Russia Paves the Way for Ukraine Invasion as Austin Travels to Eastern Flank

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III departs Feb. 15 for a NATO defense ministerial meeting in Brussels and for meetings with his Polish and Baltic counterparts that will take him to the Russian border just as U.S. intelligence predicts an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“This will not be bloodless. This will not be easy,” Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby said from the briefing room podium Feb. 14 while discussing the implications should Russian President Vladimir Putin order an invasion of Ukraine.

“[Russia] clearly has shown aggressive tendencies here,” he added—”an alarming buildup of military capabilities. And certainly [he] has shown no sign yet of being willing to de-escalate … to take those capabilities off the table and to find a real diplomatic path forward.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in a televised Feb. 14 exchange with Putin, seemed to suggest that a diplomatic solution was still possible.

When asked by Putin whether there was a chance of reaching an agreement to address Russia’s security concerns, Lavrov said:

“It seems to me that our possibilities are far from exhausted,” he said, according to press reports. “At this stage, I would suggest continuing and building them up.”

Over the weekend, President Joe Biden spoke to Putin by telephone with no resolution to the crisis, while on Feb. 11 from the Pentagon, Austin spoke to his NATO ally counterparts in Poland, Germany, Canada, France, Romania, and Italy about the Russian military force posture around Ukraine.

Austin also ordered the remaining 1,700 Soldiers from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division to Poland for a total of 3,000 troops, and he directed 160 members of the Florida Army National Guard who had been deployed to Ukraine since November on a training mission to re-position elsewhere in Europe.

“It is obviously not the safest place for them to be,” Kirby said in response to a question from Air Force Magazine. “Given the mosaic of the information that we’ve been getting over the course of the last 48 hours, and the information we continue to receive even as early as today.”

Russian Preparation Continues

Kirby also described Russia’s military buildup on the Ukrainian border, citing an estimated 130,000 Russian troops rounding Ukraine on three sides, including Russian “infantry, its armor, its artillery, its air missile defense, as well as offensive air.”

Kirby said Putin’s sizable naval power on the Black Sea includes at least six Landing Ship, Tank (LST) vessels designed for delivering troops ashore. The spokesman also said Russia is expected to precede any conflict with cyber operations, information operations, and hybrid operations that could cut off Ukrainian communications to the outside world.

In recent weeks, Ukraine has been approved to receive third-party transfers of American-made air defense systems from its eastern flank neighbors, including Stinger man-portable air-defense systems. However, Kirby confirmed to Air Force Magazine that no U.S. personnel would be in Ukraine to help train on the air defense systems.

Currently, the U.S. Air Force with Ukrainian permission flies a variety of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft in Ukrainian airspace, including the high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk, the RC-135 Rivet Joint, and P-8 Poseidon, among other aircraft, a Ukrainian defense official told Air Force Magazine.

“Global Hawk is flying regularly over Ukraine,” the official said. “All types of ISR aircraft are flying regularly.”

Kirby said the U.S. government has been transparent in its intelligence sharing with Ukraine. That would cease if Russia invades and controls Ukrainian airspace.

Political Preparations for Invasion

The Russian lower house Duma Council began drafting two resolutions Feb. 14 for the recognition of the two Russian-backed breakaway republics in southeastern Ukraine. In 2014, Donetsk and Luhansk once received “little green men,” Russian troops and military hardware that helped push back Ukrainian forces.

While the hot war ended with the signing of the Minsk protocol that year, a low-intensity conflict has continued for seven years and involved Russian elite snipers and entrenched Ukrainian soldiers who perish on a weekly basis. A formal declaration recognizing the breakaway republics as independent states could be a violation of the Minsk protocol and a provocation to Ukraine.

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and other administration officials have warned of a “false flag” operation to be conducted inside Ukraine by Russian operatives as a pretense for invasion.

The Donbas region of eastern Ukraine is known to have a sizable Russian ethnic minority. Putin in the past has stated that Russia has an obligation to protect Slavic peoples even beyond the borders of Russia.

Kirby said Russia is likely to “begin to sow the seeds for potential armed conflict to include creating some sort of pretext that the Ukrainians would react to that then they could claim [it] was a threat to their national security.”

Kirby confirmed to Air Force Magazine that an incursion of Russian forces into the Donbas would constitute a “new incursion” by Russia, the often-cited trigger for new U.S. sanctions against Russia and additional reinforcements of NATO eastern flank Allies.

Austin travels to the region for a defense ministerial meeting Feb. 16-17 in Brussels, followed by travel to Poland and Lithuania, countries that both share land borders with Russia. Lithuania also borders Belarus to the north, the country where Russia has amassed some 30,000 troops for joint military exercises scheduled to end Feb. 20, but that many believe to be a pretext for positioning an invasion force just north of Kyiv.

In both eastern flank countries, Austin will meet with U.S. troops who have been sent to the NATO front line to support U.S. Article 5 obligations to defend NATO allies.

The U.S. has readied an additional 8,500 troops as part of a NATO response force that could deploy to the eastern flank, if necessary.

Kirby said the U.S. troops that have already been sent to Poland and Romania, including fighter jet squadrons participating in NATO enhanced air policing, are meant to deter aggression against the alliance and to conduct joint training. The troops in Poland may also assist from within Poland should Americans attempt to evacuate Ukraine across the land border.

“The President has made clear that U.S. troops are not going to be fighting in Ukraine,” Kirby said. “They’re not going to accidentally be drawn into Ukraine.”