The Pentagon is on alert as Russia steps up its activity in Eastern Europe and the Arctic this week, presenting a new challenge for the young Biden administration, military officials said Wednesday.
U.S. European Command has raised its alert status to the highest level after fighting resumed between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian soldiers in the Donetsk Region of eastern Ukraine, marking the end of a June 2020 ceasefire, and Russian forces began building up military equipment along the border.
Meanwhile, NATO jets scrambled 10 times on Monday alone to respond to an unusually high number of Russian fighter and bomber flights near allied airspace. And last week, three nuclear-armed Russian submarines punched through several feet of ice in the Arctic, a new show of force in a region American forces are challenged to reach.
Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of U.S. Northern Command, which is responsible for homeland defense, acknowledged the recent uptick in Russian aggression, pointing to Moscow’s efforts to “reassert its influence on a global stage.”
In particular, Russian air intercepts today are more “complex” than in the past, VanHerck said, noting that the operations often involve multiple points of access and more than one aircraft that stay in the area longer.
Capt. Wendy Snyder, a spokesperson for European Command, declined to discuss the command’s watch condition levels, citing operational security, but noted that “We’re watching the situation very carefully.”
Stronger rhetoric: The recent increase in activity presents a fresh foreign policy challenge for the new administration, even as the president had pledged to take a tougher line with Russia than former President Donald Trump, whose relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin led to accusations that he was soft on Moscow.
President Joe Biden has already signaled his tougher stance, characterizing Putin as a “killer” and vowing to hold Russia to account for recent hacks, including an attack that compromised software by Texas-based Solarwinds Corp., which affected at least 100 U.S. companies and nine federal agencies.
The president also recently approved an additional $125 million worth of lethal aid to Ukraine to defend its borders with Russia, including two armed patrol boats and counter-artillery radar. The U.S. has committed more than $2 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since 2014, including providing Javelin anti-tank missiles.
Biden has a long history of advocating support for Ukraine, particularly after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014. As vice president and the Obama administration’s primary emissary to Kyiv, Biden visited the country six times and spent hours on the phone with its leaders.
He also spearheaded efforts to send American forces to train Ukrainian fighters and prodded top officials to root out corruption, his advisers told POLITICO during an interview last year.
Pentagon response: Pentagon leaders are expressing their concerns to NATO allies about the renewed fighting in Eastern Europe, which killed four Ukrainian soldiers on March 26 and wounded two more, as well as the buildup of Russian forces, spokesperson John Kirby said Wednesday.
“We obviously don’t want to see any more violations of Ukrainian territory,” Kirby said. “We’ve been very clear about the threats that we see from Russia across domains … we’re taking them very seriously.”
Kirby said he is not aware of any interaction between Russians and U.S. forces in Eastern Europe.
Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed the security situation by phone with his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts separately on Wednesday, according to a readout from his office. Also on Wednesday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said he discussed "ways of strengthening security cooperation" with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
"I held a productive and focused call with @SecBlinken as Russia continues to systemically aggravate the security situation in the east of Ukraine and in Crimea," Kuleba tweeted.
Earlier in the week, national security adviser Jake Sullivan “affirmed the United States’ unwavering support” for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in a phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, Kirby said.
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