19 Mar 2015

Ukraine conflict: why is the UK training Ukraine’s soldiers?

Britain has flown 35 military advisers to Ukraine to help fight pro-Russian separatists – with America set to follow suit. But what can the British army offer that Ukraine doesn’t have already?

Why has the UK sent troops to Ukraine?

With the worsening security situation in Ukraine, British military trainers have flown in to help those fighting pro-Russian rebels. The 35 soldiers are working alongside Ukrainian forces in Mykolaiv, in the south of the country and are expected to be there for the next two months.

In time that figure could rise to 75 with US troops set to follow suit. Their role is to sharpen the skills and capabilities of Ukraine’s fledgling army and try to inject some much-needed morale back into a force that have been on the defensive against pro-Russian forces for nearly a year.

There will also be an infantry element to the programme which the MoD says will include planning and execution of urban operations.

Why now?

While fighting has lessened since the February 12 ceasefire agreement, the situation has grown more concerning.

Ukrainian officials claim Russian separatists have attacked government positions more than 1,100 times since the latest ceasefire, killing more than 70 soldiers and scores of civilians.

The separatists claim Ukrainian forces have breached the ceasefire on multiple occasions.

Earlier this month more Russian tanks and heavy military crossed the Ukrainian border – US officials have reported – in addition to the 50 or so that did days before the Minsk ceasefire came into force.

Can the UK really help?

To a point. But the move is more symbolic than strategic. It signals to the Russians that President Putin’s aggression and efforts to weaken his neighbours will no longer be tolerated. It also signals to Moscow that Britain and the West will stand by Kiev’s government.

The Ministry of Defence insist that British involvement will be “non-lethal” providing assistance such as medical training, intelligence, logistics and crucial equipment such as night vision goggles, winter clothing and sleeping bags. But while useful, this is hardly likely to repel pro-Russian separatists.

Who is it the UK training?

That is the million Ruble question. Having been on the receiving end of Russian aggression for nearly a year, swathes of the Ukrainian army remain depleted and demoralised. Rather than the army it has been the hardline volunteer forces such as Ukraine’s Azov battalion that have been doing much of the frontline fighting.

But that is hardly ideal. There are fears that the volunteer forces have extreme political views with reports that many are neo-Nazis motivated to bring the “battle to Kiev” when the war is finally over.

Read more: One year on: where are the far-right forces of Ukraine? 

A Ministry of Defence spokesman told Channel 4 News that UK involvement would only be with bona-fide members of Ukraine’s official army. That means assisting the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the National Guard.

What do UK troops know that Ukrainians do not?

Plenty. In guerrilla or hand-to-hand combat the Ukrainian army is probably adept at fighting their own battles. But the UK sees its role as giving the force a more professional shape and structure.

This means providing intelligence training to improve effectiveness between combat, or physical and mental health training so that soldiers can recover more quickly. It would also include covering and planning of urban operations – including camouflage, concealment and defensive manoueuvres.

It is hoped such expertise will inject some desperately needed morale into the army, with reports that some have been deserting in droves.

There are doubts over how effective the infantry is of an army that has been robbed and pillaged
Dr Andrew Foxall

But they will have their work cut out. Dr Andrew Foxall, director of the Russia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society, told Channel 4 News that despite recent modernisation there is still “seriously worrying elements within Ukraine’s military structure and services”.

“Britain will be training an army that has been ravaged by corruption and mismanagement over the last 25 years,” he said. “While the army will doubtlessly benefit from certain training such as psychological rehabilitation there are doubts over how effective an infantry is of an army that has been robbed and pillaged of saleable assets.”

And of course you only have to look to Iraq and Afghanistan to see examples of what can happen should Western military training fall into the wrong hands.