In the lead-up to the Feb. 24 invasion, the alliance’s Combined Air Operations Center in Uedem, western Germany, shifted gear. A few dozen military personnel now simultaneously manage up to 30 aircraft in skies from the northern tip of Norway down to Slovakia.

As Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine accelerated early this year, military planners at NATO began preparing to dispatch scores of fighter jets and surveillance aircraft into the skies near Russia and Ukraine. It was a warning to Moscow not to make the mistake of targeting any member country, AP reports.

Even in the weeks preceding the war, politicians and analysts were divided over whether President Vladimir Putin would really order Russian troops to invade. From a military point of view, though, the forces arrayed around Ukraine appeared designed to do just that.

It became a matter of urgency to put more eyes in the sky and to tightly link NATO aircraft, warships, ground-based missile systems and radar installations to protect the alliance’s eastern flank.

“We are monitoring very closely,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said this week. “Information, best possible situation awareness, is of course extremely critical in such a dangerous situation as we see in Ukraine now.”

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