KYIV, Ukraine — Russia and Belarus have launched the largest joint military exercises since the Cold War, with the participation of 30,000 Russian troops, according to US military estimates.
Many nervous NATO allies are wondering what will happen after the exercises end on February 20. Will Russian troops return home or invade Ukraine and take over the capital and overthrow the government?
“This is probably the most dangerous moment,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at NATO headquarters on Thursday, “in what is the biggest security crisis Europe has faced in decades. “.
“This is a dangerous moment for European security. The number of Russian forces is increasing. The warning time for a possible attack is decreasing,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told a NATO conference. press alongside Johnson in Brussels.
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The US Embassy in Ukraine announced on Friday that the 14th flight of weapons had arrived in Kyiv, including more Javelin anti-tank missiles.
Senior Russian officer General Valery Gerasimov visited Belarus to personally oversee joint exercises with ally Russia. US General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke by telephone with his Belarusian counterpart on Thursday to “reduce the risk of miscalculation”, according to the Pentagon. He also spoke with his British and Ukrainian counterparts.
Russian amphibious warfare ships are now in the Black Sea. Ukraine’s defense minister said Russia had now “blocked” offshore waters ahead of missile tests scheduled for the next few days. Many large Russian warships in the Black Sea are loaded with naval infantry, tanks and other armored units.
A former commander of US Army forces in Europe believes Russia is most likely to strike Ukraine from the sea.
“It will be a bit below a certain perceived threshold where all European countries will not be so happy to have to invoke sanctions ‘like you’ve never seen them before’ because Russia has taken certain islands or coastal areas” , said the retired lieutenant general. Ben Hodges, now Pershing Professor at the Center for European Policy Analysis.
“What the Russians are doing is like a boa constrictor that keeps squeezing Ukraine,” Hodges added. He does not expect the massive, full-scale invasion of Ukraine that many in Washington are predicting.
“I don’t foresee an all-out assault with those red arrows we’ve seen in the papers, red arrows coming from all directions simultaneously. I don’t know if the Russians have the trump card.”
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a former Army infantry officer with combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, disagrees.
“I think the invasion is much more likely than not. I have great respect for General Ben Hodges. It is true that southeastern Ukraine and Mariupol are very exposed, but it is also true that the capital Kiev , in central Ukraine, is exposed to these military exercises in Belarus,” Cotton said during a live Fox News interview with Sandra Smith. “These military exercises in Belarus, Sandra, are nothing but a cover for a possible invasion.”
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Like President Biden, Cotton advised all Americans in Ukraine to “leave today.”
It’s not just Russian forces on the move. American B-52 bombers arrived in England on Thursday. The Pentagon called the deployment “long planned.” The US Air Force also announced it was sending F-15 fighter jets to Poland to help bolster NATO defenses a day after the White House approved plans for some of the 3,000 US troops sent. in Poland to help set up camps on the border to help with a potential invasion of some 30,000 Americans into Ukraine, should Putin order an invasion.
Since 1999, when NATO expanded to include three former Warsaw Pact countries, Russia has seen the alliance move closer to its borders. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he feels threatened, citing the bombing of Serbia three weeks after Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO as proof that the alliance does not is not always “defensive” as the West claims. Putin also cited NATO operations in Libya and Iraq as other examples of what he calls overreach.
Since retiring as head of US Army Europe, Hodges has called the technological advancement of Russian forces in recent years “chilling”.
“The ability to develop their drones, to connect drones, to detect ground targets either by intercept or by visual, and then have artillery or rockets hit that target so quickly, that’s the one of the scariest abilities to realize they have that, and clearly that matured a lot while they were in Syria.”
Russian forces first deployed to Syria in 2015. Since then, Russia has taken the opportunity to showcase its wide range of new weapons, such as launching Caliber guided missiles from warships, the same way US Navy destroyers have launched Tomahawk cruise missiles for decades.
Before heading to the Black Sea, the Russian warships called for resupply in the Syrian port city of Tartous on the Mediterranean coast.
“We see Russia as a pure adversary [now]“, Hodges said.
“I’m very impressed and concerned about the development of Russia’s electronic warfare capability. You know, for the past 20 years we’ve focused properly on cellphones and terrorist networks and tried to intercept them and hack them,” Hodges said. “Meanwhile, Russia has continued to develop a high-end electronic warfare capability that allows them to intercept, but more importantly jam at long ranges – to jam communications, satellites, etc.”
The US military depends on a constellation of GPS satellites to guide precision bombs from its jets to the target. Those communication links are now in danger of being severed, Hodges said.
Asked about Putin’s motives for moving more than 100,000 troops to the Ukrainian border and thousands more off the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, Hodges said: “I think he assumed that we would have already blinked by now, that we would have tipped over some of the Kremlin’s outrageous demands.”
When asked how potential Russian military operations would begin in Ukraine, Hodges replied, “They will use cyber. They will use sabotage. They will use misinformation to create havoc and confuse us, but I just don’t think so. that they have the capacity to seize Kiev”, the capital.
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Besides NATO, there’s something else Putin fears most, Hodges said.
“He sees the idea of a Ukraine starting to look like Poland or Estonia in terms of freedom and prosperity on its border. It’s a real danger for him, because in Russia people going to say, ‘Well, why not? Why is our life so bad compared to what it is in Ukraine? It’s the danger that worries him.’
Fox News’ Melissa Chrise contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine.