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18 Jan, 2024 20:00

NATO personnel in Ukraine now ‘fair game’ for Russia – Ritter

The Kharkov missile strike shows a “new mindset,” the former UN weapons inspector has said
NATO personnel in Ukraine now ‘fair game’ for Russia – Ritter

Russia’s targeting of French-speaking personnel suggests that advisers from NATO countries operating in Ukraine have been put on notice, former US Marine and UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter has said.

According to the Russian Defense Ministry, more than 60 “foreign fighters” were killed and another 20 wounded in Tuesday’s high-precision strike on a building in Kharkov.

Speaking with Sputnik on Thursday, Ritter pointed to the possibility that at least some of the French-speaking individuals may have been active-duty French military, “who were in Ukraine at the behest of their government, and now they’re dead.”

“I think this shows a new mindset for the Russians,” he said. “In the past, Russia has not shown any hesitancy to eliminate foreign mercenaries fighting on behalf of the Ukrainian military. But there has seemed to be some sort of leniency towards military advisers or personnel who belong to NATO countries who are in Ukraine.”

If the fighters killed weren’t simply mercenaries but serving French military professionals, “this shows that Russia has made a decision that everybody in Ukraine now is fair game,” Ritter added.

He suggested that this might mean Russia is moving to the “end of the game” in Ukraine, in which it will make no distinction between the Ukrainian soldiers, foreign mercenaries, or members of NATO militaries operating on Ukrainian soil.

The Ukrainian side has given conflicting accounts of Tuesday’s strike, first saying the missiles hit an unused hospital and then that a residential building was struck causing civilian casualties. 

Donbass Insider Editor-in-chief Christelle Neant told RT on Thursday that “many wounded French-speaking individuals were admitted to hospitals” in Kharkov, according to Ukrainian intelligence sources.

Neant said that Kiev uses foreign mercenaries “primarily for media purposes” and that the Frenchmen in Kharkov may have been instructors teaching the Ukrainians how to handle weapons provided by the West. 

Earl Rasmussen of the Eurasia Center told RT that the Kharkov strike might be a message to Ukraine that Russia won’t treat Western fighters any differently than Ukrainian ones. He also allowed for the possibility the stricken foreigners may have been instructors. 

Thousands of fighters from the West flocked to Ukraine after the conflict with Russia escalated in February 2022, but their enthusiasm dropped off after up to 180 of them died in a missile strike on base in Yavorov in mid-March. Since then, almost 6,000 of the 13,500 foreigners who came to fight for Ukraine have been killed, and over 5,600 have returned home, the Russian Defense Ministry said earlier this month.