Top US general in Europe says there’s a low-to-medium risk Russia invades Ukraine in the next few weeks

Russia
Units of Russian mountain air assault division hold exercise in Crimea in March 2021.

  • The top US general in Europe said there’s a “low to medium” risk Russia invades Ukraine soon.
  • Russia has amassed 80,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders.
  • Tensions between Russia and the West have reached historic heights.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Air Force General Tod Wolters, the top US general in Europe, on Thursday said there’s a “low to medium” risk that Russia invades Ukraine in the next few weeks, per Defense News.

Wolters, the head of US European Command and NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe, during a House Armed Services Committee said that NATO was ready to respond to Russian aggression if necessary.

“We deter, and, if deterrence fails, we’re prepared to respond to aggression with the full weight of the transatlantic alliance,” Wolters said, also stating that the likelihood of a Russian invasion will “start to wane” based on “the trend that I see right now.” The general did not provide further details or intelligence behind this assessment.

Roughly 80,000 Russian troops have amassed in Crimea and along the eastern border of Ukraine, which has already been fighting a war against Kremlin-backed separatists in the Donbass region for over half a decade, raising alarm bells across Europe and in Washington.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Tuesday called on Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine’s border.

“NATO stands with Ukraine,” he said. “Russia must end this military buildup in and around Ukraine, stop its provocations and de-escalate immediately.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday warned Russia of “consequences” if it “acts recklessly or aggressively.”

Blinken, who traveled to Brussels this week for talks with Ukraine’s foreign minister and NATO leaders, on Tuesday said that the US “stands firmly behind the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

“And that’s particularly important at a time when we’re seeing, unfortunately, Russia take very provocative action when it comes to Ukraine,” Blinken added.

President Joe Biden earlier this week urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to deescalate tensions, and proposed holding a summit in a third country in the coming months.

“The President voiced our concerns over the sudden Russian military build-up in occupied Crimea and on Ukraine’s borders, and called on Russia to de-escalate tensions,” the White House said in a statement.

US-Russia relations have hit a historically low point in recent years, particularly since Putin’s unilateral annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the contentious dynamic has persisted with Biden at the helm.

Biden in March referred to Putin as a “killer,” prompting outcry from the Kremlin.

Russia’s interference in US elections has also driven a wedge between Washington and Moscow.

The Biden administration on Thursday issued new sanctions against over 30 Russian entities over Moscow’s election interference as well as Russia’s role in the SolarWinds cyberattack. Additionally, the US expelled 10 Russian diplomats.

Russia has denied any role in the hack and rejected allegations of election interference.

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The US is sending 500 extra troops to Germany, Defense Secretary Austin says, as Russia amasses troops at Europe’s border

Lloyd Austin
Lloyd Austin.

  • Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced the US will station 500 more troops in Germany.
  • He said this would “strengthen deterrence and defense in Europe.”
  • It comes as Russia strengthens its military force at the Ukraine border.
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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced on Tuesday that the US will station 500 more troops in Germany.

He said that this would “strengthen deterrence and defense in Europe.”

He made the announcement during a trip to Berlin, and said that the troops could arrive as soon as the fall, according to Axios.

The announcement comes as Russia builds up its troop presence at its border with Ukraine, prompting fears among NATO countries.

The strategy contrasts with that of former President Donald Trump, who tried to withdraw 12,000 troops from Germany before it was halted by President Joe Biden.

Ukraine has estimated that 80,000 Russian troops have now amassed on its border and Crimea.

Ukraine also says Russian President Vladimir Putin is ignoring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s requests to communicate, though the Kremlin denied receiving such requests.

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NATO fighters intercepted half a dozen groups of Russian military aircraft near alliance airspace in under 6 hours

NATO fighter intercepts Russian military aircraft
NATO fighter intercepts Russian military aircraft

  • NATO scrambled jets 10 times Monday to intercept Russian military planes near alliance airspace.
  • Fighters intercepted 6 groups of Russian military aircraft in less than 6 hours, NATO said.
  • The same day, NORAD identified and tracked a Russian maritime patrol aircraft operating near Alaska.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

NATO jets responded to an unusually high number of Russian military aircraft flights near allied airspace on Monday.

