The UK is prepared to send troops to support NATO deployment and protect the alliance’s east flank if Russia invades Ukraine, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday.
The promise came as Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told MPs that there were individuals already in Ukraine “linked to the Russian state in ways that are not conventional” and “that should give cause for concern.”
But Johnson resisted the more hawkish proposal of sending NATO troops into Ukraine—a non-NATO state—maintaining economic sanctions remain “the real deterrent” of a potential Russian invasion.
Making a statement in Parliament on Tuesday, the prime minister told MPs that more than 100,000 Russian troops are “arrayed” at Ukraine’s eastern border—”far bigger than anything Russia has deployed” against Ukraine before.
He said the British army “leads the NATO Battlegroup in Estonia and if Russia invades Ukraine,” while Denmark is sending a frigate to the Baltic and four fighter jets to Lithuania, France is prepared to deploy troops to Romania, and the United States is preparing to increase the number of its NATO combat troops in Europe to 8,500.
“We would look to contribute to any new NATO deployments to protect our allies in Europe,” Johnson told MPs.
According to Johnson, who hosted a virtual meeting on Monday, leaders from the United States, France, Germany, Poland, Italy, NATO, and the European Union agreed to accelerate an extensive sanctions package in order to deter an escalation from the Kremlin.
“We agreed that we would respond in unison to any Russian attack on Ukraine, in unison, by imposing coordinated and severe sanctions, heavier than anything we have done before against Russia,” he said.
“And we agreed on the necessity of finalising these measures as swiftly as possible, in order to maximise their deterrent effect.”
Johnson also said the UK “will not hesitate” to ramp up its own sanctions against Russia “in response to whatever President [Vladimir] Putin may do,” adding that Parliament can expect an update from Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in the coming days.
Responding to Defence Committee Chair Tobias Ellwood, who urged the government to liaise with the United States and “mobilise a sizable NATO presence in Ukraine,” and utilise “the superior hard power the Alliance possesses to make Putin think twice about invading another European democracy,” Johnson said he doesn’t believe it’s a “likely prospect in the near term” as Ukraine is currently not a member state of NATO.
“What we can do and what we are doing is sending troops to support Ukraine” by training Ukrainian troops and seeding defensive weaponry, Johnson said, calling the steps “vital” in stiffening Ukrainian resistance.
“But I think the real deterrent right now, Mr. Speaker, is that package of economic sanctions,” he said. “That is what will bite, that is what will hurt Putin, and that I hope is what will deter him.”
Shortly after Johnson’s statement, Wallace told Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee: “We are becoming aware of a significant number of individuals that are assessed to be associated with Russian military advance force operations that currently are located in Ukraine.”
Wallace also told the committee that “any crossing into Ukraine, whether small or large,” will be seen as an invasion, adding, “You can’t be half-pregnant, you are either invading a country or you are not.”