NATO can help Ukraine without courting disaster

Ukraine has had a rough week. The Russian offensive in Kharkiv, the same region Ukrainian forces liberated during a counteroffensive in September 2022, is once again an active theater of the war. The Russians have managed to claim as much as 10 kilometers since the middle of last week and are currently battling for Vovchansk, a town straddling the Ukrainian-Russian border. The situation got so serious that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky canceled his foreign travel plans

The Russians have reportedly taken more land over the last week than Ukraine did during its six- monthlong counteroffensive last year. Indeed the Ukrainian town of Robotyne, one of the few areas the Ukrainian army captured last year, is now apparently back in Russia’s hands.

Ukraine’s top commander, Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, has acknowledged that the situation has “significantly deteriorated.” It’s not difficult to understand why; in addition to the Russian maneuvers in Kharkiv, Russian troops are blasting away in Donetsk and Zaporizhizhia. While Russian President Vladimir Putin has insisted that the Kharkiv offensive is designed to establish a buffer zone to safeguard the Russian city of Belgorod from Ukrainian rocket attacks, spreading Ukrainian troops thin by diverting them from the Donbas is as much of an objective — if not more so.

NATO is looking at all of these developments with a mix of dread, urgency, and stoicism. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania remain Ukraine’s biggest supporters in Europe, lobbying European capitals on Kyiv’s behalf. French President Emmanuel Macron, who was once a pragmatic dove trying to reason with Putin, is now one of Europe’s loudest hawks, going so far as to recommend sending European troops to Ukraine. (That suggestion was shot down by most of his colleagues.) NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is spending the closing months of his tenure hectoring NATO members to accelerate shipments of munitions, air defense systems, and missiles to Ukraine.

According to the New York Times, NATO is also in discussions about sending trainers to Ukraine. The idea is not only to train more Ukrainian recruits on a faster timetable but also to cut the amount of time those recruits need to get to the front. The New York Times reports that Kyiv is asking NATO to help train 150,000 personnel to strengthen their lines in anticipation of an expected Russian counteroffensive over the summer.

The Biden administration might be tempted to greenlight a crunch-time training program on Ukrainian soil. Instead, it should lie down until the feeling passes. There are three major problems with a program like this.

First, it’s an extremely risky endeavor that would undercut President Joe Biden’s policy of avoiding a direct conflict with Russia. While proponents would argue that trainers aren’t combat soldiers and would be staying on bases far from the front, the Russians may view this as a distinction without a difference.

Russia isn’t averse to striking targets in Western Ukraine; in March 2022, Russian missiles destroyed the Yavoriv training base outside the city of Lviv — the same base U.S. and NATO soldiers used to train Ukrainian forces before the war. The only reason foreign troops weren’t killed at the time was because they were evacuated beforehand.

If, on purpose or by accident, NATO trainers died at Russia’s hand, the alliance would then have an unenviable decision to make: retaliate and risk stepping up the escalation ladder or refrain from retaliating and look listless. Both choices are terrible, so why go there?

Second, even if the training program got off the ground, there’s a question as to whether Ukraine could find enough recruits without resorting to another round of mobilization. Kyiv is already having difficulty enticing new personnel to join the ranks voluntarily; otherwise, it wouldn’t be making an effort to enlist prisoners into the army. Assuming Ukraine can find the requisite number of recruits — and given its parliament’s decision to change the draft age from 27 to 25, that’s gotten a little easier — it’s hard to envision a crash training program being all that effective at instilling the skills necessary to go back on the offensive.

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Third, NATO trainers in Ukraine aren’t necessary in the first place. If the alliance wants to assist, members can do it from Poland, a NATO member state that also serves as the main staging ground for military equipment and munitions shipments into Ukraine. Sure, Russia could theoretically target the new recruits as they come into Ukraine, but you can say the same thing about the weapons convoys moving across the Polish-Ukrainian border. Thus far, the Russians have been either unable or unwilling to hit those supply lines.

NATO understandably wants to help Ukraine hold what it has. But it doesn’t have to do it in a way that courts unnecessary risk.

Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. His opinions are his own. 

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