Russian Troops Mass Near Ukraine, So The U.S. Military Lands An Army Brigade In Albania

This spring Russia massed 80,000 troops and thousands of vehicles near Ukraine.

Now NATO is mobilizing 28,000 of its own troops for a sprawling, months-long series of war games with its locus—you guessed it—near Ukraine.

While the alliance’s Defender Europe 21 exercise is just the latest iteration of an annual training event and long has been in the works, its geography is no accident.

NATO—and the United States in particular—is determined to match Russian deployments where Russia is most aggressive.

“The Defender Europe exercise is going to conclude in June,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said, “but not before demonstrating joint-force readiness, lethality and interoperability, reinforcing the U.S. commitment to our allies and partners and providing an outstanding opportunity to highlight the superb job our men and women are doing every day and in the region—the Balkan and Black Sea regions in particular, and throughout Europe and the Africa area of operations.”

The Russian build-up is the latest in an ebb and flow of forces following Moscow’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and the related—and ongoing—Russia-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

Moscow lately has been trying to find a wedge on one particular issue—water. Ukraine largely controls the flow of fresh water into Crimea, which after seven years of Russian control is transforming into a major military outpost.

While Ukraine has boosted its military spending in recent years, it’s still weak compared to Russia. And wary of provoking the Kremlin, NATO hasn’t extended to Kiev an invitation to join the alliance. Instead, Ukraine—like Georgia, another former Soviet republic—merely is a NATO partner.

As a partner, Ukraine sends observers to some NATO exercises—Defender Europe 21, included. The exercise involves troops or observers from 26 countries.

No treaty guarantees the Atlantic alliance would mobilize to defend Ukraine against a direct attack. But it’s a safe bet that a Russian attack anywhere along NATO’s eastern flank would provoke a powerful NATO response.

NATO however is weakest in the east, where the member states—some of them ex-Soviet—are small and relatively poor. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the Baltic region. Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania and others in the Balkans and around the Black Sea.

If war broke out near Ukraine, NATO would need to project forces from west to east. The heaviest reinforcements might come from the United States, which explains why the early phases of Defender Europe 21 mostly are logistical exercises.

The first phase began in March, when U.S. Transportation Command shipped thousands of vehicles and tons of supplies from the United States to ports across Europe—most notably, in Albania, Croatia, Greece and Slovenia along NATO’s southern flank.

Perhaps most impressively, U.S. Military Sealift Command activated cargo ships including the 950-foot vehicle-carrier Bob Hope to haul the U.S. Army’s Florida-based 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team from Jacksonville to the port of Durres in Albania.

At Durres, Bob Hope’s crew and Army transportation troops simulated unloading in wartime conditions. Imagining that enemy attacks had damaged port facilities, the Americans built a temporary floating pier and transferred vehicles from Bob Hope to Army landing craft and other vessels, which hauled them to shore.

“A secure port is never guaranteed, so crews must practice an alternative method of offloading,” explained U.S. Navy captain James Hilton, a Pentagon representative in Albania.

Once the equipment is ashore, soldiers flying in from Florida will fall in on it and spread out across southern and eastern Europe, where they will meet up with troops from other NATO countries for live-fire war games and other training.

In June, the deployment process will reverse. Ships will load up and sail back to the United States. And, NATO leaders surely hope, the alliance will have made a clear statement. It can move forces over great distances and concentrate them wherever Russia masses its own forces.

One Comment

  1. Stephanie Stephanie Friday, May 14, 2021

    Why aren’t the climate activists,or even ordinary citizens, protesting these “war games”?
    The US military is greatest contributor to climate change carbon emissions and together with the other countries, are just exasperating this. The only reason is the outsize influence of the military industrial complex and egos of mini men who can feel important.

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