WASHINGTON – As NATO refocuses on its eastern borders after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the United States is quietly deploying more troops to train special forces in former Soviet bloc states anxious about Moscow’s intentions.
Major exercises began last month in Poland, Slovakia and the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia involving several hundred personnel from U.S. special forces, the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) said in a statement.
Long-term plans include further training drills that will see about 100 U.S. elite troops remain on the ground at any one time in NATO states close to Russia, with teams working in several countries simultaneously, U.S. official said.
The events in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-speaking insurgents using sophisticated weapons threaten to split the country, have put the whole former Soviet bloc region on alert and eager for NATO reassurance.
EUCOM says its Special Operations Command Europe increased the size and scope of its planned exercises after Ukraine flared into violence, reinforcing Washington’s message to Moscow that it would stand by its allies.
U.S. special forces saw their numbers more than double, their budget triple and their deployments quadruple in the decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacks.
Particularly under the Obama administration, they have been at the center of the offensives against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The U.S. aim is to help Eastern Europe’s militaries build elite units along the lines of the U.S. Navy SEALS, Delta Force or Britain’s Special Air Service.
“They are still not up to U.S., British or French capabilities but some of the newer NATO special forces are improving very quickly,” said Linda Robinson, a expert in special forces at the RAND Corp. think tank.
Analysts see little imminent prospect of Russia attacking any eastern NATO member, but if it did, U.S. and local special forces would likely be at the heart of the response.
Many of the region’s special forces have already worked alongside U.S. troops in the field.
President Barack Obama has said Washington will find new ways to bolster Ukraine’s beleaguered military. But EUCOM said no U.S. forces were deployed in Ukraine as a matter of policy and Ukrainian troops have not so far been involved in the special forces training in Eastern Europe.