US says sending military “trainers” to Ukraine is “inevitable”

US says sending military “trainers” to Ukraine is “inevitable”
As Russian troops make gains thanks to a dearth of US military support, a general in Washington says sending Western military to support Ukraine on the ground is "inevitable". / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin May 17, 2024

In another step in the creeping escalation, the US said sending military trainers” to participate in the War in Ukraine is “inevitable,” The New York Times (NYT) reported on May 16.

The US’ highest-ranking officer, General Charles Q. Brown Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that Western armies will provide military trainers to Kyiv “at some point” in a move that would mark a significant departure from Nato’s previous reluctance to put boots on the ground in Ukraine.

“We’ll get there eventually, over time,” Brown told reporters, according to reports. He stressed that doing so now would put “a bunch of Nato trainers at risk” and tie up air defences that would be better used protecting Ukrainian soldiers on the battlefield, the NYT reported.

The revelation comes only a day after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that it was “up to Ukraine to decide” if it wanted to use US-made weapons to strike targets inside Russian territory, a significant softening of the previous ban, due to fears of provoking a similar Russian retaliation.

The announcement also follows on from French President Emmanuel Macron’s earlier remarks that Nato should not take the possibility of committing troops to the fight in Ukraine off the table in order to maintain “strategic ambiguity” in the struggle against Russia. Those remarks provoked a strong condemnation from the Kremlin. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered military manoeuvres with Russian nuclear missiles in response as a signal to the West of what its direct involvement in the war in Ukraine might lead to.

A growing number of European countries have followed Macron’s lead and signalled a willingness to consider sending military personnel to Ukraine. An Estonian official said last week they are “seriously” discussing the possibility of sending troops into western Ukraine in non-combat roles, while Lithuania’s foreign minister said training missions in Ukraine “might be quite doable.” Other leading European countries such as Germany have ruled out any direct involvement in the war by their troops.

The suggestion of direct Western military participation in the conflict comes as the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) come under increasing pressure from a new heavy assault on the eastern city of Kharkiv, where Russian forces are making their first advances in months. At the same time, little of the $61bn of new US military aid has appeared on the battlefield, according to battlefield reports, and Russia continues to pulverise Ukraine’s energy infrastructure with impunity. At least half of all of Ukraine’s generating capacity has been damaged or destroyed since an intense barrage began in January that has only intensified since then.

In addition to an ammo crisis, Ukraine is suffering from a manpower shortage, as undisclosed losses reach “catastrophic levels”, according to Ukraine’s former top general Valerii Zaluzhnyi, who Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was removed from office earlier this year.

As a result, Ukrainian officials have asked their American and Nato counterparts to help train 150,000 new recruits closer to the front line for faster deployment, the NYT reports. A Ukrainian delegation is currently in Washington to lobby for more US aid.

So far, the US has rejected these calls but Brown said at a press conference that a Nato deployment of trainers appeared to be “inevitable.” “We’ll get there eventually, over time,” he said.

Previous US efforts to train Ukrainian soldiers have not been successful. Ahead of last summer’s much vaulted counteroffensive, elite troops were trained by the US in Grafenwoehr in Germany, but the counter-offensive was effectively thwarted by heavy Russian defences built up in the nine-month lull before the summer counteroffensive could be launched.

Compounding the problem is that Ukrainians are facing a battlefield far different and more intense than what American forces have fought on in recent years, the NYT reports.

“Moving the training into Ukraine, military officials acknowledge, would allow American trainers to more quickly gather information about the innovations occurring on the Ukrainian front lines, potentially allowing them to adapt their training,” the NYT reports.

Battlefield situation

Russia is widely expected to launch its own counter-offensive this summer; it may be already under way. Fighting to the north of Kharkiv, close to the Russian border, has already become intense, with Russian forces making slow but steady advances, albeit with heavy casualties.

Nato said on May 16 that it doesn’t believe Russia will make a breakthrough in the Kharkiv Oblast, but Rob Bauer, chairman of the Nato Military Committee, told journalists that even providing Ukraine with more military aid in a timely manner will “not necessarily discourage Russia from offensive operations,” reports European Pravda.

Christopher Cavoli, Supreme Commander of Nato's Allied Forces Europe, said at a press briefing that the Russians "don't have the numbers necessary to do a strategic breakthrough," Ukrayinska Pravda reports.

"More to the point, they don't have the skill and capability to do it, to operate at the scale necessary to exploit any breakthrough to strategic advantage. They do have the ability to make local advances and they have done some of that," he added, saying that he was confident that the AFU will hold the line.

A Ukraine delegation in Washington is pressing for permission to use US missiles to strike at Russian forces being massed on the Russian side of the border and logistical supply lines in Russia, before crossing over to join the Kharkiv offensive. Video on Russian social media showed Grad missile launchers on the Belgorod highway, just inside Russian territory, parked on the road and firing missiles into Ukraine with impunity, as Ukraine can only use its homemade drones to strike at them under the current rules of engagement when they are in Ukraine proper.

Moscow’s reaction

The war of words is also being ratcheted up. Putin has already ordered nuclear missile military exercises and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a stern statement after Blinken’s comments allowing missile strikes inside Russia using Western-made weapons. It reminded the West that Russia’s military doctrine allows for the use of nuclear weapons if Russia faces an “existential threat.” On May 16, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov added that Moscow may lower the level of diplomatic relations with Washington if “certain scenarios” unfold, reports TASS. So far Russia has not broken off diplomatic relations with Washington and backchannel talks are ongoing, according to various reports.

Ryabkov said that Russia has never been the first to make such moves in its relations with the US or other Nato countries.

"But, in my opinion, [such steps are] quite possible if the West chooses the path of escalation," the diplomat said, without saying what specifically would trigger such a move.

"I’m not ready to theorise on the subject," he said. "If the situation continues to deteriorate, it will become a subject of specific analysis and decision-making at the level of political leaders."