WASHINGTON — Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters on Wednesday that he did not see “linkages” between recent Russian military action, the continuing border dispute between Belarus and Poland and increased NATO activity in the Black Sea.
“What we continue to see is unusual military activity inside Russia but near Ukraine’s borders,” Kirby said.
These comments come amid an ongoing border crisis between Belarus — a close Russian ally — and Poland, which is a member of the European Union, and increased tensions between Moscow and the West.
Western officials have accused Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko of retaliating against European Union economic sanctions by allowing asylum seekers from the Middle East to fly into Belarus and then shuffling them toward the European Union, using Poland as the main entry point.
In recent days, the number of migrants has grown exponentially, drawing sharp criticism from European Union leaders who pledged solidarity with Poland.
Russia on Wednesday sent two nuclear-capable strategic bombers to patrol Belarusian airspace — a move many have indicated to be a show of support for Belarus, a close ally of Moscow.
“It’s not exactly clear what the Russian intentions are,” Kirby said.
Although Kirby said Russia’s actions are “unusual in its size and scope,” he declined to comment on whether the Defense Department has any working theories about Moscow’s objectives. Kirby urged Russia to be transparent in its actions.
“I would like to see the folks in Moscow get asked these kinds of questions and answer them honestly and transparently,” he said at the briefing.
Meanwhile, in the Black Sea region, NATO has increased the number of reconnaissance aircraft flights near Russian borders over the past 24 hours, Russia’s Defense Ministry said, according to state news reports on Wednesday.
“Over the past 24 hours, reconnaissance aircraft of NATO countries increased the intensity of flights near the borders of the Russian Federation in the Black Sea region,” the ministry said.
Kirby referred questions about the NATO buildup to Brussels, where NATO headquarters is located.
“I can tell you that as a NATO ally ourselves and certainly unilaterally, you see us do this,” Kirby said. “We will continue to fly, sail and operate in international airspace and international waters as appropriate.”