Alliance fighter aircraft were “scrambled 10 times on Monday, March 29, 2021, to shadow Russian bombers and fighters during an unusual peak of flights over the North Atlantic, North Sea, Black Sea and Baltic Sea,” the organization said in a statement.

In less than 6 hours, fighters intercepted 6 different groups of Russian military aircraft.

Norwegian and Belgian F-16s, as well as British Typhoons, intercepted a pair of Tu-95 Bear bombers. Norwegian fighters also intercepted two Tu-160 Blackjack bombers. Turkish, Romanian, and Bulgarian fighters responded to three groups of Russian military aircraft over the Black Sea. And, Italian fighters intercepted a Russian maritime patrol aircraft over the Baltic Sea.

Though Russian military aircraft flights near NATO airspace are not uncommon, it is out of the ordinary to see that many flights in a single day.

Last year, NATO countries scrambled fighter aircraft over 400 times to intercept questionable aircraft, and 90% of those aircraft were Russian.

The alliance explained Monday that “Russian military aircraft often do not transmit a transponder code indicating their position and altitude, do not file a flight plan, or do not communicate with air traffic controllers, posing a potential risk to civilian airliners.”

The Russian military aircraft intercepted Monday never entered alliance airspace, NATO said, adding that all intercepts were safe and routine.

“Intercepting multiple groups of Russian aircraft demonstrates NATO forces’ readiness and capability to guard Allied skies 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year,” said Brig. Gen. Andrew Hansen, the Deputy Chief of Staff Operations at Allied Air Command.

As NATO fighter jets intercepted Russian military aircraft in Europe, the bilateral North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which defends the US and Canada, identified and tracked two Tu-142 Russian maritime patrol aircraft in international airspace near Alaska.

Recently, the NORAD commander, US Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, told Congress that “Russia continues to conduct frequent military operations in the approaches to North America.”

The general added that last year, “NORAD responded to more Russian military flights off the coast of Alaska than we’ve seen in any year since the end of the Cold War.” These flights involved heavy bombers, anti-submarine aircraft, and intelligence assets.

In his testimony, VanHerck asserted that “Russia presents a persistent, proximate threat to the United States and Canada and remains the most acute challenge to our homeland defense mission.”

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SEALs, Marines, and Norwegian soldiers teamed up with B-1B bombers to practice dropping bombs on new terrain

Air Force B-1B bomber Norway
A US Air Force B-1B takes off from Bodø Air Station in Norway, March 8, 2021.

  • US Air Force bombers deployed to Norway for the first time ever in late February.
  • This week, those bombers trained with troops on the ground to conduct close air support.
  • The deployment, and increased Arctic activity in general, comes amid high tensions between NATO and Russia.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

US Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers that deployed to Norway in late February have already demonstrated their reach in the air around Europe, and this week they tested their ability to put bombs on target in new surroundings.

On March 8, a bomber conducted Joint Terminal Attack Controller training with US Navy SEALs, US Marines, and Norwegian soldiers near Setermoen in the Norwegian Arctic.

JTACs, as they’re known, direct aircraft during close-air-support missions. For this training, US and Norwegian JTACs took position “on top of a mountain and quickly established communications” with the bomber to call in targets, a Marine Corps release said.

The exercise comes as NATO militaries have increased their focus on the European Arctic, conducting more ground, air, and naval operations there.

Joint JTAC training “demonstrates our commitment to building interoperability across military services and NATO allies,” Capt. Joe Roberts, a JTAC instructor, said in the release.

‘A little bit different’

Marines Norway JTAC Arctic
Norwegian soldiers and US Marines during Joint Terminal Attack Controller training in Setermoen, Norway, March 8, 2021.

US bombers deploy to Europe and train with Norwegian aircraft regularly, but the four B-1Bs that arrived in Norway on February 22 are the first US bombers to deploy there.

“There’s always something that’s just a little bit different” at a new airfield, Lt. Gen. Steven Basham, deputy commander of US Air Forces in Europe and Africa, said during a March 5 briefing.

Changing scenery is particularly important for close air support, as working with JTACs or special-operations forces on the ground “allows that sensor on the ground to connect with the shooter, and in this case the bombers, to be able to practice dropping weapons in different environments,” Basham said.

