Russia warns WWIII “inevitable” if West sends troops to Ukraine

Russia warns WWIII “inevitable” if West sends troops to Ukraine
The Kremlin lashed out after French President Emmanuel Macron said that the West could send troops to Ukraine on a bilateral basis, warning that WWIII would become "inevitable" in that case. / AI
By Ben Aris in Berlin February 27, 2024

The Kremlin warned that WWIII would become “inevitable” if Western countries sent troops to fight in Ukraine, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on February 27.

"In that case, it’s not going to be about probability, but inevitability – that's how we assess it," he said, TASS quoted Peskov as saying, answering a journalist’s question on how the Kremlin assesses the probability of a direct conflict between Nato and Russia if Western troops were sent to Ukraine.

Peskov warned that Nato countries "should also assess" the consequences of such actions and be aware of them. They should "ask themselves whether this corresponds to their interests, and most importantly, to the interests of the citizens of their countries," Peskov said TASS reported.

Peskov was responding to comments made by French President Emmanuel Macron during an EU summit on Ukraine in Paris on February 27. 

Macron said that sending Western troops should not be ruled out, though there was no consensus on this yet. Macron’s statements are a radical departure from the previous policy of Nato going out of its way to avoid provoking Russia by preventing any risk of engaging with Russian troops in fear of sparking another world war.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said from the start of the conflict that Nato’s first goal was to prevent WWIII and it would not become directly engaged in the war in Ukraine, adding there is a danger that the war will spill over into Western Europe.

Stoltenberg warned that the West must be prepared for “decades-long confrontation” with Russia in an interview with German newspaper Welt Am Sonntag on February 10. However, he added, "If Putin wins in Ukraine, there is no guarantee that Russian aggression will not spread to other countries.”

A Nato official told the Financial Times that there were no plans for the alliance to put combat troops on the ground in Ukraine.

Macron's suggestion of possibly sending troops was also immediately rejected by Germany. Deputy Chancellor Robert Habeck said there was “no chance” of sending ground troops to Ukraine and suggested that Paris should instead supply Kyiv with more weapons, the Financial Times reported. 

“I’m pleased that France is thinking about how to increase its support for Ukraine, but if I could give it a word of advice — supply more weapons,” Habeck said.

The issue of sending Western troops had been leaked by Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico just before the summit, who also told journalists that “several Nato and EU members are considering sending soldiers to Ukraine on a bilateral basis”.

"I will limit myself to say that these theses [prepared for the Paris meeting] imply a number of Nato and EU member states are considering that they will send their troops to Ukraine on a bilateral basis," Fico told a televised briefing following a meeting of Slovakia's security council. "I cannot say for what purpose and what they should be doing there," he said, adding that Slovakia, a member of the EU and Nato, would not be sending soldiers to Ukraine, Reuters reported.

Fellow members of the Central European Visegrad Group (V4), who were gathering for their own summit on February 27, were quick to play down Fico's comments and rule out sending troops.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala told reporters: "The Czech Republic certainly is not preparing to send any soldiers to Ukraine, nobody has to worry about that."

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk also said Poland has no plans to send troops to Ukraine at a press conference in Paris on February 27: “Poland has no plans to send its troops into Ukrainian territory. I think we should not speculate today whether circumstances will arise that could change this position.”

Europe's rising panic

Macron called the summit amid a rising sense of panic in Europe as Ukraine’s position begins to rapidly deteriorate due to an increasingly acute shortage of ammunition and money that has started to lead to battlefield defeats.

The meeting at the Elysée Palace was attended by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Polish President Andrzej Duda, and the prime ministers of about 20 other EU countries. In addition, the US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs James O'Brien, and the UK's Foreign Minister David Cameron were in attendance.

The US recently warned that Ukraine could face a “catastrophic” arms shortage and a collapse of its air defences “within weeks” if more aid is not delivered, ABC News reported on February 22, citing two anonymous US officials. 

However, there are still significant differences within Nato on whether Ukraine should be given Western long-range missiles.

Speaking a week earlier during a debate in Berlin on sending the powerful Taurus cruise missiles to Ukraine, Scholz said: “Germany is the largest military supporter of Ukraine in Europe. It stays that way. But it is clear: we do not become a party of the conflict – neither directly nor indirectly. These two principles guide all my decisions.” The Bundestag voted against sending Ukraine the potentially game-changing Taurus missiles for this reason.

The rising panic in Europe is partly fuelled by reports that the Russian military is preparing to launch a new offensive in the spring or early summer of this year to take advantage of Ukraine’s growing supply problems, confirmed by ISW’s latest assessment of the war, noting Russia's recent battlefield gains and the disappointments of Ukraine's 2023 counteroffensive.

"Russian forces have regained the theatre-wide initiative and will be able to pursue offensive operations when and where they choose as long as they hold the initiative," the ISW said in a report.

"Russian forces will have the ability to manoeuvre reserve concentrations and determine how and where to allocate resources while forcing Ukraine to respond defensively," the ISW said, adding that Ukraine could counter these threats by conducting its own counter offensives, but is only possible if it has “enough means” to mount an attack.

Battlefield reports say that Russian troops have been consolidating their positions after the recapture of Avdiivka in the Donbas region on February 17,  which has handed the Russian forces the initiative, according to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). Russian forces have taken villages around Avdiivka and continued their advance on Ukrainian positions behind the town.

Ukraine is suffering from a growing manpower crisis due to the high casualty rate. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said at a conference to mark the second anniversary of the war on February 24 that Ukraine has lost 31,000 troops in the last two years, but  US assessments put the number of KIA at 70,000.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu rubbished Zelenskiy estimate the same day, saying that according to Russian estimates the Ukrainian army has lost over 444,000 troops since the beginning of the “special military operation” and had been losing over 800 troops a day since the beginning of 2024.

Both sides have been very coy about their own casualty numbers and have played up their opponent’s losses.

Ukraine prepares to go it alone

Ukraine is increasingly fearful that the West is about to give up on Ukraine. A recent poll found that 44% of Ukrainians believe that the West is tired of the Ukraine conflict, up from only 15% at the end of 2022 and 30% at the beginning of October 2023.

If US Republican obstruction of US aid continus, Ukraine may be increasingly thrown on its own resources to supply itself with arms. 

Kyiv plans to produce 1mn drones per year from this year, according to Digital Transformations Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, speaking at the "Ukraine Year 2024" forum on February 25. Some 90% of drones used by Ukraine on the battlefield are already of Ukrainian manufacture, he added. And Ukraine plans to catch up with Russia in production of Shahed-type drones in 2024 as part of the same effort.

As part of this effort, Zelenskiy launched a “made in Ukraine” programme of government subsidies to promote industrial production and the manufacture of arms. This follows on from a conference last year to make Ukraine a military production hub.

The first deals have already been signed, including a joint venture with German military arms maker giant Rheinmetall to build an arms plant in Ukraine, signed earlier this year.

Earlier the EU promised to provide Ukraine with one million rounds by March, but EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned that target would be missed. 

At the Paris summit, France and the Netherlands agreed to a Czech plan  to help raise €1.5bn to buy Ukraine shells from outside of Europe for Ukraine. Czechia is ready to head up the initiative to purchase shell stockpiles that have already been identified outside of the EU, but needs help from European allies to secure the $1.5bn in funding. 

Berlin said it is already conducting negotiations to procure ammunition from India, which is believed to have "several hundred thousand rounds" stored in stockpiles, Der Spiegel reported on February 25. Talks are also going on with several African countries that are also believed to have large stockpiles of arms.