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What NATO Country Doesn’t Have Troops in Ukraine?

European discussions about sending troops obscures the fact that several NATO countries already have boots on the ground.

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The war in Ukraine has reached that long-feared fork in the road. Ukraine is losing the war, and no amount of arms or aid is going to change that. The West has to either accept that assessment and nudge Ukraine to the negotiating table or send more than arms and aid. It is going to have to escalate its support and send troops, risking direct confrontation with Russia and the disaster scenario it has tried to avoid since the first days of the war. 

This realization has sparked a bitter debate in Europe. Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico said on February 26 that “a number of NATO and EU member states are considering that they will send their troops to Ukraine on a bilateral basis.” That same day, the French President Emmanuel Macron said that, though “there is no consensus today to send troops on the ground in an official, accepted, and endorsed manner...no option should be discarded.”

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Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz shot back that the consensus was “that there will be no ground troops, no soldiers on Ukrainian soil who are sent there by European states or NATO states.” Germany, Poland, Sweden, Spain, Italy, the Czech Republic, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg all said there was no plan to send troops to Ukraine. 

Macron replied that the time has come for a “Europe where it will be appropriate not to be a coward.” The German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said that “talk about boots on the ground or having more courage or less courage...does not really help solve the issues we have when it comes to helping Ukraine.”

The debate over sending NATO troops to Ukraine may be masking the need for more immediate debate about NATO troops already on the ground in Ukraine. 

The transcript of an intercepted February 19 conversation between senior German air force officials discussing the possible transfer of German Taurus long-range missiles to Ukraine says that the Germans “know how the English do it.... They have several people on-site.” The revelation that the UK has troops on the ground has now been confirmed by the British Prime Minister’s office: “Beyond the small number of personnel we do have in the country supporting the armed forces of Ukraine, we haven't got any plans for large-scale deployment.”

The transcript says that “the French don’t do it that way,” but Scholz has hinted that they do. On February 26, the German Chancellor defended his decision not to send Taurus missiles to Ukraine by saying that it would require the presence of Germans in Ukraine to match their British and French counterparts. He explained, “What is being done in the way of target control and accompanying target control on the part of the British and the French can’t be done in Germany.” He worried that “a participation in the war could emerge from what we do.” 

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The transcript also cryptically alludes to an American presence on the ground. Wondering whether Ukraine would be able to do targeting on their own, one of the officials says, “It's known that there are numerous people there in civilian attire who speak with an American accent.”

And there are numerous American civilian officers in Ukraine. On February 26, a New York Times report revealed in greater detail than ever before the extent of CIA involvement on the ground in Ukraine. In the days before the war began, U.S. personnel were evacuated from Ukraine—except for a small group of CIA officers whom CIA Director William Burns ordered be left behind, and the “scores of new officers” who were sent in “to help the Ukrainians.” They helped them by passing on critical information, “including where Russia was planning strikes and which weapons systems they would use.” The CIA officers provided “intelligence for targeted missile strikes.” And they provided “intelligence support for lethal operations against Russian forces on Ukrainian soil.”

These recent intercepts and reports suggest that the U.S., UK, and France already have troops or operatives on the ground in Ukraine. Russia has long claimed the presence of a large number of Polish fighters in Ukraine. 

Other NATO countries appear open to such direct involvement. Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said that “everything” is on the table when it comes to helping Ukraine, that “I think it is also the signals that we are sending to Russia, that we are not ruling out different things.” Referring to Macron’s comments that sending troops to Ukraine should be an option that is not discarded, the Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis agreed that “nothing can be taken off the table, no option can be rejected out of hand,” adding that “I very much welcome and encourage the discussion that has started.”

And other NATO countries are considering sending troops to Ukraine in noncombatant roles. The Czech President Petr Pavel says that Ukraine’s Western partners should “not limit ourselves where we don't have to,” including potentially sending troops for “non-combat engagement” like training missions.

Canada’s Defense Minister Bill Blair says that Canada already has a small military presence in Ukraine to protect diplomatic staff (though it had been reported that Canada evacuated its diplomats at the start of the war). He says that Canada has “no plans to deploy combat troops” to Ukraine, but that some Canadian training of Ukrainian troops has been “challenging because it’s difficult to get people out of Ukraine to do the training.” So, he says, there was “discussions that, could we do it more efficiently, and is it possible to do it in Ukraine?”

The West has arrived at a fearful dilemma. Doubling down and sending troops to fight in Ukraine is a dangerous option that could lead to direct confrontation with Russia and an unthinkable war. But it is not the only road that can be taken. The West can also turn off the path of war that has benefitted no one, not send troops to Ukraine and, instead, explore the diplomatic road. 

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