“I can tell you, as a B-1 pilot, that not all terrain looks the same; it has a different look on radar,” Basham added. “Working with different individuals, there are always the unique challenges of accent or just the ability to make sure that we understand exactly what we’re doing.”

Marines rotated through Norway for on-the-ground training – including familiarization with the language barrier – from 2017 to late 2020, when the Corps said that training would move to an “episodic” model.

Marines Norway Arctic
US Marines and Norwegian soldiers during JTAC training in Setermoen, March 8, 2021.

The Marines’ training focused on preparing for harsh Arctic conditions, which is also a goal of the B-1B deployment and of the JTAC training.

“Operating from Norway gives a very unique opportunity to operate in a cold-weather environment,” Basham said.

During the JTAC exercise, the B-1B landed at Bodo Air Force Station in the Norwegian Arctic for “warm-pit refueling,” in which the crew stays in the cockpit during refueling, allowing the bomber to get back in the air faster.

Operations like warm-pit refueling are central to the Air Force’s Agile Combat Employment concept, which is meant to prepare aircraft and crews for more dispersed operations.

The bomber “does just fine in the cold weather,” Basham said. “It’s our great aviators and maintainers and support personnel who might not be as familiar with the rigors of the cold. Our Norwegian partners are helping us along in that.”

The bomber circled the airfield for 45 minutes as “dense snow” was cleared so it could land, and for ground troops, Norway’s Arctic “also poses many obstacles,” including frostbite and mountainous terrain, “which can cause electronic communications issues,” the Corps release said.

Sending a message

Air Force B-1B bomber Norway Arctic
A B-1B bomber lands at Bodø Air Station for the first time, March 8, 2021.

US and NATO activity in the Arctic comes amid heightened tensions with Russia, which has the world’s longest Arctic coastline and extensive economic interests there. Moscow has also increased its military activity in the Arctic.

The Norway deployment reflects several shifts in US strategy, including increased support for NATO in response to Russia’s 2014 incursion in Ukraine, which has led to “a gradual increase of bombers deploying to the UK at higher tempo and flying farther east and north,” Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told Insider.

Another shift is in Air Force bomber operations overseas, moving away from longer deployments in one place and toward shorter, more frequent deployments at more bases, which in Europe “has resulted in bomber operations to Iceland and now Norway, locations where the US did not deploy bombers even during the Cold War,” Kristensen said.

Russia has major military installations in the Arctic, where aerial attack has long been a major concern.

Air Force B-1B bomber Norway Arctic
A B-1B bomber is refueled at Bodø Air Station, March 8, 2021.

Moscow has already demonstrated its dismay about the B-1B deployment. On Friday, its Northern Fleet said carrier-based MiG-29K fighter jets had for the first time gone on “experimental combat duty” on the nearby Novaya Zemlya archipelago.

The Russians “seem to get the message” behind the increased US bomber deployments, Kristensen told Insider, “but there is so far no indication that it is causing them to back down.”

“It’s a lot more controversial in Norway, where officials have been busy explaining that the operations should not be seen as an increased threat to Russia,” Kristensen added.

Lt. Gen. Yngve Odlo, chief of the Norwegian Joint Headquarters, stressed that point during the March 5 briefing.

“The communication is quite clear that this is what it is and it’s not an offensive operation at all,” Odlo said. “It’s normal military activity between two close allies. The only special thing is the new asset being deployed to Norway.”

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US Air Force bombers are on an ‘historic’ mission to Norway to let allies know they’ll be ‘on target, first time’

Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber Dyess
A B-1B prepares to take off from Dyess Air Force Base in Texas, February 21, 2021.

  • US B-1B bombers arrived in Norway on February 22 for the first bomber deployment ever to that country.
  • NATO officials said the deployment shouldn’t be seen as a threat, but the bombers’ capabilities should be clear.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Four US Air Force B-1B bombers arrived at Ørland Air Station in central Norway on February 22 for what officials say is a “historic” deployment meant to familiarize US airmen with new terrain.

While US bombers regularly train with Norwegian aircraft, they usually fly out of another major base in the region.

“This is the first time that we are generating flights in partnership with our close ally, Norway, as well as operating from Norwegian soil,” Lt. Gen. Steven Basham, deputy commander of US Air Forces in Europe and Africa, told reporters Friday.

