NATO Beefs Up European Presence – Balancing on Brink of Dangerous Aggravation
Andrei AKULOV | 25.06.2014 | OPINION

NATO Beefs Up European Presence – Balancing on Brink of Dangerous Aggravation

«Changes to troop locations will be made at the political level to address the new paradigm in the wake of the Russian-Ukraine crisis», Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, head of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe, tweeted on May 7. The General got it right; the implementation of this confrontational policy is in full swing.

US beefs up military presence in Eastern Europe

U.S. is to boost its military presence in Europe at a cost of up to $1 billion, U.S. President Barack Obama said on June 3 visiting Poland. The plans include sending more military equipment and additional U.S. troops into the region. He called on lawmakers back in Washington to provide the funding to sustain the effort. «Today, I am announcing a new initiative to bolster the support of our0020NATO allies», Obama said at Warsaw's Belweder Palace. «Under this effort, and with the support of Congress, the U.S. will requisition more equipment in Europe».

He emphasized that Poland and the United States wanted the September NATO summit in Wales to confirm the need for the alliance's greater commitment to building infrastructure for receiving support forces. Later in the day Obama and Polish President Komorowski held discussions on central European security with leaders from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Croatia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovenia.

If approved, the funding Mr. Obama asks for will be used to increase military exercises and training missions, as well as rotations of air and ground forces. The administration is seeking to ramp up U.S. Navy participation in NATO deployments in the Black and Baltic Seas, as well as to boost the military potential of non-member countries bordering Russia, including Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

The US intention to strengthen its military presence in Eastern Europe and the areas close to Russia’s borders is taking tangible shape. Take Saber Strike, for instance.

Saber Strike 2014 – an important phase of a larger plan

Saber Strike 2014, one of NATO’s largest exercises of land forces in the Baltic States involving 10 NATO participants. The two-week training event is hosted by the three Baltic States, although some parts will be conducted in Germany in the period of June 9-20. The war games involve 4,700 troops and 800 military vehicles.

Troops from the US, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland (the only non-member), Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Norway and the UK are taking part. The forces are practicing techniques and protocols for coordinating action in defense and assault operations. The drill in the Baltic is an annual event yet this time the number of troops taking part has been augmented considerably. In 2013 there were 1,800 troops involved, while Saber Strike 2014 has become the largest-ever with 4,700 troops and over 800 military vehicles, such as M2 Bradley, M1126 Stryker, and various APCs: XA-180, XA-202 and M113 taking part in the training. Besides the two NATO war-games, the Baltic States are holding Baltic Host 2014 military cooperation training of their own near Riga.

This is a US-led event. As Colonel Houf, the Joint Force Command Brunssum Team (JFCBS) leader in Latvia, told journalists, SABER STRIKE 2014 is a US-led exercise and the information gathered from this exercise will be shared with participating nations.

SOF take the brunt of it

Major exercises began last month in Poland, Slovakia and the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia involving several hundred personnel from US special operations forces (SOF). Long-term plans include further training drills that will consistently keep about 100 US elite troops on the ground at any one time in NATO states close to Russia with teams working in several countries.

In May and June there are five joint international training events planned to be held in Europe: Flaming Sword in Lithuania, Combined Resolve in Germany and Saber Strike ground forces exercise conducted in all three Baltic States and coincided with ‘Baltic Host 2014’ and ‘Baltops 2014’ naval drills. The events always bring together special operations forces (SOF) from NATO member-states. For instance, Flaming Sword held in 18-30 in Lithuania brought together Special Forces from the US and six European countries. SOF have also been involved in Combined Resolve in Germany, which runs to the end of this month and includes about 4,000 troops from 15 allied countries. US SOF instructors are going to be stationed on the territory of the new NATO members to train local Special Forces the urban combat tactics (remember Ukraine), wet boat exercise during mock assault raids, airdrops and drilling the visual gunnery spotters.

