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NATO’s spiralling commitments to Ukraine risk catastrophe

Originally published: Counterfire on May 29, 2024 by Chris Bambery (more by Counterfire)  | (Posted May 31, 2024)

France and Germany have agreed that Ukraine should be allowed to use its allies’ missiles to ‘neutralise’ Russian military bases used to fire missiles into Ukraine, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday on a state visit to Berlin. He added: ‘We should not allow them to touch other targets in Russia, and obviously civilian capacities.’ The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said he agreed with the French president, as long as the Ukrainians respected the conditions of the weapons’ suppliers.

This week the Spanish daily, El País, warned as Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, arrived in Madrid this week to secure major arm supplies from Spain, that:

Ukraine is focusing its diplomatic efforts on convincing its allies to allow its military to use NATO weaponry against targets on Russian soil. Kyiv has succeeded in the past in moving the red lines imposed on it by its partners in the West, after months of negotiations. The new Russian offensive on Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine, has accelerated Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s diplomatic drive to allay the fears of the United States and Europe of a possible escalation if weapons provided by them target Russian sovereign territory.

Last week, Charles Q. Brown, chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed that the White House had received a formal request from Kyiv to use U.S. weapons against Russian territory. NATO’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, has urged NATO states to reconsider limits on sending certain weapons to Ukraine, weapons which could strike Moscow and other Russian cities. This is despite Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warning that Moscow will retaliate with strikes on British targets if British weapons are used by Ukraine to strike Russian territory, as suggested by Cameron.

Zakharova told reporters that British targets ‘on Ukraine’s territory and beyond its borders’ could be hit in such a scenario. She was repeating a warning that Moscow first issued earlier this month after British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said Ukraine had a right to use weapons provided by London to hit targets inside Russia. Otherwise, British, or indeed U.S. and French, missiles could only be fired by British, American or French personnel using intelligence gathered by NATO (in reality by the U.S.).

How would Sunak or Starmer react to Russian strikes on British targets? It is hard not to see them running to Washington for help in retaliating and in demanding other NATO countries rally round a NATO member under attack, as they are bound to do. This could well happen within the early stages of a Starmer premiership when he would be gung-ho to demonstrate how tough he was on the supposed Russian threat.

Demands to lift restrictions

Stoltenberg called on those continuing to limit their arms supplies to reconsider their position, citing the ‘nature of the fighting taking place in Kharkiv’.

By having too many restrictions we are tying one hand of the Ukrainian armed forces on their back because they are reducing their capability to defend themselves.

The U.S., UK and France have already supplied such weapons—U.S HIMARS short-range missiles and ATACMS long-range missiles, and British-French Storm Shadow/Scalp long-range missiles—to Ukraine, but insist they should not be fired, claiming they are there simply as a deterrent. German chancellor Olaf Scholz has ruled out sending Taurus missiles, despite repeated requests by Kyiv. Scholz has previously claimed the missile would need to be operated by German teams on the ground in Ukraine, something he refuses to countenance.

There is too a growing clamour that NATO forces should be deployed inside Ukraine to counter a mounting Russian advance in the north of that country, threatening its second city, Kharkiv as well as attacking in the east and south. French President, Emmanuel Macron, said earlier this month that he’d consider sending French troops to Ukraine ‘if the Russians were to break through the front lines, if there were a Ukrainian request, which is not the case today.’

The mind boggles at how this would play out if it were to occur. A de facto war between France and Russia would, most likely, escalate very quickly. Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has already pointed to the use of nuclear weapons if there was such an escalation.

That did not bother NATO politicians gathered at something called the Lennart Meri Conference in Estonia last week. While there, Benjamin Haddad, a member of parliament for Macron’s Renaissance party and considered a leading voice in French foreign-policy discussions, told the American magazine Newsweek that NATO and the European Union need to ‘turn the tables’ on Russian President Vladimir Putin after more than two years of full-scale war. He claimed that the French-led push for deeper NATO involvement inside Ukrainian borders is making headway with European allies.

Haddad argued: ‘Right now, a lot of Ukrainian troops are stationed at the border with Belarus to prevent a potential invasion from the north. Western forces could be deployed along the frontier as a “tripwire”–as you have troops in the Baltic states or in Poland–to be able to liberate some of these Ukrainian troops to go to the front.’ Belarus is a close ally of Russia. Putting NATO troops on its border would be completely unacceptable to it. Once there, potential clashes on the border could get out of hand very quickly.

Der Spiegel reported that MPs from the three Baltic states warned German officials at the same conference that their governments, together with Poland, were poised to send troops to Ukraine if Russia captured significant territory in eastern Ukraine, even before Russian soldiers were anywhere near their borders. The same MPs raised concerns about German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s current policy toward the war. In particular Scholz’s refusal to allow Ukraine Taurus missiles, to be used in strikes on Russian soil.

The Vietnam trap

Meanwhile, faced with a major shortfall in troop numbers compared to the Russians, Ukrainian officials have asked their U.S. and NATO counterparts to help train 150,000 new recruits closer to the front line for faster deployment. The Lithuanian defence minister, Kaja Kallas, wants exactly that. She told the Financial Times that:

“There are countries who are training soldiers on the ground already” and they did so at their own risk. If training personnel were attacked by Russian forces, it would not automatically trigger NATO’s Article 5 mutual defence clause, she said. I can’t possibly imagine that if somebody is hurt there, then those who have sent their people will say ‘it’s Article 5. Let’s… bomb Russia.’ It is not how it works. It’s not automatic. So these fears are not well-founded.” If you send your people to help Ukrainians… you know the country is in war and you go to a risk zone. So you take the risk,” she added.

In response to this, General Charles Q. Brown, chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, suggested last week that the Europeans would ‘get there eventually, over time’, on sending more troops to Ukraine. Yet, how would the United States respond if their troops were killed in Ukraine by the Russians while acting as trainers? Do Kallas and Brown not know that the U.S. ground presence in Vietnam began with it being claimed by the John F. Kennedy administration that they were there simply to train troops of its puppet South Vietnam? Ground troops followed to ‘protect’ those same trainers.

The El País article quoted earlier also pointed out that Ukraine has successfully pressurised the U.S. and NATO to scrap so-called red lines limiting the arms they provide Kyiv. The United States agreed in April, after two years of negotiations, to supply Ukraine with long-range ATACMS missiles, another supposed red line. Other limits breached involved Germany and the U.S. supplying heavy armour, and the scrapping of the refusal during the first year and a half of the war to deliver fighter planes. This summer, the first six F-16 fighters for the Ukrainian Air Force are expected to arrive from Denmark.

The newspaper points out that, ‘Biden resisted the delivery of F-16s due to concerns they would be used for bombing targets within Russian borders.’ Ukraine regularly hits military, industrial, and energy infrastructure targets inside Russia, even up to 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) from the border, particularly targeting Russia’s oil industry.

Washington has called on Zelenskiy to halt this campaign, because it could destabilise the global fuel market, but the warnings, voiced in public even by Biden’s Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, have not stopped these attacks. When U.S. Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, visited Kyiv earlier this month, he stated: ‘We have not encouraged or enabled strikes outside of Ukraine, but ultimately Ukraine has to make decisions for itself about how it’s going to conduct this war, a war it’s conducting in defense of its freedom, of its sovereignty, of its territorial integrity. And we will continue to back Ukraine with the equipment that it needs to succeed, that it needs to win.’ These are weasel words, similar to the ones he regularly spouts over Gaza, sometimes to the accompaniment of crocodile tears.

The Biden administration cannot allow Ukraine to collapse prior to November’s Presidential election. If escalation was needed to stave off defeat, the red line on missile strikes on Russia could be quickly erased.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was criminal, and it unleashed a brutal war of attrition like 1914-1918 on a smaller scale. Yet, reference to 1914 should allow us to grasp how things can escalate very badly when you have two military alliances peering over the barrel of a gun at each other.

As Britain goes to the polls, we should be demanding of Sunak and Starmer a de-escalation of our military involvement in Ukraine, where we do not just have missiles, but in all probability special forces. However, the likelihood is that both will compete to show who is the stronger Atlanticist and the greater zealot in seeing off the supposed Russian threat.

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