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Kremlin warns against NATO ground intervention in Ukraine

FILE — Soldiers with Ukraine’s 31st Separate Mechanized Brigade fire their 122mm artillery piece towards a Russian position near the village of Marinka, in southeastern Ukraine, on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2022. A provocative comment by President Emmanuel Macron of France about the possibility of putting troops from NATO countries in Ukraine has prompted a warning from the Kremlin and hurried efforts by European leaders to distance themselves from the suggestion. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)  (TYLER HICKS)
By Paul Sonne and Constant Méheut New York Times

A provocative comment by President Emmanuel Macron of France about the possibility of putting troops from NATO countries in Ukraine has prompted a warning from the Kremlin and hurried efforts by European leaders to distance themselves from the suggestion.

The fractured messaging underscores how Ukraine’s allies are struggling to agree on new ways to help Ukraine as resolve weakens in the United States and Russia advances on the battlefield.

The Kremlin warned Tuesday that a ground intervention by any NATO country would lead to a direct clash between the Western military alliance and Russian forces, fraught with potential dangers, and called the open discussion of such a step as “a very important new element.”

“This is of course not in the interest of these countries,” Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, said in comments to reporters.

The warning came a day after Macron said “nothing should be ruled out” regarding the possibility of a NATO country sending troops to Ukraine, though he said there was no consensus on the matter.

“Anything is possible if it is useful to reach our goal,” Macron said, speaking after a meeting with European leaders in Paris about future support for Ukraine. Reminding leaders that the West was doing things it didn’t imagine two years ago, like sending sophisticated missiles and tanks, he said the goal was to ensure “Russia cannot win this war.”

Poland, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Italy and the Czech Republic rushed to emphasize they were not considering putting troops on the ground in Ukraine. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also told The Associated Press the alliance itself had no such plans.

France clarified that Macron was trying to emphasize how Europe must consider new actions to support Ukraine.

The French foreign minister, Stephane Séjourné, said new assistance to Ukraine in the areas of mine clearance, cyberdefense and weapons production “could require a presence on Ukrainian territory, without crossing the threshold of fighting.”

“Nothing should be ruled out,” Séjourné said. “This was and still is the position today of the president of the republic.”

The back and forth highlighted how NATO, despite becoming more powerful with the approval of Finland and Sweden as new members, has found itself grasping for solutions in Ukraine.

Western nations have a number of options short of inserting ground troops into the conflict zone. Ukraine has asked for more fighter jets, long-range missiles, ammunition and air defenses, as its troops fend off a Russian advance that led Ukraine to retreat from the city of Avdiivka this month.

Acrimonious exchanges between Russia and the West have become commonplace during the two-year war. The Kremlin has often responded to Western actions with provocative threats of confrontation, including regularly reminding its adversaries of its nuclear arsenal. But despite those bellicose warnings, it has refrained from conducting strikes against Ukraine’s Western allies, including sites involved in providing weapons to Ukraine.

The discussion of a possible ground intervention in Ukraine by a NATO member country – seen as unlikely by most analysts – overshadowed more pressing questions about deficits in materiel that Ukraine is experiencing at the front. Europe’s withered defense industry is struggling to make good on existing ammunition pledges, let alone make up for the United States.

The European Union has acknowledged that it will miss its target of providing 1 million rounds of ammunition to Ukraine by March 1. Macron said Monday that “it was probably an unwise commitment,” noting that Europe does not have sufficient stocks or production capacity to meet this target.

“Talking about possible deployments by NATO member countries to Ukraine is a bit of a red herring,” said Andrew S. Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The really decisive question is what can the Europeans do to compensate for the lack of U.S. military support.”

Macron on Monday said he was open to European nations purchasing ammunition for Ukraine from places outside the European Union. The Czech Republic has been pushing for those purchases to help with immediate shortages, as Republicans in Congress hold up the provision of new military aid from the United States.

“The Europeans have had two years now to get their act together and mobilize their industrial base,” Weiss said. “Everything else is just a bright shiny object to distract from that shortcoming.”

Since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago, the United States and most of its European allies have categorically ruled out the possibility of a direct intervention by NATO troops in the conflict, warning that such a step could escalate into nuclear war.

President Joe Biden openly said U.S. troops would not be deployed to Ukraine in the weeks before the invasion and has reiterated that position in the days since. On Tuesday, a White House spokesperson, John Kirby, added, “President Biden has been crystal clear since the beginning this conflict: There would be no U.S troops on the ground in a combat role there.”

The question of a NATO country putting troops on the ground initially received renewed attention Monday, before the Paris summit, when the Kremlin-friendly prime minister of Slovakia, Robert Fico, said other countries in the NATO alliance were discussing bilateral deals to insert ground forces in Ukraine – a step he said Slovakia would not take.

Macron made his comments later in the day, calling Moscow’s defeat “indispensable” for European security. He declined to say which nations might consider sending ground troops, arguing that “strategic ambiguity” was necessary to keep Russia guessing.

But the quick denial by his fellow European leaders led to confusion about the unity of the alliance and questions about whether his comments amounted to an empty threat.