In a move that surprised European leaders, David Cameron has committed to sending up to 75 military advisers to Ukraine to help train the infantry, joining the U.S. which is to begin a similar mission in a few weeks’ time. The training is to take place far away from the front, making it unlikely that the advisers would come into harm’s way.The move itself is probably not immediately consequential as far as the balance of power on the ground is concerned, as Ukraine’s military, which has been neglected since the country’s independence, is in very poor shape indeed. But it does represent the first more assertive move by an EU country in the conflict, and should be read as an early attempt to stiffen spines across the EU ahead of the debates over the tough sectoral sanctions which need to be renewed in July.David Cameron himself was explicit on this point:
“I think the extension should happen in any event – even if not very much changes on the ground,” said the Prime Minister. “They should be deepened if further steps of destabilisation are taken. I think, particularly, people will be looking at Mariupol as the next potential flashpoint, and if that were to happen, I think the argument for further action would be overwhelming. I think that would be the view of countries like Poland, the Baltic states and many others.”[…]“I think that if, miraculously, heavy weapons are withdrawn, ceasefires are held, elections start, and all the elements of Minsk are put in place, I think you’d see people wanting to lighten the sanctions load. But if we don’t see that, you will get a different view. Britain’s role is to be at the tougher end of the spectrum, to try to keep the European Union and the United States together, and I think we should be clear about this pattern of behaviour we’ve seen from Putin now over many years.”
It’s not clear what the Kremlin thinks is its best play: Russia may well be planning to force a lull in the fighting in order to further fragment EU consensus on the sanctions front—even while still destabilizing Ukraine in other ways. Or it may calculate that a push through Mariupol to Crimea, while the Ukrainians are still reeling from their recent defeats, might be the best option.In any case, the tussle over the extension sanctions is the main one to watch for in the EU in the coming weeks and months.