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NATO Troops on the ground: could it happen before 2025?

There are now rumours afoot of a Europe-led NATO incursion into Ukraine (naturally on Ukraine’s invitation). In an extraordinary meeting of French, British, German, Dutch and Polish senior politicians on Monday 26 February 2024, French President Emanuel Macron announced the possibility of a European-led military alliance entering Ukraine to support Ukrainian troops. There have been rumours of a British troop build-up in Estonia for some time now, with British army battle plans being prepared to enter Ukraine and to occupy strategic positions in Ukrainian theatre to deter Russian attacks upon Ukraine and to serve as peacekeepers along the front line. The idea advanced by President Macron and supported by all of Germany, Poland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom is that these principal European military powers could spearhead a military force as a fraction of NATO to reinforce Ukrainian positions before the Americans get their act together which is presumed not to be possible before 2025 after the inauguration of the next US President in January of that year. So do the numbers really make this plausible?

The short answer is “yes”; the numbers do add up. France has an estimated 204,000 active military personnel. Germany has 180,000. The United Kingdom has 151,000. Poland has 110,000 and the Netherlands has 43,000. Altogether we are looking at approximately 700,000 military personnel which is approximately the same as the size of the Ukrainian Armed Forces active personnel. Given that this is an old fashioned land war in which numbers of troops are the most important thing; and given that Ukraine’s relative paucity of troops compared to Russia is in the region of 62%, doubling the manpower of western forces in Ukraine could make a real difference to fortifying the Ukrainian frontline and might even give the West the manpower needed to reclaim parts of the Russian-occupied territories. In other words, Europe has done the maths and even discounting a number of intransigent or hesitant states (the largest number of active service personnel in Europe is actually the Italian Armed Forces, with 248,000), acting in concert the leading European powers could enter Ukrainian theatre and turn this war around.

Moreover it is not just a matter of troop numbers. NATO member states would bring with them into battle superior equipment and training and NATO tactics, and superior discipline. All these things could assist in revolutionising the Ukrainian Armed Forces and turning them from a quasi-paramilitary organisation working to informal logistics supply lines into a leading de facto NATO member state with high-quality twenty-first century training, equipment, logistics, management and supply. Such a manoeuvre would also battle harden the European NATO member state troops to the extent that they have not been engaged in active combat theatre so recently. Hence there may be synergies in cooperation: Ukrainian troops bring their front line battle experience while NATO member states bring their superior weapons and training.

Because within these key NATO member states there is far less controversy across the political divide about whether it is essential to support Ukraine against Russia (Russia is near-universally seen as an existential threat by the serious NATO European member states), there is no need to wait for the outcome of an election as there is in the United States where the issue of Congressional funding for Ukraine has become unnecessarily politicised. The United Kingdom has elections forthcoming imminently but of all the issues that may divide the competing parties in those elections, Ukraine is not one of them. Indeed the parties will be clambering in competition to show that each supports Ukraine more, since the issue of Ukraine’s resistance of the Russian occupation is an incredibly popular cause in the United Kingdom that unites virtually all people irrespective of their political hue or leanings. Indeed it is hard to imagine a policy more likely to be popular in the United Kingdom right now than to send British troops into Ukraine. It would bring people out into the streets to rally in support of the measure.

Britain, France, Germany and Poland have historically been antagonists on different sides of European wars, each with their own substantial military presences. The first half of the twentieth century was a history of other European powers acting in concert to try to restrain almighty Germany with her determined and organised manpower from dominating the continent militarily. Now Germany has remilitarised following the end of the Cold War and there is Poland too, another large European country with a strong military tradition. These countries are coalescing in the view that it may be too late to wait for the Americans and their elections in acting to defend Europe against a new common aggressor to European democratic values and to the liberties we so cherish in the West and that threat is Russia.

American and Canadian representatives were at yesterday’s meeting. Canada is a relatively small player with 68,000 active service personnel but well trained and equipment and likely to fight alongside a substantial European alliance. Of course the United States is the key player, with an extraordinary 2.86 million personnel worldwide and the United States is the overwhelming hammer that the Russians cannot risk inflicting upon themselves because not only is the United States military enormous it is extremely well equipped. The gambit being undertaken by the European NATO member states here may be that their troops would serve as effective de facto peacekeepers in Ukraine, causing the Russians to lay down their guns, because if Russia were to engage in live fire against European NATO troops then irrespective of electoral politics the United States would feel compelled to intervene. Hence an uneasy, nerve-wracking but sustainable peace can be achieved in Ukraine in 2024. Let us hope so.


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