British troops will not fight in Ukraine if Russia invades, Armed Forces minister says

UK is pulling out all soldiers who have been training Ukrainians in combat

Ukrainian soldiers near Kharkiv, north-east Ukraine. British troops who have been training Ukrainians will leave this weekend. AP Photo
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British troops will not be sent to fight in Ukraine if Russia invades, the British Armed Forces minister has said, amid mounting fears that a full-scale attack could be imminent.

James Heappey said Russia’s President Vladimir Putin could order an invasion “with very, very little notice” but insisted British military personnel would not have a presence on the ground if this happened.

He also said all British soldiers training Ukrainians would leave the country this weekend.

“There will be no British troops in Ukraine if there is any conflict with Russia,” Mr Heappey told Sky News.

The UK has advised British nationals in Ukraine to leave immediately amid growing tensions. PA

He stressed the importance of having no UK military presence in Ukraine going forward, as Moscow could seize on this as evidence of “western aggression”.

“The Kremlin would like there to be a pretext that there was western aggression in Ukraine to which they were then responding, and it’s important that we don’t give them the grounds to make that argument.”

Despite massing more than 100,000 troops and military equipment near the border with Ukraine, Russia has repeatedly denied any plans to invade its neighbour.

Over the past few years, British troops have trained tens of thousands of Ukrainians.

The UK has, in recent, weeks stepped up its assistance to Kiev, sending arms – including anti-tank weapons – and other materials.

Mr Heappey said while ministers in the UK hope an escalation could be avoided, they were “planning for the worst”.

He reiterated the government’s advice issued on Friday evening, urging UK nationals in Ukraine to “leave immediately by any means possible”.

Mr Heappey told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that all military personnel sent to train Ukrainians to use the anti-tank missiles Britain has provided were being brought home.

“All of them will be withdrawn,” he said. “They will be leaving over the course of the weekend.”

His insistence that Britain would have no boots on the ground if Russia invades Ukraine came after UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace visited Moscow on Friday for talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Shoigu.

Mr Shoigu began their meeting by attacking the UK for supplying weapons and military trainers to Ukraine. He went on to describe the co-operation levels between Moscow and London as “close to zero”.

The UK insists arms sent to Ukraine are for defence purposes and not designed to threaten Russia.

The Ukrainian Ambassador to Britain has urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson to send troops to Ukraine to deter an invasion. Such a strategy, he argued, would mean Britain would not be faced with the prospect of fighting the Russian Army on Nato soil.

Vadym Prystaiko said rather than sending soldiers to other countries in the region the UK would do better to deploy them to Ukraine.

“You might not have even to fight in Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Romania or anywhere,” he told The Times. “If [Putin] is stopped in Ukraine, you won’t have to fight anywhere. By doing this [now], you can avoid sending your soldiers to defend your allies the next day.”

Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative Party chairman of the House of Commons defence select committee, has called the Ukraine crisis “our Cuban missile crisis moment” — referring to the 1962 stand-off between the US and the former Soviet Union, after the Soviets installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, 140 kilometres off the American coast.

Mr Ellwood said British-led Nato divisions should be sent to Ukraine.

The former soldier said a Russian invasion would have a ripple effect across Europe and send food, oil and gas prices through the roof.

“An invasion is imminent. Once that happens, because of the grain the comes out of Ukraine for the world, [that will] affect food prices across the world,” he told Times Radio.

“Oil and gas prices will be affected as well, and European security will then be threatened further, so we have to ask ourselves, what should we do instead?

“What are the calculations, and yes, there is this looking Putin in the eye wondering what would happen,” Mr Ellwood said.

“This is our Cuban missile crisis moment”.

He said the consequences of allowing Ukraine to fall would see a “new era of instability with a Russia and China axis developing” while the West is “shrinking in size” and authoritarianism is on the rise.

Former defence secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind described suggestions there should be a Nato presence inside Ukraine as “very unwise”.

“There can’t be a Nato division in Ukraine; Ukraine’s not a member of Nato and you cannot send troops to that country without being involved in what could turn out to be a full-scale war. That is not going to happen," he told Times Radio.

Updated: February 12, 2022, 4:01 PM