In the last 24-36 hours there has been increased military activity in Russia as well as a number of NATO member-states. The failure of Monday’s talks between the French and Russian presidents to deescalate the crisis has prompted Denmark and the United Kingdom to begin preparing forces for movement east. The alliance is also preparing to hold military exercises in close proximity to the frontiers of Belarus and Russia to demonstrate NATO resolve in the face of growing Russian troop numbers. Simultaneously, Russia continues its military buildup, moving more assets and troops into Crimea, Belarus and along the Ukrainian border. Military exercises in Belarus and on the Black Sea will also begin to get underway later this week.
Denmark is moving decisively even as her larger fellow NATO member-state to the south Germany dithers. The Danish military will increase the readiness of a combat battalion that is earmarked for NATO operations. Preparations are underway for the battalion of 800 troops to be ready for a deployment east within five days instead of the thirty days generally needed. Additionally, the Royal Danish Air Force will be moving a flight of F-16 fighters to Bornholm in the Baltic, should the situation call for it.
Great Britain will be moving more troops and equipment to Poland. 350 Royal Marines from 45 Commando have been diverted from exercises in Norway and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he’s prepared to go further. Deployments of RAF Typhoons to Romania and Bulgaria, as well as moving warships to the Black Sea are all being considered by London right now.
For Russia, the final pieces of its pre-hostilities military deployment puzzle could be coming into place. Considerable attention is being paid to the Black Sea where a trio of Russian Navy amphibious assault ships and a Kilo class conventionally-powered submarine were expected to pass through the Bosphorus this morning. They will join three other amphibs that entered the Black Sea for naval exercises according to the Russian Ministry of Defense. Their arrival is raising concerns from Ankara to NATO headquarters in Belgium as leaders, diplomats and military leaders attempt to decipher whether their presence is a sign that Russian military operations will begin soon.
The fact Russia is serious about Ukraine appears to finally be kicking in for NATO, the EU and Western governments. Whether this will end up being a matter of ‘too little, too late’ remains to be seen. But for the moment, there are at least some decisions being made in Western capitals which will lead to prudent action in the near future. The Western media is also coming around to the idea that all of this might very well be real. The media is almost always at least 48 hours behind events though, and we’re seeing that in their reporting today.
-Wall Street is responding negatively to the worsening situation in Europe. The Dow Jones Industrial Average cratered this morning, dropping more than 1,000 points. The immediate reason for the drop was news that President Biden will be holding a video call with European leaders this afternoon to discuss Ukraine and Russia’s growing military buildup. There are other factors contributing to the Dow’s slide into correction territory, however, the realization that the Ukraine crisis is worsening appears to be the catalyst.
-The US is moving ahead with plans to withdraw dependents of embassy staff from Ukraine starting this week. The plan was announced on Friday but did not garner much media coverage until the official authorization was given. Apparently, the US State Department has also decided to remove non-essential staff from the Kiev embassy as well. Great Britain has also announced the planned withdrawal of family members of diplomats and other embassy staff. London has also indicated it will be reducing its embassy staff in Kiev along lines similar to what the US is doing with its people. The European Union, on the other hand, will not evacuate its diplomats from Ukraine for the moment.
-NATO is starting to reinforce its Eastern Flank, albeit in limited fashion. A number of alliance members have pledged to deploy additional fighter aircraft and warships to the region in the near future. Denmark is sending four F-16s to bolster the Baltic Air Policing mission in Lithuania as well as a frigate to the eastern Baltic Sea. The Netherlands has pledged two F-35s for Bulgarian air policing duties, yet they will not arrive until April. Spain, we discussed last week, has committed two warships and possibly fighter aircraft to Bulgaria. France has revealed it is open to deploying ground troops to Romania and Bulgaria under NATO command. The United States is considering reinforcing its own forces in Europe but no further details have yet been made available.
It has been a long day. I was hoping to get a second update posted in the afternoon, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Things are happening now and it appears the final stages of preparations before hostilities commence are either underway or about to be. We’ve discussed Russia’s movement of more troops and equipment into close proximity of the Ukrainian border. The arrival of Russian army units in Belarus has also been mentioned. Ostensibly they are there to conduct exercises with Belarussian forces. Thursday saw Russia announcing that major naval exercises will be held at the end of this month and in February across a large swath of the world’s oceans. The exercises will take place in parts of the North Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans, as well as the Mediterranean Sea. 140 warships and support vessels and 60 aircraft will be involved, along with an unknown number of submarines. This constitutes a considerable amount of the Russian Navy’s inventory. At first look, the primary purpose of the maneuvers seems to be to provide cover for potential naval movements into the Black Sea to coincide with operations against Ukraine. The worldwide scope of the maneuvers though, lead me to suspect there’s another element at work here. A projection of Russian sea and air power in areas where NATO and Russian navies operate in close proximity to each other. Intimidation tactics, for lack of a better term. Another possibility is that Ukraine is not the only area that Russia has plans for. Maybe the exercises are indeed cover, but for Moscow to strategically position its naval and air forces across the global gameboard. In the event NATO stands up militarily to Russian aggression in Ukraine, these forces could be utilized to cause serious damage to NATO naval forces and land installations in the first hours of hostilities. An improbable prospect, but a prospect, nonetheless.
Russia is not the only country that announced military moves today. Spanish Defense Minister Margarita Robles told reporters that her country will be deploying warships to support NATO forces in the Mediterranean and Black Sea. A minesweeper is moving east at present and a frigate is expected to sail within 3-4 days. The Spanish government is also close to a decision on sending warplanes to Bulgaria to help bolster NATO’s Southern flank as tensions with Russia continue to rise.
While the Obama administration has struggled to construct a cohesive policy to deal with an aggressive Russia, the Pentagon not having any trouble. Plans to increase US military capabilities in Eastern Europe continue to evolve and move forward at a respectable pace. Recognizing the need for a credible combat presence on the ground in Eastern Europe, the Pentagon unveiled its plan to base an armored brigade there in 2017. The equipment will remain in place while the troops rotate in and out at six or twelve month increments. The equipment going to Eastern Europe in the future will be best available to the US Army. M-1A2 Abrams battle tanks, the latest version of the M-2 Bradley IFV, M-109A6 Paladin and MLRS artillery systems, to name some. The move is hoped to reassure allies in the region of how committed the US is when it comes to European security.
The basing and rotation concept is not new and bears a striking resemblance to the REFORGER system used by the US during the Cold War. REFORGER was a simple but effective system where troops from the United States would fly to Europe in the event of increased tensions, marry up to prepositioned equipment in Europe and deploy forward.
Rotations of the brigade will increase US Army combat strength in Europe to three brigades. The 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in Italy and the 2nd Cavalry Brigade in Germany are the main US Army combat units currently in Europe. Neither brigade is a heavy maneuver force. The 173rd is made up of airborne infantry and the 2nd Cav is a Stryker unit. They do not have the combat power to go head to head against Russian armor or motorized infantry units. A US armored brigade, on the other hand, does. Should a crisis between NATO and Russia ever break out in Europe, US tanks will be in high demand. Basing a heavy brigade near a potential Eastern European flashpoint only makes good strategic sense.