Defining cobelligerency is not just a matter of words, nor is it an argument between researchers: it is a status that can change everything. If the United States or France were identified as fellow combatants by Vladimir Putin’s Russia because of their military support to Ukraine, they would de facto the direct enemy of the Russian army, which would make the war in Ukraine the starting point of an armed conflict between the main nuclear powers of the planet.
Not every ally is a fellow combatant
What is a Competitor? To clarify the term, nothing beats a historical example. During World War II, Britain was an ally of the United States. After the fall of Benito Mussolini, the new Italian regime eager to contribute to the war against Nazism was regarded not as their ally, but as their fellow combatant. One can therefore be a fellow combatant without being an ally, and vice versa: France remained an ally of the United States after the invasion of Iraq, without taking part in the conflict. So the difference between a co-belligerent and an ally is degree, not kind: the partnership is limited to a specific goal (overcoming an enemy), rather than being ratified by a treaty of greater scope. Moreover, complicity often seems to be a situation that is imposed on the actors, de facto rather than de jure, only afterwards recognized by the law of armed conflict† making it difficult to establish clearly: where does military support to a belligerent end, where does co-warfare begin?
Supplying weapons does not make us a fellow combatant
First, there is the issue of arms supply. Most of the French military aid to Ukraine goes through this. On April 13, the Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly announced on Twitter the delivery of 100 million euros of military equipment to Ukraine, without us being able to know the exact details, so as not to “Not giving operational information”† specifies the Elysée to AFP. Among this equipment are defensive military equipment (helmets, body armor, etc.) but also heavy weapons, Caesar cannons and Milan missiles. Given in an interview to West France April 21 Emmanuel Macron welcomed this decision with one caveat: “I think we should continue on this path. Always with a red line, which does not concern complicity. † What is implied here is that the arms supply would be below the combative threshold… but only up to a point. What does the law say? In a note from the Strategic Research Institute of the Military School (Irsem) dated 6 May, the lawyer for armed conflict states: Julia Grignon states that co-warfare does not apply to western countries in Ukraine for the time being. In particular, the researcher relies on an interpretation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which held that a state that equips and finances an armed group in its fight against another state does not necessarily become a party to the conflict. In addition, France continues to supply weapons to Saudi Arabia, which is waging a war in Yemen, without raising the issue of possible French co-warfare – only criticizing the morality of this practice.
From this we infer that supplying weapons is not enough. It takes to be “part of a conflict” – term equivalent here to “co-warfare” – a confrontation straight away of his troops with the enemy, or, at the very least, an indirect engagement, but implying: “participation in the planning and supervision of military operations”† At this stage and according to the information we have, this is not the case for one or more NATO members, France leading the way. This is also the official position of the French government. Before the Senate, Florence Parly cautiously assured: “As you know, direct deployment of our troops or those of our allies to support the Ukrainian army against Russia is not an option. It would make us fellow combatants in this conflict. †
But if the line was so clear, why would all western supporters of ukraine be so careful in measuring their military aid for fear of crossing a threshold? Military support can take various forms, which develop in a gray area between relief efforts and co-warfare.
The gray areas
The most notable is undoubtedly intelligence. US aid to Ukrainian troops also takes the form ofintelligence, the communication of information on the movements of enemy troops, the condition of the troops present, which makes it possible to guide the Ukrainian decision-making in real time. But there’s a difference between informing about the number of soldiers involved in an area of operations and providing a spatial coordinate to lock in an enemy target. This difference is that of the transition from aid to direct participation in the conflict. The United States is evolving on this shifting sand. As reported The world, Adam Smithan elected Washington State Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee explained on the MSBC channel what kind of “subtle distinction” that must be constantly exploited: the United States share their information, but wouldn’t “real-time targeting” Russian troops. In short, in order not to be co-belligerent, it is possible to pass intelligence in general, but not to inform targets at any one time. you† Byzantine calculations that don’t always withstand reality… Based on Pentagon sources, the New York Times confirms on May 4 that the information provided by the US military allows for real-time targeting, as well as the locations of the Russian army’s mobile headquarters. This is what would have enabled the Ukrainians to eliminate 12 Russian generals since the start of the conflict. There is also the case of the Russian ship Moskva, which was sunk by the Ukrainian army on April 14. According to information from the American broadcaster CNNHis whereabouts have reportedly been confirmed by US intelligence. Could the Americans, unofficially, have already crossed the legal threshold of co-warfare?
