David Cameron, according to his critics among senior diplomats and military commanders, seems to have turned Teddy Roosevelt’s advice on foreign policy – “speak softly and carry a big stick” – on its head.
The Prime Minister’s sudden announcement of sending military personnel to the Ukraine is in line with that of the leader who sees himself as the strategic supremo. When some senior officers raised doubts over air strikes on Libya three years ago, he declared: “I tell you what. You do the fighting and I’ll do the talking.”
Mr Cameron does not talk about Libya much nowadays, of course. And the failure to help stabilise the situation after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, the repeated demands that Bashar al-Assad should go without giving meaningful help to the Syrian moderate opposition, and then sending a minuscule force to Iraq to fight Isis, may not fill one with confidence about a Ukrainian adventure.
The reason the Prime Minister’s stick will continue to shrink, so to speak, as he continues to talk loudly, is the shrinking defence budget. The head of the US military, General Raymond Odierno, publicly expressed his concern about the UK’s defence cuts.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the concept of sending trainers to Ukraine. It is better than sending heavy weaponry to a relatively untrained force, with its complement of private militias, as some in Washington were threatening to do. But the Americans already have a long-arranged plan to send a force of about a thousand to do that training in the next few weeks.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
The UK will send 75 military personnel to Ukraine. The total ground force in the anti-Isis mission, in Iraq, is around 70. A recent report by the Commons defence committee was highly critical of the efforts there. On a visit to the region, the MPs found there were only three UK personnel outside the relatively safe Kurdish areas, compared with 400 Australians and 280 Italians, let alone the Americans. The RAF, they discovered, had carried out just six per cent of the strikes.
Some commanders and diplomats believe that Mr Cameron’s desire to jump in over Ukraine came in response to charges that he has become a nonentity in the crisis, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande brokering the Minsk ceasefire agreement without the UK being involved.
The caustic criticism of General Sir Richard Shirreff, formerly the UK’s most senior commander in Nato – “Where is Cameron? He is clearly a bit-player. Nobody is taking any notice of him. He is a foreign-policy irrelevance” – is said to have stung No 10.
Sending the troops must have been signed off by General Houghton, the Chief of Defence Staff. One must not feel too sorry for the military over this; the decision to deploy may have come from Downing Street, but it does show they are needed; similarly, the more Russian Bear bombers to see off around British airspace the better for the RAF in the time of cutbacks.
But the cutbacks remain a looming shadow. The UK’s defence spending meets the Nato threshold of two per cent of GDP, but only just, according to MoD figures, and has actually fallen in real terms according to independent estimates. In any case, the Government is committed to this only until the end of this Parliament.
General Odierno was graphic about what a future war might hold. “In the past we would have a British army division [around 20,000-strong] working alongside an American division. Now it might be …. even a British battalion inside an American brigade.” To put that in context, a battalion is what the Americans are sending to train the Ukrainian forces.Reuse content