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Navy warship visit to Baltics aims to reassure

Crew members with the Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 72 aboard the USS Oscar Austin perform pushups before a mission in the Baltic Sea on June 27, 2014. The guided missile destroyer Austin is the first warship to visit the Baltic coast since Russia's annexation of Crimea.

ABOARD THE USS OSCAR AUSTIN IN THE BALTIC SEA—It’s not often that a head of state asks to speak with the commanding officer of a Navy warship. For Cmdr. Brian Diebold, it happened for the first time at the end of June.

Shortly after the Oscar Austin’s arrival in Tallinn, Estonia, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves asked Diebold to pay him an office visit. Something similar was planned in Poland and Lithuania, where presidents of each nation were expected to attend receptions aboard the ship. Diebold was even scheduled to give his first-ever news conference after pulling into Poland. 

Ceremony sometimes follows a port visit, but the tour this guided-missile destroyer is making along the Baltic coast, the first for a Navy warship since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, is different. Faced with a perceived Russian threat and memories of Soviet occupation, NATO’s east European members are desperate for more U.S. military and NATO attention.

The Oscar Austin became the face of that reassurance when Diebold and his crew were handed the last-minute deployment. The mission forced them to study up on an area of Europe few had visited before and to master the finer points of hosting dignitaries.

“I’ve been on this ship for three years, and we’ve never done a port visit where we’ve held a reception until yesterday,” Diebold said after the event in Tallinn.

The tour is part of a larger effort to reassure the region since Russian troops entered Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. NATO increased the number of fighter jets policing Poland and the Baltics, and the U.S. raised the size of a fighter detachment in Poland. Paratroopers with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team deployed across the region in April, which appears to have calmed nerves.

In May, the Obama administration announced a $1 billion addition to the defense budget’s contingency fund for more aircraft and ship rotations through the region.

The Pentagon scheduled  a U.S. ship to participate in the annual Baltic Operations exercise in June that brought ships from 14 nations to practice anti-submarine warfare, combined aviation operations and other tactics. Navy planners kicked Russia out of the exercise several months ago. Now they wanted a U.S. warship to show the flag for the exercise.

The cruiser USS Hue City was originally slated to make the tour, which would include port visits to Poland and the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but a shipboard fire on April 14 took it out of service. Diebold and his crew were given three weeks notice as its replacement. The crew was already preparing for deployment in October, and Diebold was to change commands in late June.

An avid fisherman with a home in Florida and 26 years in the service, Diebold, like many officers and sailors, had been to Europe before, but never the Baltics. Before the Hue City fire, the Austin had been slated to visit coastal North Carolina for a live-fire of the ship’s 5-inch gun, a coveted assignment, followed by a port call in the Florida Keys.

“I didn’t really ever think twice about Estonia until my officer gave us the history brief,” Diebold said.

About the Baltics

The tiny Baltic nations, once a stomping ground for Teutonic Knights and conquering Swedes and Russians, were absorbed by the Soviet Union after World War II and didn’t regain independence until 1991. Poland fell under the thumb of a Communist regime that took orders from Moscow until 1989.

Each country recalls the past vividly. However, Liis Vather, 25, who sells wooden spoons and wool products from a shop in downtown Tallinn, said she was too young to remember Soviet times.

“I don’t remember those years,” she said. “But my parents do, and I’ll make sure my children know about it.”

The Baltics and Poland joined NATO and the European Union after regaining independence, reforming their economies and winning assurances of mutual defense by the military alliance. A NATO base in Lithuania is home to fighter jets that police the Baltic airspace, and Estonia has offered its air base in Amari for NATO use.

Reassurances can ring hollow in this region, however. Older Poles believe France betrayed Poland in 1939 by waiting to respond to the German invasion that began World War II despite a pact between the two nations. And many people were still gripped by an immediate fear during Russia’s invasion of Crimea, said Miroslavs Kodis, a TV reporter in Riga, Latvia. 

“When all this crisis began in Ukraine, I don’t know why, but some people started saying, ‘Latvia is next, Estonia is next,’ ” he said.

The goal of the Austin was to blunt such fears through visibility. The crew hosted ship tours for local media, held receptions for high-level officials and performed community-relations projects. A quintet from the 6th Fleet band was embarked to perform at functions and in concerts in the cities.   

They operated in waters more common to Russian warships, which were occasionally visible. Russia held its exercise at the same time as BALTOPS, and the crew saw Russian ships during its transit after the exercise. The two sides never came into contact, but some crewmembers assumed they were being observed.

“I just figure they’re out operating,” Diebold said. “I don’t know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. I don’t really have any idea.”

In Tallinn, where the ship shared port space with ferries making runs to Helsinki and Stockholm, Diebold and his officers hosted ambassadors from six nations in the officer wardroom, with tuxedoed cooks serving guests. The captain said he was asked about BALTOPS, which he called a success for highlighting allies’ ability to work together.

Ilves later asked to meet with him, he said.

The tour for the crew

Little changed for much of the Austin’s crew, which continued a routine honed months in advance. Crewmembers manned their watches on schedule, cleaned the ship every afternoon and worked the mooring lines when required. Free time was for working out, sleeping or watching movies.

“For me, I hardly know what’s going on on top deck,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Enrique Martinez-Carballo, who monitors equipment in the engine room. “So it’s come down here, take care of your equipment and do your job.”

The day after the reception in Tallinn, a political aide from the local Navy command joined the ship for the overnight trip to Riga. Diebold asked her to meet with the crew to talk about the political context of the deployment.

“I’ve learned more in the past few days on foreign policy than I ever thought I would,” he said over the intercom.

The ship arrived in Riga on the morning of June 28. Defense officials went over plans for the coming days. Diebold would make an office call to Latvia’s minister of defense. There would be another reception, again with ambassadors. Diebold warned that space would be tight in places and that they would need alcohol, something the ship was short on.

“We’re not really set up for these type of events,” he said.

The ship pulled away two days later on a cold, rainy morning. Diebold would give a news conference Tuesday at his next stop in Gdynia, Poland, where reporters would latch on to the story about his great-grandfather’s immigration from nearby Gdansk to the U.S. in 1909. 

Did any of it make a difference? Diebold pointed to media reports. He thought of his interactions with officials. 

“You talk to, for example, an Estonian, and someone says, ‘We are really glad you’re here. Thank you for coming,’ ” he said. “That right there tells me that just our presence alone is reassuring them that we are here and we will be here for them.”

beardsley.steven@stripes.com
Twitter: @sjbeardsley
 

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