NATO, Russia face off across Black Sea

The US Defense Department is dispatching a naval vessel to the Black Sea to conduct military exercises with allies in the region, as well as deploying additional Marines to enlarge a "rotational crisis response force" in Romania, the Pentagon announced April 3. The Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response Force, based at Moron Air Base in Spain, is being increased from 500 to 675 and deployed to Romania "to allow greater flexibility." The Pentagon denied that the decision to send the additional Marines to Romania is related to developments in Ukraine. (American Forces Press Service, April 3)

Russia responded to the announcement by demanding answers from NATO on its activities in Eastern Europe. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said any increase in NATO's permanent presence in the region would violate a 1997 treaty on NATO-Russian cooperation. "We have addressed questions to the north Atlantic military alliance. We are not only expecting answers, but answers that will be based fully on respect for the rules we agreed on," Lavrov told reporters at a briefing with his Kazakh counterpart.

NATO foreign ministers met April 1 to discuss responses to Russia's annexation of Crimea, including a review of the alliances's military plans. At the Brussels meeting, NATO resolved to suspend cooperation with Russia. Simultaneously, Ukraine's parliament approved by a 235-0 vote a series of joint military exercises with NATO countries that would put US troops in direct proximity to Russian forces. (Reuters, April 3; The Guardian, Reuters, NATO, April 1)

NATO's top commander, Gen. Philip M. Breedlove of the US Air Force, told the New York Times that the 40,000 troops Russia has within striking distance of Ukraine are poised to attack on 12 hours' notice. Russia's President Vladimir Putin of Russia told Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany on March 31 that the Kremlin was starting to withdraw troops from the border area. But Gen. Breedlove said that so far only a single battalion, a force of some 500, was on the move—and that NATO intelligence could not say whether it was actually being withdrawn. "What we can say now is that we do see a battalion-size unit moving, but what we can't confirm is that it is leaving the battlefield," he said. He added that the Russian force that remained was a mix of warplanes, helicopter units, artillery, infantry, and commandos with field hospitals and sufficient logistics to sustain an incursion into Ukraine. (NYT, April 2)