To situate this shadowy threshold we must also think in terms of orders of magnitude. For the United States alone, on April 28, President Joe Biden asked the US Congress for a budget of 33 billion dollars “Helping Ukraine defend itself”, including 20 billion directly earmarked for arms supplies. Added to the 13.7 billion already voted, that’s more or less the annual budget France spends on its own army. As we have seen, the provision of financial aid or material under the Armed Conflict Act cannot, of course, be regarded as grounds for co-warfare, but this is probably only true up to a certain point. To be convinced of this, let’s imagine a fictitious situation, in which a state would fund A fully the budget of the army of a state B to fight against a third state C. Can we say that A is not co-belligerent because its soldiers are not directly involved in the conflict? Would he tolerate it? Let’s bet that he wouldn’t be mistaken and that he would immediately name his objective enemy: State A. The situation in Ukraine is of course not there yet. But here, too, the parties involved must return in all directions to the question of the threshold: how far should the colossal US military aid go in Ukraine?
The last element that could plunge western countries into co-warfare is the presence of foreign soldiers in Ukraine. According to the correspondent of Time in Ukraine, British special forces are said to have trained local troops in Kiev. What would happen if a British soldier was captured by Russian troops? What would be the conclusion? Vladimir Poutine †
This question leads to an observation: so far we have sidelined the protagonist, Russia. Looking for an objective threshold, here in armaments, there in intelligence, it is easy to forget that co-warfare depends primarily on the actors’ perception of the threshold of what is acceptable. To know who is a fellow combatant in a conflict, the question may be more to determine That decrees it, instead of the deeds True the spells what this actually includes. Take the case of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), where the delivery by France to Iraq of five Super-Étendard aircraft had clearly crossed the threshold of what was acceptable in the eyes of the Iranians, who identified France as fellow combative. It therefore appears that France became co-belligerent, not at the time of the delivery of the planes, but at the time when the Iranians started using it as case belli† Co-warfare then takes on a performative meaning: I become co-belligerent as soon as my enemy labels me as such. Above a certain support threshold, co-warfare would no longer be so much an objective red line as a cursor of the acceptable and unacceptable that the belligerents position themselves according to their interests. As if, from intensive military aid to designation as belligerent, there was no absolute break, yes or no, direct or indirect, but rather a continuum of military actions, more or less direct or indirect pledges. In that case, complicity would not be an objective status, but an agreement between the actors and a balancing act. In any case, if we stick to this idea, there is even less doubt that France is not a fellow combatant, as it is not regarded as such by Vladimir Putin – even the fact that he regularly calls Emmanuel Macron proves that he recognizes him as interlocutor and not as an enemy.
Exactly what western countries are trying to do today is navigate through these faint lines, to provide maximum aid to Ukraine while remaining within the confines of the Russian cursor – which also has no interest in multiplying enemies. But where is Vladimir Putin’s threshold? The Russian president imposed an initial limit on March 5, when he announced that he would consider any country attempting to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine as co-belligerent (a measure the implementation of which would mean that any Russian plane flying over Ukrainian territory flies down) ). That’s what the president wanted. Volodymyr Zelensky – a request that NATO carefully failed to comply with. But Vladimir Putin’s taste for surprise and the unpredictable developments of the war could lead him to reconsider his position: the threshold of co-warfare in Ukraine has therefore been suspended for the future in this worrisome vagueness.