PARIS (AP) — NATO’s top military commander in Europe, drafting countermoves to the Russian military threat against Ukraine, said Wednesday they could include deployment of American troops to alliance member states in Eastern Europe now feeling at risk.
U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove told The Associated Press he wouldn’t “write off involvement by any nation, to include the United States.”
Foreign ministers of the 28-nation alliance have given Breedlove until Tuesday to propose steps to reassure NATO members nearest Russia that other alliance countries have their back.
“Essentially what we are looking at is a package of land, air and maritime measures that would build assurance for our easternmost allies,” Breedlove told the AP. “I’m tasked to deliver this by next week. I fully intend to deliver it early.”
Asked again if American soldiers might be sent to NATO’s front-line states closest to Russia, the four-star U.S. general said, “I would not write off contributions from any nation.”
In March, Russian troops took control of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, whose inhabitants then voted in a referendum to secede and join Russia. The U.S. and other Western countries have accused Moscow of massing troops on Ukraine’s border to maintain the pressure on the government in Kiev, and possibly for military use.
Speaking at the end of a NATO conference in Paris, Breedlove told the AP the Russian armed presence near Ukraine’s frontier continues unabated.
To illustrate his point, the general’s staff provided the AP with a set of commercial satellite photographs they said showed Russian warplanes, combat helicopters, armor, artillery and a probable airborne or special forces brigade deployed in locations east of the Ukraine-Russian border, including along the coastline of the Sea of Azov.
A defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, reviewed the satellite images and said the forces depicted in them don’t appear to be involved in training exercises.
They appear to be “in combat readiness,” Anthony Cordesman said.
But he said it’s unclear from the images how much of a buildup of Russian forces there has been in the border area.
“They show there is a mixture of light and heavy forces and that they could go quickly” if ordered into Ukraine, and that they include forces to provide air mobility, according to Cordesman. “But that’s all they show,” he said.
The commercial provider of the photographs, DigitalGlobe, said they were taken in late March.
“What we see there is a force of about 40,000,” Breedlove said. “I would characterize it as a combined arms army. In other words, this is an army that has all of the provisioning and enablers that it needs to accomplish military objectives if given them.”
The Russians’ assets include fixed and rotary wing aircraft, artillery, field hospitals, communications and jamming gear, he said.
Kremlin objectives remain unclear, the NATO commander said. The force could stand pat and intimidate Ukraine solely by its presence, drive south to create a land bridge with Crimea, push along the Black Sea coast to the Ukrainian port city of Odessa and the largely Russian Trans-Dniester enclave of Moldova, or invade other areas of eastern Ukraine where ethnic Russians are demanding unity with Russia, he said.
However the Russian contingent might ultimately be used, it’s “ready to go essentially at command. We talk about inside of 12 hours,” Breedlove said.
NATO has already reinforced its Baltic air patrols and is performing daily AWACs surveillance flights over Poland and Romania. Breedlove said he has already received enough pledges of maritime assets from NATO member states to carry out beefed-up maritime operations through the end of the year.
“The tougher piece is, how do we do the assurance piece on the land,” the general said. “Because these are measures which are more costly (and) if not done correctly, might appear provocative. And everything we are trying to do in the air, on the ground and at sea we are trying to completely characterize as defensive in nature.”
“There is not a shortage of what we can use. It’s how do we use this in a measured way that indicates defensive capability so that we don’t provoke. And that’s what we will be working on,” Breedlove said before departing for NATO’s military headquarters near Mons, Belgium.
AP National Security Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report from Washington.