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What are British forces doing in Ukraine?

Germany talks about Great Britain supporting Ukraine “on the ground”: the reactions fluctuate between excitement and demonstrative calm. Actual information about British activity is scant.

Jasper Steinlein

“It's a very long-range weapon. And what the British and French are doing in terms of targeting and accompanying targeting cannot be done in Germany. Everyone who has dealt with this system knows that.” Did Chancellor Olaf Scholz admit two things with this statement on February 26th – on the one hand, indirectly, that the target control must be carried out locally, i.e. from Ukrainian soil, and on the other hand, that Great Britain and France are taking corresponding action?

In any case, the excitement in parts of the press initially made waves. Last weekend, Air Force Inspector Ingo Gerhartz's statement from the intercepted meeting of senior Bundeswehr officers was added: “If we look for delivery methods (for cruise missiles, editor's note) If you are asked, I know how the British do it. They always transport them in Ridgeback armored vehicles. They have several people on the ground.”

Outrage over the data leak

While the federal government contritely had to admit the authenticity of the recording from an inadequately encrypted Webex conversation and tried to downplay the publication as a Russian attempt to divide the NATO allies, the reactions in Great Britain were mixed.

On the one hand, former senior defense experts in particular were outraged. Former Army Chief Richard Dannatt complained that no one had any comment on the presence of British military personnel in Ukraine. The Times quoted former Defense Secretary Ben Wallace as saying: “We know that Germany is heavily penetrated by Russian intelligence. That shows that it is neither safe nor reliable.” Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood told BBC Radio 4 that Scholz appears to be increasingly focused on his political survival and no longer on what is best for Europe – there must now be “serious discussions” between Germany, Great Britain and NATO. In comments from the British media, political journalists were also particularly concerned that Germany could not be trusted because of its indiscretion.

The British government, however, reacted cautiously: It was up to Germany to investigate this matter, explained Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's spokesman on Monday – and demonstratively only addressed the data leak, because British activity in Ukraine had already been discussed last week expressed.

A “small number of forces”

In fact, Sunak's spokesman had already said publicly on February 27: “We have no plans for a large-scale military operation regarding the small number of forces we have in the country to support the Ukrainian armed forces” – he was referring to French President Emmanuel Macron's fables about a ground troop deployment in Ukraine are reacting.

Little is publicly known about what this “small number of forces” is all about. The “Guardian” reported in April 2023 on published documents from the US military that show the deployment of up to 50 special forces from Great Britain to Ukraine. At that time, the British Ministry of Defense did not comment on the files published on Discord and simply pointed out that they contained a fair amount of inaccuracies – in general, one should not take every accusation that disinformation could be behind them literally.

Protecting the British Embassy

In December 2022 – the year of the Russian invasion of Ukraine – Robert Magowan, Lieutenant General in the Royal Marines, said that British marines had been to Ukraine twice in that year: first in January to bring embassy staff from Kiev and later in April to protect diplomats and their staff upon their return.

This is consistent with the statement of a Conservative MP from April 2023, which can be viewed on the British Parliament website: British forces are on site in Ukraine to support the British diplomatic mission in the country and to train the Ukrainian armed forces.

In a communication from Parliament about military support for Ukraine published in July 2023, under the heading “Deployment of personnel” it is also stated that the “Defense Section” of the British Embassy in Kiev had already been reopened in April 2022 – according to the text, this also includes security forces to ensure the security of the Defense Section instead of burdening the host country Ukraine with it.

Training mission “Orbital” is still running

The parliament's statement goes on to say: “We are continuing our long-standing operation 'Orbital'”, which was launched in 2015 after Russia's annexation of Crimea to train the Ukrainian armed forces and which, according to reports, has so far completed 22,000 soldiers. It continues: “It now also includes military medical personnel who train and support the Ukrainian medical forces. For operational reasons that are well known to Parliament, no information is given on the number or location of the deployed forces.

So far there have been no public statements about how the British are collaborating with the Ukrainian armed forces regarding the use of “Storm Shadow” cruise missiles. The decision to deliver them to Ukraine was made on May 11. On July 6, the Russian state agency Tass reported that parts of a “Storm Shadow” cruise missile launched over Zaporizhzhia were being brought to Moscow for examination; A few days later, Russia accused Ukraine of using a “Storm Shadow” strike to attack a hotel in Berdyansk and killing a general. Less than two months have passed between the announcement of the delivery and the first documented use of “Storm Shadow”.

It is unclear whether Ukrainian armed forces had already learned how to use “Storm Shadow” during military training conducted in Great Britain before the official government decision, whether they learned how to use the weapon within a few weeks in Ukraine or whether British armed forces were on site take an active role – the latter in particular raises the delicate question of whether and to what extent a NATO member state is involved in active combat operations. This is also Scholz's main argument against a delivery of “Taurus” from Germany, which he reiterated on Monday: “I am the Chancellor, and that's why this applies.”

Another delivery request to Scholz

Federal Defense Minister Boris Pistorius is currently trying to ensure that Germany's reliability in the military alliance remains valid: He spoke on the phone with his counterparts from the allies on Monday and “didn't notice any signs that we were distrusted in any way, and I didn't experience any irritation either “, he emphasized. The trust in Germany is unbroken.

Even if the comments from British experts raise doubts about this, London is at least publicly refraining from accusing Germany of betraying secrets against a NATO ally. Instead, Sunak's spokesman demonstratively turned to the issue of trust – and used the opportunity to once again call on the Chancellor to reconsider his “Taurus” decision: they would continue to work with Germany to support Ukraine. “The UK was the first country to provide long-range precision missiles to Ukraine. We would encourage our allies to do the same.”

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