There is something slow but inevitable in the strategic changes in the Russo-Ukrainian War. Two years have shown that Russia’s horrific invasion will not be stopped by anything but force. Russia’s military industry has ramped up faster than the West’s, providing Russian forces with an overwhelming weight of fire.

Western capitals have responded more slowly, but have provided support that has kept Ukraine and the fight and given the Ukrainian Armed Forces long-range strike capabilities and superior Western armaments, and it remains to be seen if this, and increased munitions production, can turn the tide again. Deploying Western troops – either as a NATO operation or more likely in a coalition of the willing – would provide obvious aid to Ukraine, but it would be an unparalleled opportunity for Western governments and militaries, and that bears great consideration.

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With US military aid resuming and Western munitions factories churning up production, manpower and mobilization have become new points of concern. Ukraine is outnumbered, and Russia’s ability to draw up battalions for new offensives is a critical problem. Ukraine’s 800-mile front is getting longer with the Kharkiv offensive, and the Russian air campaign will not let up without a major increase in air defenses. Several NATO members – France, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia among them – have floated the idea of sending troops to Ukraine to provide training, logistic support, and possibly to provide reserves against a major Russian breakthrough.

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A Russian breakthrough in Kharkiv seems unlikely at this point, but a significant advance north of Donetsk City could still happen. Kyiv has consistently stated that it does not ask for Western troops to fight this war, it simply wants the armaments to fight and win. Kyiv has, of course, not shut down this discussion. The benefits to Ukraine are obvious: forces used for logistics could be moved to reinforce the front. Extensive NATO-style training would cut down on the timeline from recruitment to deployment as new units would travel less distance. An increase in available training centers would alleviate logistical stress on recruitment.

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But Kyiv alone would not benefit. NATO militaries have learned much from observing this war, but to take on major non-combat roles would provide that rough knowledge only gained with calloused-hand experience, and NATO member governments need to re-learn creativity in fixing international crises.

“War is chaos, and the success of the American military is that it practices chaos on a daily basis.” This proverb has been attributed to either German and Soviet high command. While it’s stated to be a pithy reflection on American military success, it can live longer as advice. 2022 saw industrial warfare return to Europe. The expenditure of munitions, the destruction of infrastructure, the mass movements of forces, and the degradation and reconstitution of modern militaries has never been seen on this scale.

Trench warfare evokes the early 20th century; the leveling of Bakhmut and Avdiivka reflects Stalingrad and Aachen, but all the while jet fighters soar overhead dropping precision-guided weapons, and fleets of drones are used to reconnoiter and liquidate targets. Behind the lines, there is a massive effort by both forces to connect the outflow of military industrial production to brigades and artillery batteries.

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“Tooth-to-tail” has described how the military ration the manpower needs of logistics and combat, averaging about a quarter of uniformed personnel being dedicated to combat roles. War games and exercises provide a safe practice of warfighting, but nothing can echo the necessary haste and unavoidable confusion of conducting even rear echelon duties in an actual warzone. To put this pressure on their own brigades while keeping them safe from the attrition of frontline service is a unique opportunity with strategic benefits, and it should not be wasted. Brussels has identified logistics preparation as a member state liability for years.

The deployment of large units would provide another brilliant opportunity for Western militaries: a chance to work out the issues of operating alongside the Ukrainian military. The benefit to Ukraine is again obvious; it is another opportunity to adopt NATO standards. It follows up on the efforts to train alongside Ukrainian forces prior to the full-scale invasion.

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For NATO member forces, it provides a more serious lesson. If Russia attacks NATO directly, a wider European war will be sparked. It cannot be ruled out that Putin will try to disrupt the alliance by attacking the Baltics while still conducting his invasion of Ukraine. If NATO must mobilize, it will have to fight in Ukraine as well as in the Baltics or Finland or Poland. The weight of Russian military power is operating in eastern Ukraine, Crimea, and the Black Sea, and it will have to be defeated to end the threat. NATO forces that have already operated alongside Ukrainian forces, trained with them, and operated in the same bases and in the same defenses will be much more prepared to fight what would be the southern front of a broader war.

Make no mistake, this would be an escalatory action. It would be thrusting NATO members, if not the alliance operating as a NATO mission, further into the war in Ukraine. It would require either sending more air defense to Ukraine, or allowing NATO members to protect Ukraine’s airspace over training and deployment locations.

It’s a calculated risk: Ukraine’s defeat will embolden Putin. It’s worth considering the escalatory action of NATO troops backstopping Ukraine’s war efforts to prevent that collapse. Commitment to such escalation also better prepares for a Russian response. On both sides of the Atlantic, defense industries have begun to brush off the cobwebs only recently discovered by the production needed to support Ukraine. Militaries have had to plan around how new technologies affect old tactics. In this great effort to remove the rust, battlefield logistics, training, and mobilization all required attention. This mission, which would also provide immediate and vast relief for Kyiv, would provide an incomparable opportunity to test these issues just short of the stresses of direct war.

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The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post. 

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