With “Russian troops right up to NATO’s doorstep,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday, there is little faith in the U.S. government that Presiden Vladimir Putin has decided against further incursion into Ukraine.
After an announcement earlier this week that some Russian troops would head home after completing an exercise in Belarus, there was some hope from the international community that the rest of troops amassed on Ukraine’s border would start to draw down. That hasn’t happened, Austin said, speaking at a press conference during a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels.
“We see some of those troops edge closer to that border,” he said. “We see them fly in more combat and support aircraft. We see them sharpen their readiness in the Black Sea. We even see them stocking up their blood support supplies.”
While troops and equipment have flowed to the border for months, increased logistical support offers a strong sign.
“You know, I was a soldier myself not that long ago. And I know firsthand that you don’t do these sorts of things, for no reason,” Austin said. “And you certainly don’t do them if you’re getting ready to pack up and go home. So we and our allies will stay vigilant.”
Addressing shelling Thursday in Ukraine’s Russia-controlled Donbass region, Austin didn’t say who was responsible, but warned that an event like it could be a pretext for a Russia to commence and invasion.
“But you know, we’ve said for some time that the Russians might do something like this in order to justify a military conflict,” he said. “So we’ll be watching this very closely.”
After a handful of positive signals from Russia that lowered the temperature in the crisis earlier in the week, the pendulum appeared to be swinging in the opposite direction again. With an estimated 150,000-plus troops massed near Ukraine, the Kremlin offered to keep pursuing diplomatic solutions — an overture the NATO chief welcomed, even as he and others warned that the U.S.-led alliance has still seen no sign of the military withdrawal that Moscow announced.
“We have seen the opposite of some of the statements. We have seen an increase of troops over the last 48 hours, up to 7,000,” said British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace ahead of a meeting Thursday of the western alliance in Brussels.
British Armed Forces Minister James Heappey even called Russia’s claim to be withdrawing troops “disinformation.”
While the West warned the threat of invasion remains high, no attack materialized Wednesday, as some had feared.
Moscow said several times this week that some forces are pulling back to their bases, but it gave virtually no details that would allow for an independent assessment of the scope and direction of the troop movement, and Western leaders quickly cast doubt on those statements. On Thursday, NATO allies knocked down the Russian assertions again — and warned that they are ready to counter any aggression.
“The consequences of this mass buildup – nearly 60% of Russia’s land combat forces on the border of a sovereign nation – will get you the opposite effect,” Wallace said.
“We are deadly serious,” he added, “and we’re going to face the threat that is currently being posed.”
Already the alliance has moved troops and military equipment into Eastern Europe — in a display of resolve of meant to deter any Russian aggression and underline its intent to defend NATO’s eastern members, in the unlikely event that they too become a target.
The U.S. has started to deploy 5,000 troops to Poland and Romania. A further 8,500 more are on standby. Britain is sending hundreds of soldiers to Poland, offering more warships and planes, and doubling the number of personnel in Estonia. Germany, the Netherlands and Norway are sending additional troops to Lithuania. Denmark and Spain are providing jets for air policing in the Baltic Sea region.
While Ukraine braces for a potential invasion, tensions soared in the conflict in the country’s east where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian troops since 2014.
Separatist authorities in the Luhansk region reported an increase in Ukrainian shelling along the tense line of contact, describing it as a “large-scale provocation.” Separatist official Rodion Miroshnik said that rebel forces returned fire.
Ukraine disputed the claim, saying that separatists had shelled its forces, but they didn’t fire back. The Ukrainian military command charged that shells hit a kindergarten building in Stanytsia Luhanska, wounding two civilians, and cut power supply to half of the town.
An observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is expected to offer its assessment of the situation later Thursday.
Many in the West are concerned that a flare-up in the east could be used by Russia as a pretext for rolling across the border — though there was no sign yet that the latest fighting was larger than what typically happens. Russia, in turn, aired worries that hawkish forces in Ukraine, encouraged by the West, could launch an attack to reclaim control of the rebel areas — plans Ukrainian authorities deny.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT