U.S. military generals worry Russia will use a September military exercise involving nearly 100,000 troops as an excuse to permanently station troops along NATO’s eastern flank.
The massive military exercise is expected to take place in Russian-allied Belarus, the Baltic Sea, and Russia’s strategic enclave of Kaliningrad to simulate a large conflict with the West. Russia originally said only 13,000 troops would participate in the exercise, but senior NATO officials now say the number could be as high as 100,000.
Commander of U.S. special operations command Gen. Raymond Thomas recently lamented “the great concern is they’re not going to leave, and that’s not paranoia.” Commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe Lt. Gen. Frederick B. Hodges similarly said, “I am very interested in what goes in and what comes out.”
The Baltic NATO allies are particularly worried because it is the first large scale military exercise since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. The annexation stunned the Baltic allies who fear that Russian massing along its border could be a prelude to full scale invasion on parts of its territory.
“We need to also be prepared for surprises … they could, say, go to a different direction than planned, and there also may be some tests of how the border protection is working,” Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis said.
The Russian unit participating in the exercise is reportedly named after a famed Soviet military unit famous for battling Hitler’s armies in World War II and eventually occupying Berlin. “Its establishment represents the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union that so much offensive power has been concentrated in a single command,” The New York Times noted Wednesday.
“There is only one reason you would create a Guards Tank Army, and that is as an offensive striking force,” Hodges said of the new unit.
Vice President Mike Pence is currently on a high-profile trip to the Baltic states to reassure NATO allies ahead of the exercise. “Under President Donald Trump, the United States stands firmly behind our Article 5 pledge of mutual defense — an attack on one of us is an attack on us all,” he declared Monday.
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