BRITISH military personnel are to be deployed in Ukraine over the next few weeks to train Kiev government troops, David Cameron has announced.
The Prime Minister said that up to 75 British soldiers divided into four teams would go to an area outside the conflict zone to provide medical, logistics, intelligence and infantry skills.
The UK government said the action was taken in response to continued Russian-backed aggression and follows the US sending soldiers to train three Ukrainian battalions.
The decision to send in the army came as Mr Cameron vowed that Britain would be “the strongest pole in the tent” when it came to arguing for tougher sanctions against Moscow if a ceasefire agreement reached earlier this month was breached.
The truce brokered with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko was supposed to have been observed by Russian-backed militias in eastern Ukraine.
Mr Cameron told a House of Commons committee yesterday that there would be “deeply damaging” consequences for all of Europe if the EU fails to stand up to Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, predicting that the Russian president could turn against the Baltic states or Moldova if he is not reined in now.
And he suggested it would be “miraculous” if the terms of the 12 February ceasefire deal – agreed in Minsk by the French president Francois Hollande and German chancellor Angela Merkel – were met in full.
Fighting continued around the strategic railway hub of Debaltseve following the deal and Mr Cameron said he feared that seaport Mariupol would be the next target for separatist fighters.
Mr Cameron also indicated he is ready to give the BBC more funding to provide news services to counter “the deluge of Russian-paid and backed media spreading disinformation” in the region.
Giving evidence to the House of Commons liaison committee, Mr Cameron said: “We are not at the stage of supplying lethal equipment. We have announced a whole series of non-lethal equipment – night-vision goggles, body armour – which we have already said we will give to Ukraine.
“Over the course of the next month, we are going to be deploying British service personnel to provide advice and a range of training, from tactical intelligence to logistics to medical care, which is something else they have asked for.
“We will also be developing an infantry training programme with Ukraine to improve the durability of their forces. This will involve a number of British service personnel; they will be away from the area of conflict but I think this is the sort of thing we should be helping with.”
Mr Cameron said the EU should go ahead with the extension of sanctions which were put on hold earlier this year and there would be an “overwhelming” argument for tougher measures against Moscow if it does not halt the destabilisation of Ukraine.
He acknowledged it would be “difficult” to achieve unanimity among the 28 EU states on the continuation of sanctions when they come up for renewal in July. But he said “the horrors of Debaltseve” should show Europe “who we are dealing with and how firm we need to be”.
“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.”
Mr Cameron suggested bringing in sanctions which are “materially different” from the asset freezes and travel bans imposed so far, perhaps involving Russia’s exclusion from the Swift international banking payments system. He also warned that further action would be necessary if the situation escalated.
“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.”
Mr Cameron added: “Of course, when you put sanctions on a country, there is short-term pain to your own economies, but the argument I always make is that, in the medium to long term, the countries of Europe depend on a rules-based system where people obey the rules, and the instability we will yield if we don’t stand up to Russia in the long term will be deeply damaging to all of us, because you will see further destabilisation – next it will be Moldova or one of the Baltic states – and that sort of instability and uncertainty will be dreadful for our economies, dreadful for our stability.
“That’s why Britain takes such a clear view.”
Looking ahead to arguments within the EU over the tightening of sanctions, Mr Cameron told the cross-party committee of senior MPs: “We need to use all our diplomatic and other skills and efforts to convince those that have been more sceptical about sanctions that it’s only a firm stand that will be taken notice of in the Kremlin.
“So that’s what we should do. We’ve got some time to do it. Britain has quite an important role to play. We have been the strong pole in the tent in terms of sanctions. We should continue to play that role.”
Angus Robertson MP, the SNP’s defence spokesman, said: “We support the sanctions approach of the European Union, and call for Russia to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
“The Ukrainian people deserve the support of the international community – however, parliamentary oversight should be sought for any military commitment.”
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