The United States has informed Russia that Patriot missile systems set to be delivered to the Ukraine in 2023 will not be accompanied by U.S. Military personnel, according to a statement by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on December 28. These assurances were reportedly provided by Washington through “embassy channels.” “We’ve asked the Americans through the channels that our embassy still has, whether their decision to hand over a Patriot battery [to Ukraine] means that American specialists would come along with it, since it is complicated to use,” the minister said, adding that Russian diplomats had received “extensive explanations” from U.S. officials assuring that no Americans would be accompanying the Patriots. “It is precisely because the Americans do not want to and will not fight directly against Russia that the Patriot [system] would only be made operational in several months as soon as the Ukrainian soldiers master this technology,” Lavrov further explained. The delivery of Patriot missiles to bolster Ukraine’s increasingly depleted air defence network was announced earlier in December during a visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to Washington, although the effectiveness of the system considering both its questionable combat record and the very small numbers set to be deployed has been widely questioned.
Although U.S. personnel may not accompany the Patriot batteries themselves, Minister Lavrov highlighted that “dozens or even hundreds of American servicemen” were still on Ukrainian soil with a “sizeable military attaché apparatus” providing “direct consultative services” to Ukraine. He added that U.S. specialists were monitoring the use of American weapons in the Eastern European country. The Foreign Minister’s statements follow widespread reports of the extent of the U.S. Military presence in Ukraine, with the New York Times previously referring to the U.S. as setting up within Ukraine’s borders “a stealthy network of commandos and spies rushing to provide weapons, intelligence and training… C.I.A. personnel have continued to operate in the country secretly, mostly in the capital, Kiev, directing much of the massive amounts of intelligence the United States is sharing with Ukrainian forces.” More information regarding the extent of Western involvement in the war effort against Russia has continued to emerge, with British Deputy Chief of Defence Staff revealing on December 13 that hundreds of Royal Marines had been on the ground and actively participated in the conflict from April. Beyond advisors, contractors and other personnel, as well as the transfer of tens of billions of dollars worth of armaments to Ukrainian forces, NATO member states’ satellite and airborne reconnaissance have also played a major role in Ukraine’s war effort.
A decision not to deploy American personnel with Patriot batteries could significantly reduce Moscow’s concerns regarding such deployments, since the presence of U.S. forces would risk making attacks on the systems into a major international incident should those personnel be killed or injured. It notably contrasts sharply to Russia’s own decision when supplying its own equivalent to the Patriot, the S-300 system to Syria in 2018, at which time the systems were manned and constantly accompanied by Russian personnel. Where the presence of Russian forces at Syrian S-300 sites effectively ruled out possible U.S. or allied operations to target the systems, the absence of a similar American presence in Ukraine means Patriot batteries will be much more likely to be targeted. Russian President Vladimir Putin notably stated on December 25 that the destruction of any Patriot systems delivered was an absolute certainty, with the highly costly missile systems presenting a ludicrous target and potentially having a highly detrimental effect on Ukrainian morale if quickly neutralised. The limited number of Patriot batteries set to be deployed, and the rapid depletion of Ukraine’s other air defence assets, means the systems could be left highly vulnerable leaving the presence of U.S. or other NATO forces accompanying the systems as the most significant protection they could have had. Although Russia is likely to go to significant lengths to verify that no foreign personnel accompany the Patriots, which could otherwise give pretext for a more direct NATO intervention in the conflict should they be struck, the absence of non-Ukrainian personnel places the practicality of a small Patriot deployment during the ongoing conflict further into question.