Russia sent two long-range, nuclear-capable bombers to patrol over western Belarus, Russia’s ally and Ukraine’s neighbor to the north, as the first U.S. troops arrived in Poland.
The Russian Tu-22M3 bombers were accompanied by Su-30SM fighter jets from the Russian and Belarusian air forces and trained for four hours in the third mission of its kind in the last month.
Belarus has grown increasingly close to Russia since the West imposed sanctions on the country following the 2020 elections, which were widely seen as fraudulent, and the subsequent crackdown on peaceful protesters.
On Saturday, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko praised the Russian-led security alliance, saying it showed its ability to deploy quickly when it sent troops to Kazakhstan last month to put down fuel price protests that had turned violent.
"While they [NATO] will be still getting prepared to send some troops here, we will already stand at the English Channel, and they know it," he said in a reference to Western allies, in an interview on Russian state TV.
Lukashenko, however, downplayed the threat of war in Ukraine, saying, "there is no one there to fight us."
Next week, two prominent European leaders are scheduled to travel to the capitals of Russia and Ukraine for talks with their counterparts about diplomatic measures to ease the growing tensions surrounding Moscow’s potential invasion of Ukraine.
French President Emmanuel Macron is due in Moscow on Monday and Kyiv on Tuesday. The following week, Germany’s Olaf Scholz is set to visit Kyiv on Feb. 14 and Moscow on Feb. 15.
Macron spoke with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and NATO head Jens Stoltenberg on Saturday. In separate conversations each agreed with Macron for the need "to continue working to find through dialogue a path to de-escalation” and that NATO must remain “united in the face of Russian aggression.”
"As announced, the first elements of the brigade battle group from the 82nd Airborne Division of the United States Army have arrived in Poland," a Polish military spokesperson said.
The U.S. troops arrived at Rzeszow military base in southeastern Poland, near its border with Ukraine, after U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday ordered the deployment of 1,700 soldiers there. About 4,000 U.S. troops have been stationed in Poland on a rotational basis since 2017.
Biden also ordered troops to Romania and Germany, raising the total number of additional troops to nearly 3,000.
U.S. Army sources have previously said that about 1,700 U.S. service members, primarily from the 82nd Airborne Division, would deploy from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to Poland "over the next days."
The first contingent of additional U.S. troops arrived in Germany on Friday.
U.S. troops from the 18th Airborne Corps arrived Friday in Wiesbaden, Germany, according to the U.S. military's European Command, which added they would establish a headquarters in Germany to support 1,700 paratroopers who have been ordered to deploy to Poland.
The U.S. placed 8,500 other U.S. troops on high alert in January to deploy to Europe if necessary. They remain on high alert and NATO defense ministers are expected to discuss adding more reinforcements at their next meeting on Feb. 16-17.
According to a New York Times report, while Russia’s troops massed along the border are not ready to launch a total invasion of Ukraine, sections of its army “appear to be in the final stages of readiness for military action should the Kremlin order it.”
Moscow has dispatched an additional 10,000 troops to the region, the Times said, in addition to the thousands of troops already deployed to the area.
Some information for this report was provided by RFE/RL, The Associated Press and Reuters.