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UK Deployment of 75 Military Advisers to Ukraine Raises Concerns over Mission Creep

Britain says it is considering requests for further 'non-lethal' support to Ukraine but will not send combat troops. Analysts say the move could further strain the recent ceasefire deal.

by Jenna Corderoy
Feb 25 2015, 7:15pm

Image via Reuters

The British government said on Wednesday that it is considering requests for further military support to Ukraine on top of the deployment of 75 military advisers, but ruled out sending combat troops as it sought to dispel concerns it could get dragged into the conflict.

Prime Minister David Cameron announced on Tuesday night that Britain will be sending military advisers and training teams to provide "non-lethal support" to Ukraine's armed forces, which is fighting against pro-Russia separatists in the east of the country. 

The measure may add however further tension to an already deeply strained ceasefire agreement, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday lashing out at Kiev and "people outside Ukraine" who he said wanted the deal to fail. Analysts noted that Russia could argue Ukraine had broken the ceasefire, a condition of which is the withdrawal of all foreign forces from the country.

The military personnel will be sent to Ukraine in a few weeks and will provide medical, logistical, infantry and intelligence training to its forces. The advisers will not be deployed to the eastern conflict zone, and it has been emphasized that the deployment of trainers is not a first step towards a combat role.

In a statement delivered by Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, the prime minister said: "In light of Russian-backed aggression, the UK is committed to providing additional non-lethal support to Ukraine to help them deal with the pressures they are facing."

Speaking in the UK parliament on Wednesday, Fallon said: "This is not a Nato deployment, this is a decision of the UK government," though he added that Nato allies had been consulted.

A number of parliamentarians (MPs) raised concerns over the possibility of mission creep. Sir Edward Leigh, of Cameron's Conservative Party, said: "The trouble with sending advisers, as the Americans found in Vietnam, and many other nations have found since, [is that] mission creep results in eventually combat troops being sent."

Over the last year, Britain has also provided personal protective clothing equipment, winter fuel, medical kits, winter clothing and sleeping bags to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, at a cost of £1.2 million [$1.9m]. Recently, it was announced that the UK will provide reconstructive surgical treatment for up to five Ukrainian soldiers who sustained severe injuries fighting in east Ukraine.

The move follows America's lead, where earlier this month, US Army Europe Commander Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges said that a battalion of soldiers will be sent to the country to train three Ukrainian units. The US has so far sent first aid kits and hand held radios, as well as lightweight counter mortar radars to track incoming mortar rounds to Ukraine. Washington is currently considering whether to provide lethal arms to Ukraine's forces.

Earlier this month, peace negotiations between Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel resulted in a ceasefire, which was to come into effect on February 15. Conditions attached to the ceasefire included the withdrawal of heavy weapons from both sides and creating buffer zones, as well as the withdrawal of all foreign armed groups and weapons from the Ukrainian territory under the monitoring of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Yet fighting has continued, and earlier this week, foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany met in Paris to discuss the progress of the peace deal. On Tuesday, Reuters reported that pro-Russia separatists had brought reporters to witness their withdrawal from the frontline in east Ukraine, yet their claims of withdrawal were described as "empty words" by the Ukrainian government.

Lavrov called for the OSCE to observe the withdrawal.

"A lot now depends on an honest, objective, unbiased approach by the observers who must record what is happening on the ground, so that we can all resist the attempts to present the Minsk agreements as having already failed," he said. "There are many people outside Ukraine and in Kiev who want them derailed."

However, the secretary general of the OSCE, Lamberto Zannier, has recently asked for more drones in order to access places which are off-limits to his teams.

"We have still, as of today, difficulties in having access, especially in the separatist areas," Zannier said.

"My feeling is Russia could do more."

Media reports indicate that the death toll of the Ukraine crisis is now more than 5,000.

Cameron's announcement, alongside America's supply of military trainers, may have repercussions for the peace deal. Speaking to VICE News, Keir Giles, an associate fellow of the International Security department and the Russia and Eurasia program at UK think tank Chatham House, said: "In the ceasefire agreement, it says that all foreign forces have to be withdrawn from the territory of Ukraine."

He continued: "However, if we have a situation where official, formed units of British and much larger American troops are in the Ukraine to help train Ukrainian units, you have a situation where Russia can say that it was a breach of the ceasefire agreement by Ukraine, which they can use as a pretext for any one of a number of hostile actions."

Follow Jenna Corderoy on Twitter: @JennaCorderoy