“There’s always something that’s just a little bit different” at a new airfield, Basham said.

Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber Norway
US airmen unload a B-1B at Ørland Air Force Station in Norway, February 22, 2021.

“Under our newest concept of Agile Combat Employment, we have got to maintain the level of agility and flexibility to operate from many different places,” Basham added, referring to an operational concept in which aircraft and airmen train to deploy from main “hub” bases to a variety of “spoke” airfields.

Operating from Norway is also a chance to acclimate to a colder environment – a concern more for airmen than aircraft, Basham said – and to train more with their Norwegian counterparts.

The location allows “integrating probably a little bit more often than we might from other locations with their fighters [and] their navy,” Basham added. “Being on the ground with them before we operate and after we operate also creates a unique opportunity to learn.”

Lt. Gen. Yngve Odlo, chief of the Norwegian Joint Headquarters, which oversees the country’s military operations, said the deployment is “an important part” of ensuring the US and Norway can work together in that region and its conditions.

US bombers are “a strategic asset, and it is highly important to both of us … to be able to have the right processes” to use them, “if needed,” Odlo said.

On target

Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber Norway
Two crew chiefs by a B-1B at Ørland Air Force Station, February 26, 2021.

The B-1Bs in Norway flew their first Bomber Task Force mission on February 26, conducting “tactical integration” with a Norwegian F-35 and naval assets over the Norwegian Sea. (An initial press release said they trained in the eastern Barents Sea, much closer to Russia, but a spokesperson told Insider that was “a brief miscommunication.”)

In early March, two B-1Bs trained with Danish, Polish, Italian, and German fighters over the Baltic Sea and flew over the capitals of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – “a testament to the unmatched strength and capability of the NATO alliance,” said Gen. Jeff Harrigian, commander of US Air Forces in Europe and Africa.

The US bomber crews’ training will also include working with joint terminal air controllers and special-operations forces to drop inert munitions, which “allows that sensor on the ground to connect with the shooter, and in this case the bombers, to be able to practice dropping weapons in different environments,” Basham said.

“I can tell you, as a B-1 pilot, that not all terrain looks the same,” Basham added. “It has a different look on radar, and working with different individuals, there are always the unique challenges of accent or just the ability to make sure that we understand exactly what we’re doing.”

The deployment has several weeks left, and the training doing is important not only for US airmen but also as a signal to allies, Basham said.

“The one thing you’re always thinking about if you’re ever required to employ in a location such as this … you typically don’t get a first chance to practice and then a second chance to succeed,” Basham said. “That’s why it’s so important to exercise every aspect of, in this particular case, what our B-1s can do, and certainly not just with Norway but many other countries so that if ever called upon, our allies are assured that we will be on target, first time.”

‘Some reverberations’

Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber Norway
An Air Force public-affairs specialist documents a B-1B landing at Ørland Air Force Station, March 3, 2021.

Broader tensions between NATO and Russia, heightened after Moscow’s 2014 seizure of Crimea, loom over the bomber deployment.

Norway is NATO’s northernmost European member, and its border with Russia is adjacent to sensitive Russian military installations in the Arctic, where both NATO and Russia are more active. Norway also looks over important sea lanes through which Russian warships must pass to reach the Atlantic Ocean.

Norway takes its neighbor’s concerns about military activity into account, but Moscow still watches NATO operations in the region, especially bomber flights, warily.

Two weeks before the bombers arrived, Russia released footage of Russian Tu-160 bombers on “a planned flight” over the Barents, Greenland, and Norwegian seas. Days later, Russia said it would conduct missile tests in waters between the Barents and Norwegian seas, which was seen as a sign of displeasure over the bombers’ impending arrival.

On Friday, Odlo and Basham stressed that the deployment was normal military activity.

There are always “some reverberations from the political side of the house,” when Norway invites “close allies” to operate there, “which is normal,” Odlo said.

“There is no doubt that Russia probably looks at this as just what they would do,” Basham said. “As you’re looking to continue to improve your readiness, you want to make sure that you’re pushing to the limits of your capability.”

Basham reiterated that the deployment shouldn’t be seen as a threat but said it was a reflection of US capabilities.

“If someone were to take a message that you’re not restricted to one particular location, that would be a good message for them to perceive,” Basham said.

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