The Russian government claims the thousands of troops massing on the border of Ukraine are merely conducting exercises, but U.S. officials have yet to see any evidence of that. U.S. military leaders instead worry the growing troop presence could lead to more problems in a region already stricken by precarious security.
“We’ve seen no specific indication that exercises are taking place,” said Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby on Thursday. He declined to comment on any specific estimates of Russian troops along the border, but said the number is in the thousands.
The Russian force there is “a composition that provides a lot of capability,” indicating that it could conduct a comprehensive assault on Ukraine.
“The way it was explained is these are springtime exercises,” he said, adding the Russian government has offered its assurances it will not cross the border into Ukraine.
Kirby said the Pentagon expects the Russians will keep their word.
“Just because we haven’t seen any indication of exercises now doesn’t mean that one won’t occur,” he said. “Even if this is exercises, it’s doing nothing to help de-escalate the tension in Ukraine. It’s doing nothing to assist in the stability in that part of Europe.”
President Barack Obama has all but ruled out any military options in response to the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula. The U.S. deployed 12 F-16 Fighting Falcon jets to Poland in early March, along with support forces, and has conducted preplanned NATO exercises.
“Today, NATO planes patrol the skies over the Baltics, and we’ve reinforced our presence in Poland. And we’re prepared to do more,” Obama said Wednesday at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. He called on NATO member states – many of which now are former Soviet countries – to “step up and carry its share of the burden.”
“Ukraine is not a member of NATO – in part because of its close and complex history with Russia. Nor will Russia be dislodged from Crimea or deterred from further escalation by military force. But with time, so long as we remain united, the Russian people will recognize that they cannot achieve security, prosperity and the status that they seek through brute force,” he said.
Russian troops and local loyalist militias completed this week seizing all navy bases on the strategic peninsula of Crimea, home to the Russian Black Sea fleet. The Russian government previously leased a navy base at Sevastopol from the Ukrainian government, which came into question after populist protests forced pro-Russian President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych from office.
The Ukrainian government has asked for military assistance from the U.S., which the Pentagon is still considering. The request includes lethal aid, such as weaponry, and nonlethal aid, such as rations and other support supplies. Previous assistance to foreign countries, such as Syria, remained hazy on supplies that are benign but used for combat, such as bulletproof vests and night vision goggles, and into which category they would fit.
Kirby announced Thursday the U.S. has decided to ship to Ukraine military rations, known as Meals Ready to Eat or MREs. They are being transported over land and will likely arrive there by the weekend. Further considerations for nonlethal aid are the top priority for the Pentagon, he said.
The defense announcement came hours after the International Monetary Fund agreed to a $27 billion bailout to Ukraine. The Eastern European nation’s floundering economy spurred widespread dissent in late 2013. Protesters faulted Yanukovych for backing down from new economic accords with the European Union in favor of receiving a multibillion dollar bailout from Russia. Analysts believe Yanukovych’s change of attitude came from pressure from Moscow.
Congress is currently considering a similar aid package.