NATO’s top military commander in Europe said yesterday (5 May) he no longer thought regular Russian troops would enter eastern Ukraine, predicting Moscow could achieve its goals through the unconventional forces stirring up trouble there.
US Air Force General Philip Breedlove said it was a completely false Russian narrative that it was only Ukrainians rebelling in the east of their country, saying it was clear that special forces troops from Russia were operating there as they did in Crimea before its annexation.
“Remember that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin denied their presence and now he has admitted to their presence in Crimea. The same thing will come out of Ukraine as time rolls out,” he told a military and diplomatic audience in Ottawa.
“Exactly what we saw in Crimea is being mirrored in eastern Ukraine,” added Breedlove.
Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops on its border with eastern Ukraine, prompting fears that Moscow might send ground forces in to protect the rights of ethnic Russians.
Breedlove said that until a week ago, he thought the most likely military response from Russia would be to send in troops to southern Ukraine and secure a land bridge to the peninsula of Crimea – which voted in March to join Russia – before possibly pushing on toward the Black Sea port of Odessa and then further west toward Moldova.
“Today I would tell you I don’t think that’s the most likely course of action … I think now that Putin may be able to accomplish his objectives in eastern Ukraine and never go across the border with his forces,” he said.
“Now I think probably the most likely course of action is that he will continue doing what he’s doing – discrediting the government, creating unrest, trying to set the stage for a separatist movement,” and that would make it easier to cement Moscow’s military and economic hold on eastern Ukraine, Breedlove added.
“In that case, I think it’s the most troublesome for NATO because if the forces do not come across the border, my guess is that many will want to try to quickly go back to business as usual, and I, for one, do not believe annexing Crimea is business as usual.”
In a recent interview for EURACTIV, the Czech Foreign Minister Lubomír Zaorálek said that the EU will introduce economic sanctions on Moscow if Russian troops enter Ukraine [read more].
More broadly, Breedlove said, Russia’s actions in Ukraine had demonstrated that it was not acting like a partner, and this should prompt more members of the NATO alliance to boost their defense spending toward the agreed target of 2% of gross domestic product.
“We have come from a period where we saw Russia as a partner,” he said. “We are now in a very, very different time, and I think individual nations need to take this aboard and consider.”
Russian flights intensify
The head of US air forces in the Pacific said yesterday that Russia’s intervention in Ukraine had been accompanied by a significant increase in Russian air activity in the Asia-Pacific region in a show of strength and to gather intelligence.
General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle said the activity had included Russian flights to the coast of California, and around the US Pacific island of Guam.
Carlisle said the number of long-range Russian patrols around the Japanese islands and Korea had increased “drastically.” He said there had also been “a lot more ship activity as well.”
Speaking at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, Carlisle showed a slide of a US F-15 fighter jet intercepting a Russian “Bear” aircraft over Guam. He used the Cold War NATO name for Russia’s Tupolev Tu-95 strategic bomber.
“Certainly what’s going on in Ukraine and Crimea is a challenge for us and it’s a challenge for us in Asia Pacific as well as Europe,” Carlisle said.
He said there had been “a significant” increase in Russian activity in the Asia Pacific “and we relate a lot of that to what’s going on in the Ukraine.”
“They’ve come with their long-range aviation out to the coast of California, they’ve circumnavigated Guam,” he said.
“That’s to demonstrate their capability to do it, it’s to gather intel,” Carlisle said, adding that the surveillance had included observation of military exercises involving U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan.
“There are things that are concerning with respect to how they operate and how transparent they are with other nations in the vicinity,” he said.
Carlisle did not give details of the incidents and the Defense Department and the US Air Force and Navy in the Pacific did not immediately respond to a request for more information.
Mike Green, senior vice president for Asia at CSIS, said the frequency of incidents was up and described them as being “evocative of the Cold War”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in 2007 that Russia was resuming Soviet-era sorties by its strategic bomber aircraft near NATO airspace that were suspended in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Putin, who made the announcement during a joint military exercise with China, said the move was necessary to guarantee Russia’s safety and that other nations had not followed Moscow’s example in suspending such flights.
The crisis in Ukraine erupted after its former President Viktor Yanukovich cancelled plans to sign trade and political pacts with the EU in November 2013 and instead sought closer ties with Russia, triggering protests that turned bloody and drove him from power.
Moscow annexed Crimea in March following a referendum staged after Russian forces established control over the Black Sea peninsula in the biggest East-West crisis since the Cold War.
Pro-Russian militants control buildings in more than 10 towns in eastern Ukraine after launching their uprising on 6 April.
- 9 May: Pro-Russians expected to mark the anniversary of Victory Day in WW II as defiance to Kyiv’s authorities, denounced as “fascist”;
- 11 May: Referendum on secession to be held in “People’s Republic of Donetsk”;
- 25 May: Presidential election to be held in Ukraine.
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- Supreme Allied Commander (SACEUR) of NATO Allied Command Operations