STUTTGART, Germany — NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove asserted Tuesday that soldiers surrounding Ukrainian bases in Crimea are Russian forces, dismissing accounts that the troops are pro-Russia local militia.
“After extensive review of multiple information sources, we believe these are Russian military forces acting on clear orders to undermine Ukraine forces in Crimea,” Breedlove wrote in his blog, From the Cockpit.
The identity of the heavily armed men surrounding Ukrainian military bases in the contested region of Crimea has been a source of debate. While some media outlets have described the soldiers as “local militia,” many Western observers have made the deduction that troops in the Russian-style fatigues are, in fact, Russian.
Breedlove said NATO experts have determined that the soldiers are Russian and will treat them as such.
“This conclusion, although hastily stated by some members of the press, is based on deliberate and painstaking scrutiny of the many sources of data available to our professional military analysts,” Breedlove stated. “As we move forward and continue to closely monitor the situation in Ukraine, it will be with the understanding of the real identity of these forces.”
Breedlove’s assertion comes as the U.S. and NATO are bolstering their military presence in eastern Europe in response to the crisis. Already, NATO has beefed up its air policing mission in the Baltics as part of an effort to reassure allies with a long history of antagonism with Russia. And in Poland the U.S. has hastened a pre-planned rotational training mission, sending in 12 Air Force F-16s for a joint mission with Polish military. In addition, the Navy’s USS Truxtun, a guided-missile destroyer, is now in the Black Sea for what the Navy calls a routine visit to Bulgaria and Romania. If it chooses, the military could elect to extend the destroyer’s stay in the Black Sea to reassure and train with wary allies.
Meanwhile, NATO has deployed E-3 AWACSreconnaissance aircraft to Poland and Romania to monitor the unfolding crisis in Ukraine.
In a sign of how high the stakes are, President Barack Obama is slated to meet with new Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk at the White House on Tuesday.
John Deni, a professor of security studies at the U.S. Army War College, said the crisis in Ukraine has put Europe back into the security forefront as the West contends with an unpredictable Russian president in Vladimir Putin.
“The U.S. should press pause on any military drawdown plans for Europe,” Deni said. “By doing that, you’re sending a signal to Russia that we’re taking this seriously. You’re also reassuring allies and maintaining the ability to train with them, which NATO very much needs.”
While Putin has so far not balked at Western threats of sanctions, Deni suggested the U.S. and other oil- and gas-producing allies should seek to ramp up production as part of an effort to drive down oil prices, a measure that would hit hard Russia’s resource-dependent economy.
“There is no appetite for military conflict, but we sometimes don’t recognize the power we have and the other tools at our disposal,” Deni said.