U.S. Ratchets Up Pressure on Russia With Baltic Air Deployments

A Ukrainian officer looks through binoculars at an air base in Belbek, not far from Sevastopol on Thursday. The United States on Wednesday said it would augment its air patrol mission in the Baltics to reassure NATO allies unsettled by Russia's occupation of the Crimean Peninsula.
A Ukrainian officer looks through binoculars at an air base in Belbek, not far from Sevastopol on Thursday. The United States on Wednesday said it would augment its air patrol mission in the Baltics to reassure NATO allies unsettled by Russia's occupation of the Crimean Peninsula. (Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images)

In a move that ratchets up the military element to U.S. pressure on Russia over its Crimea incursion, Washington is boosting it air presence in the Baltics.

The Defense Department will augment its four-fighter jet mission currently conducting rotational NATO air patrols over the Baltic nations -- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- with six additional F-15 jets, unidentified Pentagon officials told the news media on Wednesday. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also announced on Wednesday the military would conduct extra training drills with the Polish air force.

The Russian military's swift occupation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula over the weekend has caused  tensions between Russia and NATO to reach their highest level since the fall of the Soviet Union, according to Reuters.

While Washington has not signaled any appetite for military action in Ukraine, earlier this week it halted all armed-forces cooperation with Russia.

"Obviously we want to provide NATO's leaders with options that stabilize and not escalate tensions in the Ukraine," U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said at a Wednesday Senate hearing.

"Understandably, they are concerned," the Los Angeles Times quoted Dempsey as saying about NATO's newest members from Eastern Europe. "They seek our assurance for their security."

The Western military alliance on Wednesday announced it was reassessing all of its cooperation with Russia in light of its actions in Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO, Reuters separately reported.

Alliance chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said NATO officials would cease all lower-level engagement with their Russian opposites, and that higher-level collaboration would be under review. NATO had been discussing with Moscow the idea of its providing a naval escort to a U.S. ship that is to destroy Syria's most lethal chemical warfare materials, but that cooperation now appears to be in question.

Meanwhile, a Russian diplomat on Wednesday suggested Ukraine was being delusional by raising an alarm about the potential for security risks to its nuclear reactors, Reuters reported.

Ukrainian Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency Ihor Prokopchuk, speaking at a session of the body's governing board, said the "physical protection" of the country's 15 atomic reactors "can be endangered" by ongoing events, according to a diplomat who attended the meeting.

"Potential consequences of a military invasion would be a threat of radiation contamination on the territory of Ukraine and the territory of neighboring states," Prokopchuk was quoted as saying. "In addition, a significant amount of spent nuclear fuel, which is stored on the territory of the nuclear power plants, would pose potential high risks."

Russia's delegate to the IAEA governing body, Grigory Berdennikov disputed those comments, saying they were "nothing but a provocation" and that Kiev was guilty of "malicious slander."

Prokopchuk told the U.N. nuclear watchdog that Ukraine was strengthening security around its reactors due to the "grave threat" represented by Russia's armed forces.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine for a brief period possessed the third biggest nuclear arsenal in the world. The country sent the weapons back to Russia in exchange for security assurances from London, Washington and Moscow -- laid out in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum -- that they would respect its territorial integrity.

The U.S., U.K. and Ukrainian foreign policy heads on Wednesday reminded Russia of its obligations under the agreement, saying "the three governments treat these assurances with utmost seriousness, and expect Russia to as well," according to a trilateral joint statement.

Although Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris to discuss the Ukraine situation, the Moscow envoy declined to join in the separate multilateral meeting on the status of the Budapest Memorandum, a move that the U.S., British and Ukrainian diplomats said they "deeply regret."

March 6, 2014
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In a move that ratchets up the military element to U.S. pressure on Russia over its Crimea incursion, Washington is boosting it air presence in the Baltics.