The U.S. European Command (EUCOM) raised its threat levels in Europe to a “potential imminent crisis” this week as fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces has escalated in recent days and additional Russian troops are deploying to the region. The Russian troop movements could serve as an early test of President Joe Biden’s commitment to Ukraine.
According to the New York Times, Gen. Tod D. Wolters, the head of U.S. European Command declared a “potential imminent crisis,” which is the highest potential watch level. The command raised the watch level after four Ukrainian troops were killed in recent fighting in the Donetsk region. EUCOM also raised the warning after Russian troops deployed to the border region between Russia and Ukraine for an apparent set of military drills but failed to leave after the drills concluded on March 23.
One official who spoke with the New York Times estimated around 4,000 additional Russian troops remained in the Ukraine border region after the most recent military drills ended.
U.S. officials told the New York Times that it has been a favored Russian tactic to use military drills near Ukraine’s borders to send a message to both the Ukrainian government and other western nations. Current and former U.S. military officials said the latest Russian troop deployment could also be a way for Russian President Vladimir Putin to gauge the Biden administration’s commitment to Ukraine.
“This could be posturing, but the Kremlin is testing the new administration,” said retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Frederick B. Hodges, the former commanding general of U.S. Army Europe.
Hodges, who now works with the Center for European Policy Analysis, told the New York Times that Russia has “zero interest” in reaching a peaceful outcome with Ukraine and instead wants to keep the country destabilized as much as possible.
Russian and Ukrainian forces have been fighting in a low-intensity conflict since Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. The fighting has seen some up occasional flare-ups in that time.
Biden spoke with Putin during a January call, in which he “reaffirmed the United States’ firm support for Ukraine’s sovereignty,” however Biden has yet to schedule a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. According to the New York Times, the lack of contact between Biden and Zelensky has caused some former U.S. officials to question the Biden administration’s commitment to supporting Ukraine and helping resolve its conflict with Russia.
Zelensky became a central figure in a 2019 effort to impeach former President Donald Trump. During a controversial July 2019 phone call, Trump and Zelensky discussed a 2016 incident in which Biden appeared to demand Zelensky’s predecessor fire a Ukrainian prosecutor investigating Burisma Holdings, a gas company Biden’s son Hunter Biden worked for. According to a transcript of his July phone call with Zelensky, Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart to “look into” the Burisma investigation and the 2016 incident involving Biden.
Democratic lawmakers voted to impeach Trump in the House of Representatives, alleging he pressured Zelensky to investigate Biden. Trump was acquitted by the Republican-controlled Senate in February of 2020.
The Biden administration has seen some other tense exchanges with Putin and Russia in recent weeks. Two weeks ago, Russia recalled its ambassador to the U.S. after Biden referred to Putin as a killer. Reacting further to Biden’s comments, Putin challenged Biden to a live debate and said he wished Biden “good health.”