Photo By Diego Herrera/Europa Press
Artillery Row

Dead men wave no flags

UK must not allow volunteers to fight in Ukraine

Downing Street yesterday rushed to slap down Foreign Secretary Liz Truss after she told the BBC on Sunday morning that she supported Britons travelling to Ukraine to fight for the embattled nation.

Standing by official FCDO advice, a No10 spokesperson said that there are better ways to support Ukrainians than heading to Kiev and picking up a rifle. They’re right.

There is a glistening memorial to the men of my London borough who joined the International Brigades during the revolution in Spain against General Franco’s forces. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has attempted to capture similar sentiments that inspired those overseas reinforcements in 1936 by announcing a visa-free system for any foreigner who wishes to fight for Ukraine. Foreigners have been able to join the Ukrainian army as contract soldiers since 2016.

International volunteers heading to Ukraine can expect a world of pain

But no more should go. Unlike the many Britons who travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside Kurdish forces against the ISIS insurrection, volunteer troops will find themselves in a totally different battlespace, devoid of American and RAF air support. Their experiences will be more akin to those who fled Western safety to pledge their fealty to Daesh; not morally, where they will find themselves fighting for a just cause, but realistically, as any international volunteers heading to Ukraine can expect little more than a world of pain.

Reports suggest that Putin and various Russian military figureheads are distressed by the state of their advance after almost 100 hours since the start of the invasion. But these murmurs of discontent, mixed in with a brief review of Russia’s standard tactics and procedures for military victory, should bring a great deal of fear, not hope.

What is likely to follow in Ukraine will be gruesome, deplorable and utterly destructive. The indiscriminate deployment of cluster munitions, and the flattening of civilian-occupied areas, is a realistic possibility in a war that Putin will be keen to mop up as soon as possible, as the country becomes increasingly isolated on the world stage.

Ukrainian-aligned propagandists, and journalists who have acquired an expert grasp of the situation after a few days of scrolling down their Twitter timelines, are keen to argue that Russian forces are on the ropes after losing thousands of men, retweeting graphics that detail the extent of the Kremlin’s tank deficiency. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defence has claimed that Putin’s army has suffered 5,000 deaths, with commentators suggesting that this shows that the invasion is failing.

Their contribution is likely to be straining the poor souls running the morgues

What few of them have reckoned with, however, is that the current Russian military strategy could adjust from its remarkably reserved approach, relative to recent conflicts, and return to what Putin’s generals and battle-hardened officers know best: unstoppable firepower.

Compare the opening events of the Russian invasion into Ukraine, in particular around Kiev and other urban strongholds, with its 1994-95 assault on Grozny, the Chechen capital. On the first night of the Grozny attack, Russian forces lost hundreds of tanks and thousands of men. Frustrated by their insufficient gains and the dogged Chechen resistance, they launched a massive air and artillery campaign, with Chechen sources claiming that rockets were hitting the presidential palace at a rate of one per second. Yeltsin’s troops captured the capital soon after.

With all of this in mind, the foreign secretary’s off-the-cuff call of support for British militiamen to pursue their dreams of valour and heroic recognition isn’t just foolish, it’s disgraceful.

A horrible reckoning is likely to take place, with thousands of deaths by bomb and rocket barrage. British volunteers, many of whom will lack any military or combat experience, will not be suited to this kind of warfare, where their main contribution is likely to amount to little more than straining the poor souls running the morgues.

The heartening videos of Ukrainian men walking through the streets, wielding NATO-supplied anti-tank launchers, are going to become rarer. Instead of bravely parading through the streets to counter Putin’s onslaught of armour, they will be sheltering from constant bombardment.

Not all of the Ukrainian troops are angels fighting for liberal democracy

Though Britain led the way in Europe, we collectively failed to sufficiently support Ukraine ahead of the invasion, even as an unprecedented Russian force gathered along multiple fronts. We cannot revert those inadequacies. But as we look to repent for our unpreparedness, our strategy must focus on military and humanitarian supplies, not trainloads of midlife crisis wannabes delirious with dreams of heroic recognition and appalling nom de guerres such as the “lion of Lewisham”. Our allies are in distress. They urgently need bombs, bullets and bandages, not loudmouth 60-year-olds from Kent with a precollection for airfix sets.

There are further concerns regarding the aforementioned possible decline of Putin’s clarity of thought and his capacity to make considered, cool decisions. Marco Rubio, who has access to top secret information as a senior Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, hinted at this growing concern by tweeting that he wished he could say more about things being “off” with the Russian president. In these fraught, fearful times, amidst talk of nuclear missiles being propped up and pointed at European capitals, our representatives should be careful not to push for solutions that might make the Kremlin jittery, especially if they offer limited rewards. Signalling that you are facilitating the deployment of volunteer British fighters to do battle with Russian soldiers, is one such avoidable escalation.

It isn’t just the practical problems that should have caused the foreign secretary to pause before she gave gungo volunteers the greenlight to hire a minibus and stock it up with baked beans and shotgun shells. There is also a question of association and possible PR disasters. While their cause is just, it is worth remembering that not all of the Ukrainian troops are angels fighting for liberal democracy. There are plenty of foreign fighters in their national uniform, but many wear the patches of the Azov battalion, an infamous neo-Nazi outfit full of disreputable killers. The possibility of a British flag being seen alongside this lot, who are prone to raising Swastika-laden flags of their own, would do untold harm to what has been an enormously successful communications strategy since the first Russian tanks rolled into the Donbass.

Many Ukrainians are going to fight and die bitterly defending their homeland. We should not allow Britons to frustrate their best efforts in the face of insurmountable odds. Nothing good can come from it.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover