ussia’s steady buildup of troops on the Eastern border of Ukraine reached an estimated 130,000 troops in early February as the long-awaited freeze took hold, making a mechanized land invasion possible. With diplomatic efforts intensifying, the United States prepared 8,500 troops to deploy to Europe and NATO forces began to move to NATO members’ borders with Ukraine, reinforcing the alliance’s eastern flank.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said his forces are merely conducting military exercises on their own turf and blamed the crisis on the West and NATO’s open-door policy for continued expansion. Ukraine is not a NATO member, and one of Putin’s objectives is to ensure it never becomes one. He wants Ukraine to fall under his influence, as does Belarus, which borders both countries. Both nations were joined with Russia in the Soviet Union until it collapsed in 1991.
“Russia and Belarus have achieved an incredible level of integration and support toward each other to execute any sort of action they would wish,” one Lithuanian defense official told Air Force Magazine. “There is no direct threat against either Lithuania or NATO in this perspective. However, [putting] Russian troops in Belarus decreases the window of indications and warnings and that’s what worries us.”
President Joe Biden increased U.S. pressure, growing more specific about sanctions, putting U.S. forces on alert, and authorizing troop movements. The Pentagon will deploy members of the 82nd Airborne to Poland to establish checkpoints, tent camps, and temporary facilities to house Americans fleeing Ukraine if an invasion occurs.
Biden also convinced German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to stand with him as he warned that if Russian tanks or troops cross the border into Ukraine, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline intended to deliver Russian natural gas to German industry and power plants will not go forward. Meanwhile, French President Emmanuele Macron headed east, visiting first with Putin and then with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. These followed bilateral U.S.-Russia Strategic Stability Dialogue in Geneva, a NATO-Russia Council meeting in Brussels, and meetings between the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Russian diplomats in Vienna.
Putin stoked the fear of conflict throughout. A Romanian defense official described “worrying” Russian naval activity in the Black Sea, which could signal a potential move on Odessa, Ukraine’s most important port since Russia seized and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. “Despite all the engagement at a political level,” the Romanian official said, “we are still seeing that forces are coming and not only combat but … also logistics and command and control” units.
“The worst-case scenario for us is for them to actually erase Ukraine from the Black Sea,” the official added. “After that, we’ll have a common border with Russia—not only us, but NATO will have a new common border with Russia.”
The United States demonstrated its own capacity for power projection, conducting refueling operations with Finland—a NATO partner that shares a border with Russian—in late January. The first U.S. F-35s based in Europe arrived at Lakenheath, U.K., in January, providing both stealth and the F-35’s unique sensor suite to the European Command. While no U.S. bomber task force transited the region since November, the Air Force completed an air policing mission in Estonia and the Netherlands sent two F-35s to Bulgaria, while Denmark sent additional F-16s to Lithuania to enhance air policing in the Baltics.
United States Air Forces in Europe Commander Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian said planning and movement of assets is well underway to defend NATO allies in the event of Russian aggression.
“We’ve been moving airplanes in support of NATO activities,” he said in late January. “We’ve been able to work that between USAFE and AIRCOM because the planners are talking to each other,” Harrigian said of NATO Allied Air Command and USAFE, co-located at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. “It’s not only been the people, but we’ve sorted out a lot of the interoperability challenges we’ve had of sharing info from our classified systems on U.S. to the NATO systems.”
Looking for Cracks in NATO
Prior to Scholz’ U.S. visit, Germany had been NATO’s most reluctant partner. Under a new coalition government, and dependent on Russian energy supplies, Germany contributed no offensive weapons to support Ukraine, declined to permit German-made weapons to be sent from NATO allies, and refused to allow aircraft carrying arms to Ukraine to overfly its territory. It limited its aid to helmets and medical supplies.
A Jan. 19 British flight delivering Swedish NLAWs, or Main Battle Tank and Light Anti-tank Weapons, had to avoid flying over German air space and U.S. troop movements were delayed as well.
The United Kingdom offered to double its Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) troops in Estonia, and Canada was considering an increase in Latvia. Germany, after Scholz U.S. visit, was said to be considering increasing its NATO EFP troops in the Baltic state of Lithuania.
Macron, whose nation led the four-nation Normandy Format designed to resolve the war in the Donbas of eastern Ukraine, visited Moscow and Kyiv Feb. 7-8 seeking a diplomatic solution. France offered to send a NATO battle group to the Black Sea state of Romania, but Putin’s courting of Hungary and Turkey—and Germany’s hesitance—left the future of that mission unclear. Putin met with Hungarian Prime Minister Vicktor Orban Feb. 1 ahead of that country’s April elections, promising 15 years of preferential gas prices at 20 percent of the going rate in Europe as a means of steering Hungary to his side. Soon after, Hungary blocked Ukraine’s participation as a partner to the NATO Center of Excellence for Cyber in Tallinn. Russian cyber attacks on Ukraine increased in January.
Russia Ready, Ukraine Waits
Russian troops in Belarus have come with combat, logistics, and command-and-control capabilities for joint exercises Feb. 10 to 20, which could be a prelude to invasion. Integration of the two militaries is robust and the Baltic States fear a permanent Russian presence on their southern border. The Baltic States and Poland have recently received U.S. third party transfer licenses to convey American military hardware systems they own to Ukraine, including Javelin anti-tank, short-range air defense Stingers and other items.
Eight American Boeing 747s have already arrived in Ukraine filled with additional defense assistance, including Javelin anti-tank weapons. While Ukraine awaits air defense capabilities and other specialized legal assistance from partners, ammunition is arriving, a Ukrainian defense official told Air Force Magazine. But Putin’s preparations mean the additional assistance, and in some cases integration and training, may not happen fast enough.
“He needs only to say go,” the official said.