Week of April 05, 2021

US Army Europe Raises Threat Level
Over Increased Russia-Ukraine Tensions

While most of the world is focused on China, its regular incursions into Taiwanese air space, the status of unoccupied Japanese islands, and the number of Chinese boats in the South China Sea, tensions in Europe over increased fighting along the Russian-Ukrainian border has forced the US Army in Europe to increase its threat level to the highest level – “Potential Imminent Crisis.”

In the past few days, the New York Times has reported that four Ukrainian soldiers were killed and two more seriously wounded in a mortar barrage during a battle against Russian backed “separatists” in the Donetsk region.  The fighting was along the “Line of Contact” which stretches 250 miles between the two fighting forces.  Unlike much of the recent skirmishing of the past few months, this fighting included artillery fire.

This recent escalation in fighting appears to abrogate the cease fire negotiated last July.

Observers have also noticed new Russian manufactured weapons with the “separatists”.

The Ukraine Parliament issued a statement noting a “significant increase in shelling and armed provocations by the armed forces of the Russian Federation.”  They also called on Western nations to “continue and increase international political and economic pressure on Russia.”

Although fighting has been occurring for several years, there have been some recent activities that led to the US Army increasing its threat level.

A few weeks ago, the Russian military announced airborne exercises that targeted water canals supplying the Crimea from the Dnieper River in Ukraine.  The regiment sized airborne exercise was held in conjunction with Russian Black Sea Fleet amphibious exercises.  The airborne units were to seize Ukrainian objectives and set up a defensive perimeter until relieved by other Russian units, possibly Russian marines.

Most worrying for NATO has been the increase in Russian military aircraft incursions into NATO airspace.  This week, NATO fighter aircraft were scrambled 10 times within a six-hour period on Monday.  The incursions were in the Baltic Sea, North Sea, and Black Sea areas.

The incursions included TU-95 Russian bombers nearing the Norwegian coast.  After being intercepted by Norwegian F-16s, they flew south, over the North Sea, prompting the scrambling of British and Belgium fighters.

Other Russian incursions included two Russian Blackjack bombers entering Norwegian airspace, three Russian aircraft in the Black Sea, and a Russian maritime patrol over the Baltic Sea, which was intercepted by Italian aircraft.

NATO has also been concerned about the buildup of Russian military units along the Ukraine border.  Units that participated in maneuvers along the Ukraine border have not been withdrawn, eliciting allegations from Ukrainian military leaders that Russia has intentionally massed more troops on the border.  There are also unconfirmed reports that trains are moving heavy armored equipment like tanks up to the Ukrainian border.

Russia responded to these accusations with the comment, “The Russian Federation transfers the Armed Forces on its soil as it wants to.  This should not concern anyone, and this is not posing any threat to anyone.”

The US has also pushed tensions.  Biden has always been a supporter of the Ukraine and has said, “Crimea is Ukraine,” – a comment bound to infuriate the Russians and Putin, who Biden insulted recently by calling him a “killer.”

In the past few weeks, the US has also delivered 350 tons of arms to the Ukraine military.   This included at least 35 military Humvees, which are designed to carry heavy weapons like heavy machineguns, anti-tank missiles, and rapid-fire cannon.

The Ukraine military has also announced exercises in the flatlands north of the Crimea, which would be an important target in any conflict between the two nations.


Increased Threat Level

All of this caused the US Army in Europe to increase its threat level from “Possible Crisis” to “Potential Imminent Crisis,” which is its highest level.  “We’re discussing our concerns about this increase in tensions and ceasefire violations and regional tensions with our NATO allies,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday.

In addition, US Secretary of State Blinken called his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kulbea.  And, US Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, called top military leaders in both Russia and Ukraine – Russian General Gerasimov and Ukraine General Khomchak.

How the change in threat status impacts US forces in Europe is a closely held military secret.  This type of threat level is quite different than those caused by a terrorist threat.  Terrorist threats focus on force protection (limiting access to military bases and protecting personnel) instead of a response to an external conventional military threat by another country.

However, we can deduce some of the possible responses by American forces in Europe to this increased threat.

Increased manning of headquarters and communications commands.  Many headquarters and communications commands work at a peacetime level on a regular basis.  However, as the watch level has increased, it is likely that manning will be increased during the higher threat level.  Liberty may be cancelled, which will have an impact as this weekend is the high point of Holy Week activities.

Alternate headquarters and communications locations may also be activated.

Larger number of aircraft put on alert.  It is normal routine for NATO air forces to have several alert aircraft on standby in order to intercept Russian military aircraft entering NATO airspace.  However, given the higher watch level, more aircraft will probably be put on the highest alert status.  There is also the possibility that some of the aircraft may be deployed to other airfields for security purposes.

Weapon loads for the alert aircraft may also be modified.

One theater where the alert status of NATO aircraft will be higher will be in the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.  NATO regularly keeps squadrons in these nations to discourage Russian aircraft incursions.

Dispersion of ground forces.  Military ground forces that are near Russia may be ordered to leave their bases and to disperse in the countryside, especially in strategic areas near borders.  This prevents a surprise attack on the forces and leaves them well placed in case of invasion.

As we noted with NATO aircraft, the likeliest theater where military dispersion will take place is in the Baltic nations.

Activate air and missile defenses.  This is most likely in areas around Russia.

Increased airborne and satellite-based reconnaissance.  The focus will be on units that appear to be moving closer to the Ukraine border.  If Russian railroads are moving heavy armor to the border, intelligence can judge the potential threat.

Putting rapid response forces on alert.  If the situation deteriorates, moving a rapid response force into the theater can show the Russians that NATO is willing to defend its territory and interests.  In addition to units in Europe, there is also the possibility that airborne units of the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions may be deployed.


Are NATO, Russia and the Ukraine overreacting to the crisis?

Although there has been fighting between Russia and Ukraine for several years, is the current situation that critical?  Some analysts say no.

Retired Lieutenant General Fredrick Hodges is the former commander of the US Army in Europe.  He says, “This could be posturing, but the Kremlin is testing the new Administration.”  He continues that Russia has no interest in real peace in the Ukraine and wants to keep the country destabilized.

That, however, could be a viewed as an escalation by Putin.  Biden has a record of supporting the Ukraine since his time as Vice President and was influential in increasing military aid to the Ukraine from non-lethal aid to high tech weapons like the Javelin anti-tank missile.

The American embassy in Kiev has also taken a strong stand.  A statement from the embassy said that the US was, “Deeply saddened by the deaths of four Ukrainian soldiers today due to shelling near Shumy, Donetsk.  Russia must observe ceasefire measures, end daily violence that is causing senseless suffering, engage constructively in peace negotiations, and end its aggression in Ukraine.”

American Defense Secretary Austin spoke to Ukraine’s defense minister on Thursday and expressed “unwavering US support for Ukraine’s sovereignty.”

Although it is easy to downplay this as posturing, repeated Russian military aircraft incursions, military maneuvers, and the recent history of invading the Crimea and supporting “separatists” in Eastern Ukraine demonstrate that there is a potential for miscalculation and escalation.

Anyone who thinks that there is no chance of a crisis which will escalate into open conflict may want to remember the beginning of WWI.  The assassination of the Hapsburg heir and the future Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo, was not considered a major international incident.  The Archduke’s liberal politics and marriage to the Duchess Sophie made him unpopular in the royal family.  His removal from the Hapsburg’s line of succession was welcomed by many.

However, many of the same people who did not like Franz Ferdinand wanted to use the Archduke’s death for political and territorial gain in the Balkans.  The result was a major bloodbath in Europe.