2 February 2016

Russia and Ukraine

By: Hugo Spaulding

Deterring Russian aggression is the top U.S. military priority in Europe in EUCOM’s new theater strategyreleased on January 26. U.S. European Command (EUCOM) pledged to build the defensive capabilities of Eastern European NATO members and non-NATO partners facing the threat of Russia revanchism. EUCOM argued that rotating U.S. troops into Europe was an insufficient substitute for an “enduring forward deployed presence” and limited the U.S.’s ability to contribute to regional security. The U.S. has roughly halved force levels forward deployed in Europe since 2004, leaving approximately 65,000 in theater in 2015. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced that “new investments” to bolster European security were included in his fiscal year 2017 defense budget request. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg meanwhile called for the establishment of a “cooperative and constructive” relationship with Russia in his newly released 2015 annual report and revealed that NATO may soon hold its first formal talks with Russia since June 2014.

He also announced plans to increase its presence in Poland after the July alliance summit in Warsaw and revealed that defense spending cuts among NATO allies in Europe had “practically stopped” in 2015. Poland announced plans to station the first three brigades of its new national guard on its border with Russia’s Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, the site of the westernmost Russian military base. The Polish defense minister also hosted his Lithuanian and Ukrainian counterparts to discuss the anticipated launch of a joint brigade in January 2017, a formation that will increase the interoperability of Ukraine’s forces with the transatlantic alliance. Secretary General Stoltenberg stressed that the alliance’s efforts to strengthen its defenses while re-engaging Russia did not present a “contradiction” and instead fostered “mutual respect.” Moscow’s envoy to NATO nevertheless accused the alliance of creating a new “iron curtain” by strengthening its defenses in Eastern Europe and promised Russian retaliation against efforts to upset the regional “military equilibrium.”

Russia escalated its force projection efforts against NATO’s southern and eastern flanks. Turkey accused Russia’s air contingent in Syria of violating its airspace for the first time since a Turkish jet downed a Russian warplane near its border with Syria in November. The reported January 29 incursion into the southern Turkish province of Gaziantep by a Russian Su-34 fighter-bomber marks a new escalation in Russia’s aggressive confrontation with Turkey. Russia’s previous violations of Turkish airspace, deployment of long-range missile systems to Syria, and sanctions against Turkey demonstrate its intent to expand its freedom of action along NATO’s southern flank. Moscow’s tandem antagonization of Ankara and courting of Western partners against ISIS also deliberately strains existing regional divisions within NATO. Russia aggressively confronted the U.S. in the region this week, dangerously intercepting a U.S. reconnaissance plane in international airspace over the Black Sea on January 25. It announced plans to deploy additional air superiority fighter aircraft to the occupied Crimean Peninsula and create three new divisions in its western regions in 2016 in response to an “increase in the intensity of exercises” by NATO members. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared on January 26 that the Kremlin was prepared for “constructive cooperation” with the U.S. and Europe "exclusively on an equal and mutually advantageous basis" while criticizing alleged Western efforts to “contain” Russia. Lavrov’s statement reflects Russia’s wider efforts to assert itself as a great power rival to the U.S. through confrontational military and diplomatic posturing.

See: “Russia Security Update: January 12 - 26, 2016,” by Hugo Spaulding, January 26, 2016; “Russian-Backed Separatists Seize Village Near Mariupol,” by Franklin Holcomb, January 14, 2016; “Ukraine Crisis Update: December 14, 2015,” by Hugo Spaulding, December 14, 2015; Putin’s Information Warfare in Ukraine: Soviet Origins of Russia’s Hybrid Warfare, by Maria Snegovaya, September 21, 2015.

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