So far, the West has refrained from having a permanent military presence in Ukraine. Emmanuel Macron now wants to send instructors. That would bring a lot to Kiev – but some fear an escalation.

Ukrainian soldiers during an exercise in Eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian soldiers during an exercise in Eastern Ukraine.

Oleksandr Ratushniak / Reuters

France’s plans to send trainers to Ukraine are taking shape. As the newspaper Le Monde reported on Thursday, citing anonymous sources, the government is currently trying to form a coalition of volunteer countries to train the Ukrainian armed forces on the ground. The plans are expected to be communicated as early as next week, when President Zelensky comes to France to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day.

Little is known about the extent of the planned operation. There was also some confusion at the beginning of the week about whether the plans actually exist. On Monday, Ukrainian commander-in-chief Olexander Sirski wrote on Facebook that he welcomed France’s initiative to send trainers to Ukraine and had already signed the relevant documents.

There was initially neither confirmation nor denial from the French side. But on Monday evening, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense published a clarification on the X platform. Nothing had been decided yet, but: “At the moment we are in talks with France and other countries.” During his visit to German Chancellor Scholz, French President Macron spoke of “uncoordinated and unfortunate communication.”

Europe wants to mark its presence

As Le Monde writes, a few dozen specialists will initially be sent to determine the training needs. A second phase will be followed by a mission with a few hundred soldiers. “The main thing is to try out such a step to see what is possible,” believes French political scientist and security researcher Pierre Haroche. “Much more important than the question of what exactly the trainers do is the signal they send out: that Europe is present in Ukraine.”

Germany refuses to send instructors to Ukraine – but French President Macron sees his chance.

Germany refuses to send instructors to Ukraine – but French President Macron sees his chance.

Liesa Johannssen / Reuters

The deployment of Western military instructors would not be a precedent. Since the British sent the first instructors to Ukraine in March 2015 in response to Russia’s aggression, various states have maintained similar missions. A central location for this was the Yavoriv military base in the west of the country. When Putin’s troops invaded the neighboring country on February 24, 2022, the NATO members withdrew their soldiers.

Nevertheless, smaller foreign military contingents remained in Ukraine. Last year, the so-called Pentagon leaks revealed that a total of 97 members of special forces from NATO countries were on site. They primarily protect embassies, but also advise the Ukrainian armed forces.

According to official information from London, the British mission is also continuing, with medical troops being trained, for example. However, German officers also said in a conversation leaked by Russia that London is helping the Ukrainians with its own soldiers, at least on a point-by-point basis, to operate Storm Shadow cruise missiles.

Intelligence agents and specialists, but no permanent presence

However, the boundaries between intelligence services, the military and arms companies are often blurred. For example, over the last eight years the CIA has built 14 bases with the Ukrainian military intelligence service, through which a regular exchange of data takes place. According to the New York Times, the Americans provide satellite images or coordinates for missile attacks, for example. Private specialists are also occasionally on site, for example for the maintenance of Patriot air defense systems.

In order not to feed Russia’s propaganda and to limit the risks of a direct military confrontation, Americans and Europeans have so far refrained from having a permanent military presence. The Pentagon has already relativized this stance at the end of last year through regular visits by a three-star general to improve coordination in Kiev.

General Antonio Aguto (left) meets President Selensky in Wiesbaden.

General Antonio Aguto (left) meets President Selensky in Wiesbaden.

Ukrainian Presidential Press Ser / Reuters

Since then, not only in France, but also in Canada, the Baltic states, Poland and Scandinavia, there have been increasing voices of people thinking about sending instructors. Germany rejects this idea, at least within NATO. But Le Monde quotes sources saying that Great Britain could also be interested.

The pressure on the West to become more directly involved is there. Russia has increased pressure on the front lines over the past six months, while the Ukrainians are only slowly addressing their precarious personnel situation through better organized mobilization. They have therefore asked NATO to train up to 150,000 soldiers closer to the front lines so that reinforcements can be deployed more quickly and flexibly.

So far, NATO members have participated in training, but only abroad. Tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers were transported to European and American training grounds, especially in the run-up to last year’s counteroffensive. The complicated logistics, the time limit of the training and the gap between theory and practice on the battlefield were among the reasons why Kiev’s offensive failed.

Ukrainian military personnel training in the UK in November 2022.

Ukrainian military personnel training in the UK in November 2022.

Chris Radburn / Reuters

The hope is that a presence at Ukrainian military training areas would improve the exchange of know-how between Western and Ukrainian military personnel and make training more realistic. It would also save costs.

An opportunity for France

However, the American Chief of Staff Charles Q. Brown Jr. fears that the USA could be drawn into the conflict by sending troops. If Western troops were involved in combat operations or killed in the hinterland by missile attacks, the risk of war with Russia would increase. An attack on NATO soldiers could trigger the collective defense case under Article 5. The Estonian head of government, however, denied such an automatic mechanism.

However, the fact that Brown also described the deployment of instructors as a question of time suggests that discussions in the Western defense alliance are primarily about how to make this as risk-free as possible. A “coalition of the willing” under French leadership could be one way to achieve this.

For Macron, this would be a face-saving compromise. When he did not rule out sending ground troops to Ukraine at the end of February after a meeting with more than twenty heads of state and government, he provoked an outcry and was rebuffed by Berlin and Washington. There have been no such reactions following the latest announcement.

For security expert Haroche, a joint training initiative could also be a step towards France’s rapprochement with Eastern Europe. “For the countries in the east of the EU, France has long been too lenient towards Russia. Macron wants to change that.” Last summer, the president admitted for the first time that France should have paid more attention to the Eastern European states that had warned against Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Macron is under pressure in his Ukraine policy: According to government figures, France has provided Ukraine with military aid worth 3.8 billion euros in 2022 and 2023. This puts the country far behind Germany (17 billion euros) and the USA. “France is repeatedly criticized for not supplying enough weapons,” says Pierre Haroche. “That’s why Macron is now happy to be able to send such a signal.”