American commandos maintain a “persistent” presence in the Baltic states to bolster the training and resolve of troops of the NATO allies anxious about “a looming threat from Russia,” according to a report.
Dozens of US Special Operations forces have “quietly” been deployed to boost the tiny militaries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and help the US detect any “shadowy efforts” by Moscow to destabilize the former Soviet republics, The New York Times said in a report on Saturday.
“They’re scared to death of Russia,” said Gen. Raymond T. Thomas, the head of the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command, who visited Lithuania recently. “They are very open about that. They’re desperate for our leadership.”
The Americans provide sophisticated surveillance technology and intelligence to the Baltic countries, who have a “deep understanding” of Russian military power and cyber capabilities, The Times said.
The Baltic nations are concerned that US President-elect Donald Trump’s warmer tone toward Russia might encourage President Vladimir Putin to want to assert control across the whole region.
Trump, who has repeatedly signaled willingness to mend ties with Putin, suggested during the election campaign that the US would only protect NATO allies that paid their fair share to the military alliance.
The comments unnerved the Baltics, which count on NATO’s collective security to counter any Russian “aggression.”
Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham along with Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar visited all three Baltic countries last week to assure the jittery allies of the United States’ commitment to their security.
US Senator John McCain (L) speaks during a joint news conference with the Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas in Tallinn, December 27, 2016. (Photo by AP)
“And the best way to prevent Russian misbehavior [is] by having a credible, strong military and a strong NATO alliance,” McCain said in Estonia.
The US deployed about 150 troops in each of the three Baltic countries and Poland in April 2014 in the face of perceived threats from Russia.
Since the Ukraine conflict began nearly three years ago, the US and its NATO allies have bolstered their military exercises in the region. They are also slated to send battalions of 800 to 1,200 troops to each Baltic state and Poland this spring.
As part of their trip, Sen. McCain and his colleagues also visited a frontline outpost in eastern Ukraine and met with soldiers fighting pro-Russia forces there.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (3rd R), US Senators John McCain (2nd R) and Lindsey Graham (R) meet with Ukrainian soldiers in Shirokino camp near Mariupol, Ukraine, December 31, 2016.
Violence erupted in Ukraine early in 2014 when a Russian-backed government was ousted, giving the country’s pro-Western forces the opportunity to seize power. Relations between Russia and Ukraine further soured when Crimea rejoined the Russian Federation following a referendum in March of that year.
The US and its European allies accuse Moscow of having a hand in the conflict and have imposed a series of sanctions against Russia and Putin’s inner circle. Moscow rejects the allegation.