The European command (EUCOM) says its Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) increased the size and scope of its planned exercises after violence hit the eastern part of Ukraine, «Training with our partners in their home countries is something that we have always done», said SOCEUR spokesman Lt-Col Nick Sternberg. «The difference is that now we will maintain a (persistent) Special Operations Forces presence in theatre along the eastern front of NATO on this training mission», he said. Troops will not be permanently based in any one country in Eastern Europe, nor will they have any permanent bases there. The US aim is to help East European elite units along the lines of the US Navy Seals, Delta Force or Britain’s Special Air Service.

«They are still not up to US, British or French capabilities, but some of the newer NATO special forces are improving very quickly», said Linda Robinson, an expert in Special Forces at the Rand Corporation think-tank talking to Reuters.

The Stars and Stripes, the US leading outlet on defense issues, reported on May 9 that the plans for the expanded and permanent presence of US SOF on the territory of states bordering Russia Russian territory have been underway long before the current Ukrainian crisis, «In addition to long-standing annual exercises, SOCEUR has added a number of new training programs over the next two months in five counties across the Baltics and eastern Europe. Follow-on missions are also being planned to ensure an ongoing presence of special operators, according to the command». According to the newspaper, «The so-called Joint Combined Exchange Training events will involve small teams of operators, who work on a range of combat tactics on 30-day rotations. The troops, including Green Berets, SEALS and Air Force operators, will be pulled from SOCEUR headquarters in Stuttgart and across the SOF community to maintain a constant rotational presence». The commander of SOCEUR, Air Force Major General Marshall B. Webb, is quoted stating, «Through these types of annual exercises, SOCEUR elements have developed lasting relationships and extensive interoperability with our special operations partners in the majority of countries bordering Ukraine over the last seven years».

Russia is not standing idly

Russia says NATO's actions are provocative and is taking measures in response. «Of course we won't stand idly and watch the militarization of the countries in our neighborhood and will take all necessary political and military measures to ensure our security», Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov told Interfax on June 9. The official added that the deployment of additional NATO soldiers in Central and Eastern Europe on a rotational basis is a violation of Russia's agreements with the alliance. «We can't take this military build-up by the alliance next to Russia's borders as anything but a demonstration of hostile intent», Titov said.

On June 10 the Russian Ministry of Defense reported the beginning of a large-scale exercise in the vicinity of the area where NATO was conducting its war games. «The drills are taking place simultaneously with the international drills Saber Strike 2014 and BALTOPS 2014 that kicked off in Europe», the ministry told Itar-Tass. «The number the Russian Defense Ministry’s troops and equipment involved is equitable with the number of personnel, armaments and military hardware employed in border exercises being conducted by NATO countries», the statement said.

Russian maneuvers involve groups, airborne troops and Marines, air force aircraft and surface ships strike groups. The aviation includes Sukhoi Su-34 (Fullback) fighter-bombers, Mil Mi-24 (Hind) helicopters and Tupolev Tu-22M3 (Backfire) bombers, the Ministry said. The paratrooper division from Pskov is practicing operational deployment to Kaliningrad, whereas marines are honing the skills to defend the coastal line from possible sea-borne landing and also perform encirclement and elimination of illegal armed formations. The Air Force is to provide fire support. Deployment of supersonic Tu-22M3 long-range strategic maritime strike bombers, some of which have just the day before finished training in the Black Sea, has also been announced. Together with the air defense forces they patrol the area to make sure the airspace of the training is securely sealed off.

On June 9 Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said after meeting his Finnish counterpart Erkki Tuomioja that, «The artificial attempt to continue NATO's eastward expansion, progression of the military infrastructure to the east, closer to Russia's borders, is counterproductive».

The Russian Foreign Ministry has already dubbed even the rotational military build-up near the Russian borders as an act of hostility directly violating the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997.

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The exercises conducted simultaneously result in a dangerous stand-off. It means balancing on the brink of serious aggravation and nobody knows where a spark may come from. SOF subversive activities in the explosive region are certainly not the best way to ease tensions. Sitting down and talking things over is a much more preferable approach. Perhaps the international event in Normandy was a chance President Obama opted to miss. But it’s never too late to do what is right.

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