Backing down in the face of Russian threats is the worst option. The UK should join France in using strategic ambiguity.

The UK should not rule out sending troops to Ukraine – despite Putin’s nuclear threats
The Kremlin has responded with predictable theatre to comments from foreign secretary David Cameron, after he said Ukraine is free to use weapons supplied by Britain to launch strikes inside Russia.

That theatre was both diplomatic, with the British ambassador summoned to the foreign ministry in Russia on Monday to warn of retaliation, and nuclear: Moscow announced it would be holding exercises involving tactical nuclear weapons in the near future to remind the world yet again that it has them.

The UK position is a sharp contrast to that of the US, which has consistently forbidden Ukraine from using the weapons it supplies to hit targets in Russia. The US has even discouraged Kyiv from doing so using its own home-grown capabilities.

Deployments to Ukraine

Britain has repeatedly taken the lead in supplying weapons systems such as long-range missiles or main battle tanks to Ukraine. In the process it has shown that fears of ‘escalation’ in Washington and Berlin stem from a highly successful Russian con trick.

But the UK’s moral authority has been shaken over recent months by its reluctance to re-equip its own armed forces in the way it is urging other European states to do: grand announcements of defence investment have turned out on closer inspection to be inadequate.

Cameron has also suggested that Britain’s long-term commitment to supporting Ukraine would now be largely financial, since ‘we’ve just really emptied all we can in terms of giving equipment’.

And sadly, he immediately undermined the effect even of that commitment by once again ruling out the presence of Western troops in Ukraine.

French president Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly warned that European troops could be forced to intervene if Ukraine is unable to halt Russia’s aggression. It’s vital that Russia understands that, since the last thing Moscow wants is a direct military clash with NATO countries.

And yet, other European leaders have reacted with horror to the suggestion. ‘I don’t think it is right to have NATO soldiers killing Russian soldiers,’ Cameron said at the end of his visit to Ukraine. That may be true today, but as Russia’s ambitions have grown more apparent, it’s served as a reminder that the purpose of NATO should be to stop Russian soldiers being where they have no right to be.

Publicly ruling out a Western troop presence in Ukraine makes no sense, whether or not it’s a realistic proposition for some NATO countries.

In any case, publicly ruling out a Western troop presence in Ukraine makes no sense, whether or not it’s a realistic proposition for some NATO countries. Just the possibility is one of the Kremlin’s greatest fears.

When Cameron and others publicly bar that option, all it does is reassure Putin he can continue the war with much less concern for the possible consequences.

Instead, more European leaders – and the UK – should follow Macron’s lead and preserve ‘strategic ambiguity’ (that is, not telling your adversary what you’re not going to do).

Russia stepping up aggression

Over the course of the last two weeks, Europe as a whole has woken up to the campaign of sabotage and disruption that Russia has been waging across the continent. There’s no doubt Russia could step this up still further. Moscow’s war on the West is now barely hidden, and for as long as the West does not respond, there are few downsides for Russia in waging it.

The West should expect proxy attacks against the UK and across Europe to continue.

Using an extended network of proxies means the Kremlin’s intelligence chiefs won’t be too concerned if they are caught in the act. The crooks and patsies it recruits abroad will be considered even more disposable than its own personnel. And since Russia is already overtly acting as a rogue state, there’s no damage to reputation or relationships to be concerned about.

The West should expect proxy attacks against the UK and across Europe to continue. As well as hampering support to Ukraine, they have another useful purpose for Moscow. Whether or not they succeed, they’re useful for gathering information on a country’s will and capacity to prevent and respond to sabotage.

There’s one traditional way of hurting the West that Russia may not yet have employed. Throughout the Cold War and even in tsarist times, Moscow poured effort and resources into sponsoring terrorist groups to carry out attacks against European cities. That would be a more random campaign of violence than the targeting of European logistics and supporters of Ukraine that we see now. It would also have much greater impact.

Europe must not be just a passive victim. At the beginning of this year, I wrote about the West’s under-used ability to influence Russia’s choices.

The UK made its deliveries of Storm Shadow an explicit consequence of specific Russian actions. Now, it seems, the US has done the same with its long-awaited supply of longer-range ATACMs missiles.

To nobody’s surprise, except perhaps in the White House, the sky has not fallen.

Britain’s explicit endorsement of strikes into Russia could also have been presented as a consequence for Russia’s attacks against Europe, and with a promise that more would follow. What’s more, explicitly allowing Ukraine to strike Russia with British weapons as well as its own opens up other possibilities for targeting Russia’s ability to wage war.

Ukraine has already struck Russian locations where drones and missiles used to kill its innocent civilians are stored. It has also launched strikes at Russian energy infrastructure. These limited pinpoint strikes are in stark contrast to Russia’s lengthy campaign of indiscriminate bombardment of Ukrainian cities.

But further attacks could see Ukraine helping Europe, instead of the other way round. European countries can do little about Russian electronic warfare installations that have been sowing havoc with European air and maritime traffic. But for Ukraine, no holds should be barred and it’s in everybody’s interest that the jamming should be deterred or disrupted.

When considering how far the West should go in working with Kyiv, the fundamental question is still the same: whether Europe wishes to stop Russia in Ukraine, or allow Moscow’s war of reconquest to claim more victims further West.

Simple morality and practical common sense have always argued for the maximum possible support for Kyiv. Britain’s endorsement of Ukraine’s right to defend itself is a long overdue step in the right direction.

Source: Chatam House