We’re moving into military exercise season in the Baltic region. Every year at this time a number of modestly sized exercises crop up in and around NATO nations. Days later, similar exercises sprout up in and around Russia and Belarus. The dueling maneuvers increase in size and complexity, usually culminating on the NATO side with the commencement of BALTOPS, a major exercise held annually that involves ships, aircraft and equipment from over a dozen NATO member-states. This year, the spring exercise season’s stakes are considerably higher than usual given the continuing war in Ukraine, as well as the heightened tensions between Russia and the West. Both NATO and Russia will use the maneuvers to send a message to the other side, as well as work up their respective forces.
Moscow got the jump on NATO by holding wargames in Kaliningrad which included simulated launches of SS-26 Stone (Iskander to the amateurs and social media ‘experts’) short range ballistic missiles. According to statements released by the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Russian forces in Kaliningrad practiced multiple strikes against simulated enemy missile batteries, airfields, protected infrastructure, military equipment and command posts belonging to a generic enemy. Russian personnel also roleplayed avoiding “a possible retaliatory strike” and working in areas of radiological and chemical agent contamination.
To put it in basic terms, Russian forces in Kaliningrad just ran a military exercise intended to work up its nuclear-capable forces and demonstrate how capable military personnel in Kaliningrad are when it comes to working amid a tactical nuclear or chemical exchange. The message here is simple; Russia takes the possibility of a limited nuclear war far more seriously than does NATO, and Moscow wants the world to be aware of this.
NATO also has several large-scale maneuvers set for this month and beyond. Arrow 22 is set to begin soon in Finland and will run for two weeks. British, US, Polish and Finnish troops will be taking part, as well as soldiers from other NATO members. The exercise is gaining more attention than usual owing to Finland and Sweden. Both nations are tentatively moving closer to applying for NATO membership as the security situation with regards to Russia continues to deteriorate in the Baltic region.
Following a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kiev, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin were expressive in declaring that the United States is committed to assisting Ukraine win the war and repel Russian forces from its territory entirely. Austin also said that along with preserving Ukraine, another US desire is to see Russia “weakened to the point where it can’t do things like invade Ukraine.” Blinken also confirmed the US will be opening its embassy back in Kiev within the coming weeks.
Russia is continuing to focus on attacking Ukraine’s infrastructure. Today, a number of rail stations and facilities in central and western Ukraine were attacked, as well as other targets labeled by Ukrainian officials as ‘critical infrastructure.’ Civilian casualties were reported.
Following a fairly quiet Orthodox Easter Sunday, the tempo of fighting in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian positions on the eastern outskirts of Kharkov began taking artillery fire early Monday morning and there are indications of fighting taking place in other areas of the east. This fighting is responsible for the destruction of a substation in the town of Kreminna which has knocked out power for the entire province of Luhansk.
The British government today has said Russian combat losses in the Ukraine War have topped 15,000. U.K. Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace also informed Parliament that over 2,000 Russian armored vehicles were destroyed or captured, including 530 tanks, 530 armored personnel carriers and 560 infantry fighting vehicles, as well as 60 helicopters and fighter jets.
The battlecruiser HMS Hood was known as ‘The Mighty Hood.’ This sobriquet was reflective not only of the immense firepower she carried, but also of her prestige. She was not only a symbol of the Royal Navy, but one of the entire British Empire and all its glory. A proud and powerful peacock, adored by Britons and feared by her enemies. Hood’s death while hunting the Bismarck in Denmark Strait on 24 May, 1941 was a devastating blow to the Royal Navy and caused deep trauma across Great Britain. In some ways the Royal Navy never fully recovered from the loss of fabled battlecruiser. Six months later, the United States entered the war after Pearl Harbor. Over the next three and a half years, the mantle of preeminent global naval power shifted to the US Navy, which continues to enjoy unmatched naval dominance on the oceans of the world to this day.
The Russian warship Moskva didn’t come close to matching HMS Hood’s prestige. An almost forty-year old Slava class cruiser, he was commissioned towards the end of the Cold War era and carried considerable firepower for a surface combatant. As flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, Moskva was a symbol of Russian naval power, though not to the degree Hood was for the British. Hood was a ship many Britons felt a deep attachment to. It’s not likely that many people aside from current sailors, naval officers and veterans of the Russian Navy were familiar with Moskva, even though he was the pride of Russia’s navy. But now that she has been gone under, Moskva will be mourned and grieved by the entire country.
