By Pierre Tran
Paris – The French air force will fly Nov. 28 four Mirage 2000-5 fighter jets to Lithuania in a Nato air police mission in the skies of the allied Baltic nations, amidst Ukraine’s concerns on waning Western support for its fight back against Russian forces.
The despatch of Mirage fighters was part of an “air defense on the eastern flank,” the French armed forces ministry said in a Nov. 23 statement, pointing up the Baltic Air Policing mission sought to maintain sovereignty of airspace over the three Nato partners – Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.
The French fighters will take up the Baltic air operation for four months, taking over from Eurofighter jets deployed by Italy and Spain in a rotating collective security measure aimed at warning off Russian president Vladimir Putin on any move against members of the alliance.
The Mirage jets will take off from the Luxeuil 116 airbase, eastern France, and will be based at Siauliai air base, northern Lithuania, the French ministry said, with some 100 French air personnel supporting Lithuanian forces.
“By committing high level assets and maintaining a regular operational presence in the region,” the ministry said, “France shows it is committed to strengthening Nato’s deterrence and defensive posture, and acts in a concrete manner to contribute measures of reassurance on the eastern flank of Europe.”
The air force invited the press to the Luxeuil air base and attend the despatch of Mirages, which form part of a high-priority mission of air police of the French national airspace.
Meanwhile, Kyiv came Nov. 25 under a six-hour sustained attack by Russian kamikaze drones, raising concern Moscow had replenished its stocks of weapons and was intent on smashing resolve in Ukraine.
Although Ukraine said its air defense had downed 74 of the 75 Russian drones, falling parts of the weapons, reported to be based on the Iranian Shahed drone, wounded five people and hit buildings in the capital.
The concern in Kyiv was that U.S. political and military attention had turned to the war in Gaza, with Washington switching ammunition supplies to support the Israel Defense Forces, and the White House acting as mediator between Jerusalem and the Hamas irregular force.
The Hamas group agreed to extend by two more days a four-day ceasefire, just hours before the pause in fighting had been due to end on Nov. 27, allowing further release of hostages seized in its deadly Oct. 7 assault on Israeli communities on the border with Gaza.
The Ukraine stock of 155 mm shells was reported to be running low, and the fear was the U.S. has redirected shipments to Israel, now seen as the higher military priority.
There was something of “Ukraine fatigue,” with support withering among Republicans in the U.S. Congress, and a general election looming in the U.K. , David Manning, a former British ambassador to Washington, Nato, and Israel, said Nov. 26 on BBC Radio 4.
It was likely Moscow “welcomed” the election result in the Netherlands, and the debates going in the U.S., he said.
“This is a real issue,” he said, and Western leaders needed to address the Ukraine crisis, which could not be solved by “easy solutions” proposed by populist leaders, and that “Putin can be appeased in some way.”
Last week saw the populist, far-right PVV Freedom party led by Geert Wilders win the largest share of votes in the Netherlands general election, allowing him to form a coalition government, ringing alarm bells across Europe.
Western officials such as U.S. defense secretary Lloyd Austin, U.S. secretary of state Anthony Blinken, and British foreign secretary David Cameron, have at various times flown to Kyiv to show support for Ukraine and president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who is reported to be under German and U.S. pressure to negotiate a settlement with Putin. But the Ukrainian leader has refused to accept Russia hold on to territories seized by military means.
“The stakes are huge,” George Robertson, a former Nato secretary general and ex-U.K. defense secretary, said Nov. 26 on Radio 4.
Cameron’s visit was all very nice, he said, but there was nothing in the U.K. government’s recent autumn financial statement – effectively the national budget – that would replenish U.K. military stocks sent to Kyiv, or send more kit to the Ukrainian forces, which needed longer range missiles, large quantities of ammunition, and more equipment.
“Your visit is not enough,” he said, “rhetoric is not enough.”
Ukraine was losing kit due to a war of attrition, and British factories needed to be working 24 hours a day, he said. Ukraine was being starved of resources, while the Russian military industry was working at full rate.
If Putin won in Ukraine, the world order would be transformed, he said, with the new rules written by China, Russia, and Iran.
Putin had already failed in his expectation of winning Ukraine in a three-day campaign, he said, and the West needed to “turn the narrative round.”
The three Baltic nations joined the transatlantic alliance in 2004, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in the wake of the Nov. 9 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.
Nato allies adopted the enhanced Air Policing (eAP) operation in 2014, in response to Moscow’s seizing the Crimean peninsula and taking control of the eastern region of Ukraine.
The French air force has flown 10 times in the Baltic Air Police mission, and has deployed seven times in Lithuania, the ministry said.
The U.S. congress, backed by the senate, has approved the 2024 budget, but the last minute vote left out any fresh financial support for Ukraine, leaving the prospect of Kyiv running out of funds for ordering further arms and ammunition.
Germany has pledged €5.4 billion ($5.9 billion) for its 2023 security capacity building initiative, up from €2 billion last year, with further commitment of a total €10.5 billion in following years, the government said on its military support for Ukraine.
Military assistance to Ukraine mainly accounts for those funds, as well as restocking German inventories for equipment sent to Kyiv.
Among the weapons sent to Ukraine, there were a further 20 Marder infantry fighting vehicles on top of the 60 units already announced, as well as 30 Leopard 1 A5 heavy tanks long sought by the Ukrainian army.
A further 105 Leopard 1 A5 tanks were being prepared to be shipped to Ukraine, in a project jointly financed with Denmark.
Germany will also send over 21,910 rounds of the Nato standard 155 mm artillery shells, up from the 19,530 previously pledged.
Featured photo: A U.S. KC-130J Super Hercules assigned to the Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron-352, refuels a French Dassault Mirage 2000 fighter jet near Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, Feb. 8, 2022. U.S. and French forces regularly exchange expertise, ideas and tactics to become a more integrated combined force with the ability to respond to crises or threats in East Africa. The refueling unit is deployed from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California, and supports the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa by providing aerial refueling, airdrop and rescue capabilities to the area of operations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Blake Wiles)