate over providing the army with weapons is “stupid” because corruption within the country would render them useless anyway.

Ukraine is currently ranked 142 out of 175 on Transparency International’s Global Corruption index but this government seems motivated to improve this.

Following his election in June 2014, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that he wished to “purge the army of thieves and fraudsters”. On March 4th, he took his first step: signing a bill that would establish the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine. Only time will tell whether this attempt to eradicate the problem, is also an attempt to convince the west that their weapons will be in safe hands.

Without these ‘safe hands’, any Western coalition will remain wary of placing their equipment in an area where the rebels may capture it and this could explain the decision to dip their toe in the water and send military personnel.

Further presence

Poland is set to become the third toe to take the plunge although for different reasons. Two days after Cameron had announced his commitment, Poland added theirs. Although there has been no concrete commitment in terms of the number of personnel, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said that he believes the British government was “playing the right tune”.

The Polish don’t have the “same special relationship” with the U.S. and weren’t publically isolated during the Minsk talks so their reasoning for the deployment comes from a different basis: geography.

Poland shares a border with both Russia, albeit through the enclave of Kaliningrad, and Ukraine and Whitman believes that it is the latter border that is crucial to the decision. He told inEurope that he believes the Polish government is ‘laying down a marker’ so they can work with Ukraine in the future.

With Poland and the UK both contributing personnel, observers of the conflict may feel it likely that other EU countries will follow and while this is impossible to rule out, it’s not expected that any of the other ‘main players’ would follow suit.

Still fresh from their stint at the negotiating table Merkel’s Germany and Hollande’s France seem unlikely to commit any advisors of their own, according to Joshi. Although some of the Baltic states my provide assistance, he is wary of what difference they could make due to their “much, much more limited capabilities.”

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also seemed keen to avoid any talk of advisors coming from France or Germany. He told reporters that they would remain “determined” to follow the Minsk agreement in light of the British decision.

Whether he deployed military advisors in order to cuddle up with America or to step out from Merkel’s shadow, with France and Germany taking their turn in the wings – it’s up to David Cameron to fly the European flag.

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