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USAREUR to increase Baltic presence ahead of Russian war game

U.S. and Italian paratroopers board a 37th Airlift Squadron C-130 at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Tuesday, June 7, 2016 as part of Exercise Swift Response. Swift Response is a military training exercise that includes more than 5,000 troops from the U.S. and partner nations.

MICHAEL B. KELLER/STARS AND STRIPES

By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 21, 2017

The Army will deploy hundreds of paratroopers to the Baltics this fall to allay concerns among some allies that a large-scale Russian war game scheduled to commence in September could serve as a pretext for aggression in the region.

USAREUR chief Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, during a recent stop at a Polish military base, told reporters planning is underway to send some 600 U.S. paratroopers to the Baltics to reinforce the alliance’s eastern flank.

“Russia’s military aggression in both Georgia and Ukraine has destabilized the European security environment, and we must ensure Russia is deterred from further aggression,” Cathy Vandermaarel, a USAREUR spokeswoman, said in a statement.

The paratroopers are to be positioned in Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia and will take part in exercises that fall under Operation Atlantic Resolve — the ongoing campaign to reassure allies anxious about a more aggressive Russia.

The U.S. paratroops will be deployed for the duration of Russia’s Zapad 2017 exercise, scheduled for mid-September. While USAREUR has not yet announced the specific unit that will be conducting the training, the 173rd Airborne Brigade out of Vicenza, Italy, has been a steady presence in the Baltics over the past several years as the Army boosts its presence in the region.

NATO members have expressed concern about Russia’s upcoming Zapad exercise, which Moscow says will involve about 13,000 troops carrying out a range of drills with partner Belarus. Some allies have said they anticipate the wargames to be much larger in scale, with potentially 100,000 troops taking part.

“While Russia retains the right to exercise on its own territory, DoD views Moscow’s lack of transparency as one factor that has worsened the European security environment and raised the risk of miscalculation,” Vandermaarel said.

Lithuania in particular has worried about Zapad 2017, and an overall buildup of Russia’s high-readiness combat forces. The country’s official 2017 threat assessment warns that Moscow could invade the Baltic states in less than 48 hours, potentially overrunning allied troops who would be difficult to reinforce.

NATO has sought to assuage such concerns, setting up new multinational battalions in each Baltic state and Poland. Those units are now operational and are intended to serve as a deterrent to potential Russian aggression. The deployment of an additional 600 U.S. paratroopers also would further elevate NATO’s readiness.

“We are all working hard to be at the highest levels of readiness during exercises like this,” Hodges told the Reuters news agency during a visit at a military base in Orzysz, Poland.

None of NATO’s moves, however, significantly alter the overall balance of power around the Baltics, a region where Moscow has allies outmanned and outgunned

Russia’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine — a non-NATO state — also has renewed old fears in countries once dominated by the Soviet Union that could seek to induce unrest in more exposed alliance soft spots.

For its part, Moscow has repeatedly stated it has no designs on NATO territory.

U.S. and alliance officials also have acknowledged that the odds are remote for a formal Russian military intervention into NATO territory — a move that would possibly trigger a large-scale war in Europe.

Vandiver.john@stripes.com
Twitter: @john_vandiver

 

Paratroopers with the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division descend on Kijewo, Poland, on Tuesday, June 7, 2016, as part of the crisis response training exercise Swift Response 16.
MICHAEL S. DARNELL/STARS AND STRIPES

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