Why is the West Suddenly Revealing That It Has Troops in Ukraine?

It has long been an open secret that the West has been providing Ukraine with funding, weapons, training, maintenance, targeting intelligence, intelligence on the position of Russian forces and vulnerabilities and even war-gaming. They have provided Ukraine with everything but the bodies. President Joe Biden has long insisted that American troops “are not and will not be engaged in a conflict with Russia in Ukraine.” The West has long denied that it is directly involved in the war or that they have troops in Ukraine.

And that is mostly true. It is Ukrainian soldiers that are being injured and killed in the hundreds of thousands. But it is not entirely true.

After two years of steadfast denial, there has been, over the period of just a couple of weeks in February and March, a flurry of admissions and revelations that there are NATO troops in Ukraine. The question is why? What is the motivation behind the sudden trove of revelations?

The flurry was kicked off by the release of a transcript of an intercepted February 19 conversation between senior German air force officials that revealed that the U.K. has people on the ground in Ukraine. Discussing how German Taurus long-range missiles could be operated in Ukraine, one official says that the Germans “know how the English do it… They have several people on-site.” The conversation between the German officials also appears to implicate the United States. One official says, “It’s known that there are numerous people there in civilian attire who speak with an American accent.”

On February 26, a New York Times report  revealed who those civilians may be. More than 200 current and former officials leaked to The Times that “scores” of CIA officers are in Ukraine where they “help the Ukrainians” by providing “intelligence for targeted missile strikes” and “intelligence support for lethal operations against Russian forces on Ukrainian soil.”

On February 26, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz broadened the list to include France. Scholz 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.”

And on March 8, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski stunningly confirmed that “NATO military personnel are already present in Ukraine.” Critical of Scholz, he differentiated himself by not revealing which NATO countries are already in Ukraine. “NATO soldiers are already present in Ukraine. And I would like to thank the ambassadors of those countries who have taken that risk. These countries know who they are, but I can’t disclose them. Contrary to other politicians, I will not list those countries.”

France and Britain reportedly responded with outrage at the intercepted air force conversation. And they were just as furious with Scholz for his revelation. Former U.K. defense minister Ben Wallace said that “Scholz’s behaviour has showed that as far as the security of Europe goes he is the wrong man, in the wrong job at the wrong time.” Alicia Kearns, chair of the U.K. parliament’s foreign affairs committee, called Scholz’s comment “wrong, irresponsible and a slap in the face to allies”. One Berlin based diplomat reportedly says that “Macron and Scholz aren’t even talking to each other.”

But despite the anger at being called out, neither the British nor the French denied Scholz’s revelation. Despite Kearns’ comment that Scholz is “wrong,” the British Prime Minister’s office confirmed that they do have boots on the ground: “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 French responded by saying that if they don’t have troops in Ukraine, perhaps they should: not exactly an angry rebuke of Scholz. French President Emmanuel Macron said, “There’s no consensus today to send in an official, endorsed manner troops on the ground. But in terms of dynamics, nothing can be ruled out.” Though Scholz immediately replied 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,” Macron pointed out that “Many of the people who say ‘never, never” today were the same people who said ‘never, never tanks; never, never planes; never, never long-range missiles. … I remind you that two years ago, many around this table said: ‘We will offer sleeping bags and helmets.'”

In just a couple of weeks, American and German leaks placed U.S. troops in Ukraine, Germany placed France and the U.K. in Ukraine, the U.K. confirmed they were in Ukraine, Poland confirmed that NATO troops were in Ukraine and France suggested that, if they’re not, perhaps they should be. What is the motivation behind this sudden chorus of confessions?

There are at least four – and probably a lot more – possibilities. All of them are just speculation.

The least scary is that, recognizing that the West has lost the war in Ukraine and that, after encouraging Ukraine to reject a diplomatic solution in favor of pressing the fight with the promise of Western weapons and support for as long as it takes, the leading supporters of Ukraine are trying to establish the case that they did everything they could: even putting troops on the ground in Ukraine.

The second least scary is that the leaks and revelations are meant to pressure the U.S. and some European countries to send more financial aid and weapons packages to Ukraine. The belief might be that the they would find that option more palatable than crossing their own red line and sending troops into Ukraine.

The third least scary is that the West is trying to create a perception in Russia of strategic ambiguity. The French newspaper Le Monde reports that “Macron’s office explained that the aim is to restore the West’s ‘strategic ambiguity.’ After the failure of the Ukrainian 2023 counter-offensive, the French president believes that promising tens of billions of euros in aid and delivering – delayed – military equipment to Kyiv is no longer enough. Especially if Putin is convinced that the West has permanently ruled out mobilizing its forces.”

The scariest possibility that was suggested to me is that the West is serious both about NATO troops already being in Ukraine and about the possibility of sending more NATO troops not being ruled out. The leaks and revelations are intended to lay the groundwork for sending more troops. The idea is to sell the idea of sending more troops by desensitizing reluctant Western partners to the risk by pointing out that the risk has already been taken. They might even add that Russia knows it and hasn’t escalated and drawn the West into a NATO-Russia war.

If true, that is a dangerous and difficult to calculate risk. How many troops could be sent before triggering a Russian response? Hopefully, the United States, Germany and others, including Spain, Greece and Slovakia are sincere in their insistence that no (more?) NATO troops will be sent to Ukraine. One German source told Le Monde that Macron “said that there was no consensus on the subject, but that’s not true: The truth is that France was isolated because most participants expressed their clear refusal.”

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets. To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at tedsnider@bell.net.