Putting ‘brains on the ground’: why is Britain sending military advisors to Ukraine?

By Thomas Colley:

David Cameron with President Poroshenko of Ukraine at the NATO Summit in Wales, September 2014. Photo: Paul Shaw / Crown copyright (CC)
David Cameron with President Poroshenko of Ukraine at the NATO Summit in Wales, September 2014. Photo: Paul Shaw / Crown copyright (CC 2.0)

One month after the US announced its decision to send a military training mission to the Ukraine, the British government has announced that 75 military advisors will also be sent to support the Ukrainian military. Backing the US is unsurprising for those familiar with British foreign policy in recent decades. Yet this decision, taken without parliament or the explicit backing of Europe, has surprised some.

But how significant is the decision to send military advisors to Ukraine, and what is its primary purpose? Is it a genuine attempt to alter the strategic situation in Ukraine or more a move for domestic political gain? Are the military advisors a serious attempt to deter further Russian aggression and if so, what can 75 military advisors be expected to achieve?

A domestic political move?

Despite the artificiality of separating the domestic and international effects of foreign policy decisions, it is tempting to view Cameron’s decision to send military advisors as domestically driven, rather than a genuine attempt to alter the strategic situation. Domestically, limiting military intervention to sending advisors polls well. Yougov recently found that almost two-thirds of people supported sending military advisors to Iraq to support forces fighting the Islamic State; less than a third supported sending regular troops.

There are several reasons for this relative popularity of sending military advisors. A primary military concern of many British citizens remains the risk of combat casualties for causes not deemed sufficiently justified. Direct combat with Russia would clearly be extremely costly, it was avoided throughout the Cold War for good reason.

Sending military advisors resonates with those on the right who believe Britain should take an active military role in world affairs, but baulk at the idea of combat casualties. Far from shying away from its consistently interventionist role, Britain can make a military contribution, supposedly enhancing Ukrainian military performance at minimal human cost. This reinforces the notion that Britain can still ‘punch above its weight’, the overused metaphor that is the explicit cornerstone of British foreign policy.

Even better, it demonstrates that Britain is willing to go a step further than Europe, for whom economic sanctions have been the limit thus far. This reinforces the narrative that Britain is the power willing to do what needs to be done, to act decisively while Europe dithers – from Europe in 1940 to Libya in 2011, Britain will act. This narrative is particularly significant after Britain was conspicuously excluded from the recent peace negotiations between Russia, France and Germany, after which many predictably bemoaned Britain’s waning international influence.

It is hard then not to read Cameron’s military response as an attempt to reassert Britain’s power and influence domestically and internationally, rather than a genuine attempt to alter the strategic calculus in Ukraine. In this sense, the 75 advisors hold a symbolic power far beyond their material capability. With the ceasefire faltering they symbolise, however erroneously, Britain’s wisdom and Europe’s naivety in thinking Putin could be negotiated with; they reinforce Britain’s international relevance domestically, and theoretically they signal to Putin (some of) NATO’s willingness to escalate matters if necessary.

Will the military advisors change anything?

Despite the domestic benefits of the decision, it is unlikely that the decision will have a significant impact on the military situation or on Putin’s strategic thinking. What can a meagre 75 advisors be expected to deter? After all, deliberately placing advisors ‘well away from the conflict zone’ could be read as signalling fear that they might come under attack as much as a demonstration of resolve.

The hope, of course, is that the move signals to the pro-Russian side that Western nations are prepared to escalate their actions to protect their allies. Yet it is doubtful how such a meagre move successfully does this. During the Vietnam War, the US’s steady escalation of targeted airstrikes was thought to be signalling to North Vietnam that the costs of continuing to fight would become unbearable if they refused to negotiate. Instead, they signalled that America was not willing to fully commit the resources required to overwhelmingly defeat the North Vietnamese.

The presence of British ‘brains on the ground’ also does little to alter Putin’s strategy of plausible deniability. The presence of distant military advisors cannot affect the involvement of Russian forces if, as Putin claims, they are not involved anyway. Even in the unlikely event that the advisors were harmed, Putin’s plausible deniability strategy remains intact.

Furthermore, arguably the main issue facing the Ukrainian military is not their lack of training but that they are simply being outgunned. This brings the issue of sending arms to the fore, but it also raises the important question of exactly how this latest British move is expected to actually change anything.

Again, domestic perceptions in Britain may matter more than reality on the ground. The assumption common in British public discourse of the superior capability of the British military implies that the advisors should significantly bolster the Ukrainian military effort. They will no doubt help, but the effect of such a small number is overstated, based as it is on the assumption of an incapable Ukrainian military that was losing until ‘our boys’ (and girls) turned up. This reinforces narratives of British military exceptionalism, but will not have a significant effect on the conflict.

Despite these concerns, Britain’s move is significantly bolder than the economic sanctions so derided by Putin, which have done little to alter his actions despite damaging the Russian economy. It should also not be seen in isolation, but part of a number of moves designed to steadily deter further aggression. With fears of Russia’s eye turning towards the Baltic States, a firm military signal of NATO’s intent to defend its member states decisively is important. In that sense Britain’s decision to send military advisors to Ukraine is a cautious, if insufficient, step in the right direction.

Thomas Colley is a doctoral researcher in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, and Senior Editor of Strife Blog. Twitter: @ThomasColley

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