Moskva’s loss, whether due to a shipboard fire or enemy action, is a significant blow to Russia at an already difficult point in the war. Morale will be negatively affected at the very least. Realistically speaking though, now Russia’s naval operations need an immediate refurbishing if Moskva was in fact the victim of a Ukrainian attack. The nation’s pride will be more difficult to repair, though Russia has already taken the first steps towards seeking reciprocity. The military factory responsible for producing Neptune anti-ship missiles was attacked last night outside Kiev.
Militarily, the effect Moskva’s sinking will have on operations remains to be seen. Long term, it will be interesting to see if the cruiser’s loss marks the imminent demise of Russian sea power, or if the disaster brings on needed changes and reform to the Russian fleet. Hood’s loss brought on a moment of truth for the Royal Navy and now eighty-one years later the Russian Navy, as well as the nation it serves, faces a similar moment.
Whatever hope there was attached to last night’s emergency meeting of the UN Security Council rapidly evaporated as the meeting went on. It was a typical security council meeting punctuated by uniform condemnation of Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian government had requested the meeting yesterday after Russia announced its recognition of the Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic, the breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine that are controlled by pro-Russian separatists. It was a purely symbolic gesture though. Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council and holds veto power, guaranteeing no resolution aimed at condemnation of Russia’s actions has even a remote chance of seeing the light of day.
Europe is taking the lead on applying sanctions to Russia for its actions yesterday. Germany has cast aside its reluctance of past weeks and suspended the certification process of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline while Great Britain has targeted five Russian banks for its first round of sanctions. France has not yet taken action, however, the threat of “targeted sanctions” was introduced by Paris minus specifics. The French government has a good amount of egg on its face after working relentlessly to set up a summit between US and Russian leaders this past weekend, only to see it turn to dust following Russia’s recognition of the breakaway republics yesterday. Perhaps this slap to the face will teach French leadership a lesson about trusting Vladimir Putin.
Despite the recognition of the LPR and DPR’s independence, the fact remains that two-thirds of the territory in both breakaway republics is controlled by the Ukrainian military…albeit tacitly in some instances. Russian ‘peacekeeping forces’ are reportedly advancing towards Mariupol, a vital port that sits in Ukrainian controlled territory. There has been contact between government forces and separatists and/or Russian peacekeepers at the Novoazovsk border crossing east of Mariupol. The port city is important to both Ukraine and Russia for a variety of reasons. It’s certainly worth discussing a bit at length later on in the day.
US President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin spoke for an hour this morning. Although an administration official has said the discussion was “professional and substantive” the conversation has not changed the situation. “The two presidents agreed that our teams will stay engaged in the days ahead,” the official said. “Russia may decide to proceed with military action anyway. Indeed, that is a distinct possibility if it does the damage to Ukraine, European security and yes, Russia will be profound.” It has been accepted in Washington that military action is imminent at this point despite the threats of economic sanctions which have dominated Western responses in recent weeks. The main question remaining is: When will Russia move?
US officials have stated off the record that Wednesday is the most probable time for the commencement of hostilities. Personally, I’m in agreement. The exercises in Belarus and the Black Sea will both be reaching points where the it will be difficult for Western intelligence to determine if movements and actions are a part of the scripted exercises or the lead up to hostilities. Wednesday is not a given, either. An attack could be launched before then or after. In all likelihood, Putin’s original plan was probably not to attack after the Olympic games in Beijing ended. But given recent events, moving sooner will be beneficial. Russia’s strategic objectives have not changed, yet the fact NATO is now moving additional military forces into Eastern Europe gives him the incentive to start operations as soon as possible. Wednesday is most probable; however, it could come earlier in the week.
Today, the US State Department has ordered an additional reduction of personnel for the US Embassy in Kiev. With the threat of war looming, and US citizens having been warned to leave Ukraine immediately, this move was expected. A core team of diplomats and personnel (what was formerly called a skeleton staff) will remain in place at the embassy but it will not be enough to coordinate evacuation procedures for US citizens there after hostilities begin. The Pentagon has also ordered the withdrawal of 150 Florida National Guardsmen who have been in Ukraine since later 2021 as part of a training mission. Great Britain is also withdrawing its troops who have been training Ukrainian forces.