This afternoon President Biden gave remarks at the White House, laying out the next phase of the US response to Russia’s recognition of the DPR and LPR. He called the recognition a clear violation of international law. After much confusion and hesitancy about how to label Russia’s actions in the last twenty-four hours, Biden declared them to be the start of an invasion and will be regarded in that manner. He repeated his oft used warning that Russia will face severe sanctions if its forces enter Ukrainian territory. The first wave of US sanctions has already been released and they mainly target a handful of Russian banks and financial institutions.
Biden also announced the movement of Europe-based US military forces into the Baltic States to bolster defenses in NATO’s easternmost member-states. An airborne infantry battalion from the 173rd Airborne Brigade based in Italy and AH-64 Apaches from Germany will deploy, as well as eight F-35A Lightning II fighters that are forward-deployed at Spangdahlem Airbase at the moment.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy has ordered a call up of Ukrainian reservists but stopped short of a full mobilization. A move that expansive would require a declaration of martial law according to Ukrainian law. Operative level 1 and 2 (OR1, OR2) reservists only will be affected. But do not be fooled, OR1 and OR2 reservists still number at 150,000 men and women.
The planned talks between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have been cancelled. The two senior diplomats were set to meet on Thursday, but the meeting was contingent upon Russia choosing to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis rather than an invasion.
Note: I’m going to try and spend some time tonight away from Ukraine and recharge my batteries. So, unless something major develops, this will be the last update for the day. Next one will be up tomorrow morning. –Mike
With the NATO alliance’s most powerful members committed to half-measures when it comes to supporting Ukraine during the present crisis, one of NATO’s smallest member-states is stepping up. Estonia appears ready to provide Javelin missiles and 122mm artillery pieces to Ukraine in the face of a large Russian military buildup on its border with Ukraine. The pair of twenty-first century sovereign nation states spent the bulk of the previous century as sister Soviet Socialist Republics. Memories of Soviet rule remain fresh in both nations despite the fact Estonia and Ukraine gained independence thirty-one years ago.
Although the symbolism of Estonia’s gesture is high, one has to wonder about how much sense it makes for Estonia to shortchange its own military of equipment that could be needed to defend its own border in the future. The Estonian armed forces are small and equipped with limited amounts of modern weapon systems. Replacing any Javelins and artillery pieces that are sent to Ukraine will not be easy. Unless an arrangement has already been agreed to between Tallinn and NATO headquarters in Brussels. The move will also require the permission of the United States and Finland since it is a US company which manufactures Javelins and a Finnish corporation that builds the artillery.
The Estonian government is also considering an increase in the amounts and types of soft-aid being provided to Ukraine. This includes assistance in setting up mobile field hospitals, and training for Ukrainian Army doctors and other medical professionals expected to treat combat casualties in the event war breaks out.
The Russian military begins its largest military exercise of the year today with the start of Zapad-21. This exercise, the latest in a cycle of quadrennial Russian exercises will test the readiness and combat power of the Western Military District. The WMD is home to many of Russia’s better-equipped and trained land and air units. This year’s Zapad comes at a time of heightened tensions between Russia and it Western neighbors. As a general rule, Zapad exercises draw increased scrutiny and attention from Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States and NATO. It will take place in a number of ranges and training areas in Russia and Belarus and include forces from these two nations. The Belarusian Ministry of Defense has announced that Zapad-21 will include 13,000 troops from Belarus and Russia. However, as is generally the case, this number is a low figure. There appear to be far more Russian troops presently in Belarus than the official count. As a rule, troop numbers are manipulated to keep Zapad-21 within the guidelines called for in the Vienna Document. Any military exercise including more that 13,000 troops requires observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to attend.
The general concern among Russia’s western neighbors, as well as NATO, is that an exercise the size of Zapad could be used as cover for military action. To be fair, this is not a recent worry. Its origins go all the way back to the Cold War when NATO officers suspected major exercise would act as a prelude to a Soviet/Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe. Given the major Russian military buildup and exercises near the Ukrainian frontier earlier this year, Western concern is understandable. However, given the current picture of the world situation, Zapad is not expected to serve as a prelude to Russian military intervention in Ukraine, or Eastern Europe in the near future.
Wary of what the Swedish Armed Forces’ Commander of Joint Operations referred to as ‘extensive military activity in the Baltic Sea’ at present Sweden is moving to raise its military readiness. Both Russia, and NATO have been holding sizeable exercises, and running patrol operations in the Baltic region of late. The scale of activity has been on a level not seen since the Cold War. This, coupled with the uncertainty of the ongoing global pandemic, and disputed election in Belarus is creating a heightened security situation in the Baltic. The Swedes are rightfully growing concerned and this latest move is intended to send a signal to friend and foe alike that Sweden stands prepared to defend its sovereignty.
It goes without saying, however, that the signal is intended more for Moscow’s benefit rather than Washington’s, or London’s.
Sweden has not been shy about publicizing its deployments. On Tuesday, Swedish television broadcast video footage of armored vehicles arriving on Gotland amid vacationing families, and other tourists. In Stockholm, the Swedish government has been careful not to connect its military moves with the unrest taking place in Belarus. It has admitted the ongoing Russian military exercises are what finally moved Sweden to take action. Along with the armored vehicles, a number of Gripen fighter planes have also been deployed to Gotland. In the Baltic Sea, four Swedish corvettes are presently exercising with the Finnish Navy. Other nations are also moving military pieces around the Scandinavian chessboard. Over the weekend a US special operations aircraft landed on Gotland for a period of time, and farther north Norwegian F-16s, and US Air Force B-52s exercised together over the Arctic.
After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Sweden became concerned about Russia’s intentions in the Baltic, and Europe. Following years of declining defense budgets, Sweden reversed course and started to spend more money on defense. Since 2014 the size and capabilities of the Swedish armed forces have increased with Russia now seen as an unfriendly, potentially hostile Baltic neighbor. Sweden remains unaligned, and neutral in most regards but that has not prevented Swedish forces from taking part in exercises and engaging in closer military relations with a number of NATO nations.
At the German port of Bremerhaven the first wave of US troops and equipment started arriving on Friday as preparations for the Defender 20 exercise move into high gear. In the coming days and weeks they will be followed by 20,000 troops and roughly a division’s worth of equipment. The equipment will make the trans-Atlantic crossing by ship and arrive at ports in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. Troops will fly across, mate up with their equipment and then move east from staging areas in Germany to Poland and the Baltic States where the bulk of the exercise will take place. For citizens of Germany and the Low Countries who remember the later years of the Cold War, it might seem more like 1987 than 2020 for the next few weeks. Defender 20 bears more than a passing resemblance to the REFORGER exercises held by the US during the Cold War.
Defender 20 will be the biggest NATO military exercise in Europe in 25 years. The purpose of the maneuvers is more significant than the size. This will be the first time since the REFORGER days that the US has practiced moving a division sized force across the Atlantic and then deploying to a potential battlefield. Europe in 2020 is a very different place than it was in 1987, but the emergence of the Russian threat in recent years highlights the need for the US and NATO to take the defense of Eastern Europe seriously. NATO’s creation the Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltics is a sign of this. But if a conflict should break out in Eastern Europe or the Baltics, US heavy-maneuver forces will be essential to defending Europe, as was the case during the Cold War when the main opponent was the Soviet Union. The main difference now is geographic location of potential fighting. In a future conflict it will be Poland and the Baltics, not West Germany and the rest of Central Europe.
The exercise will start in April and the bulk of it will run through the end of May. As the start dates gets closer I’ll talk more about Defender 20, and Russia’s reaction to it.