The United States has plans to engage in military exercises with the Baltic states annually, starting in September or October 2010. The drills are another way in which the United States is pressuring Russia and, as such, are likely to increase tensions between Washington and Moscow.
U.S. Army Europe Commander Gen. Carter F. Ham said Nov. 3 during a visit to Lithuania that U.S.-Baltic joint military exercises could be held in September or October 2010 in Latvia. A Lithuanian Defense Ministry representative said the United States will send two companies and instructors for the exercises, and the exercises will be held in one of the Baltic states — Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia — annually. These will be the United States' first ground-based exercises in the Baltics. This announcement follows a request to NATO from Baltic officials for more protection. The Baltic states' request came as Russia and Belarus held joint drills in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, placing nearly 13,000 troops near the Baltic and Polish borders. The stated purpose of the exercises — called Zapad (the Russian word for "West") — was to simulate the liberation of a besieged Kaliningrad. U.S. and/or NATO forces were the implicated aggressors in the scenario. Russia's military response to such aggression would necessarily involve rolling tanks over and dividing the Baltics, given the geography. The announcement also came as STRATFOR sources in Moscow said Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has amended Russian defense laws to allow the deployment of Russia troops abroad, both for defensive and preventive purposes, without parliamentary approval. While this is mainly a symbolic move (no law kept the Russian military from acting in Georgia without Duma approval), the message has been sent. The Baltics reportedly have already issued a "clarification request" on the matter to determine if it is meant to target them. Considering Russia's increasing aggressiveness, the Baltics have called on the United States for protection. The United States has answered that call as part of its plan to pressure Russia. The Baltics have been strategically important to Russia for centuries. Not only do these countries give Russia access to a warm water port in the Baltic Sea and a trading link to the West, they are located less than 85 miles from St. Petersburg, forming a crucial defensive buffer around one of Russia's two most important cities. The Baltics have always presented a challenge to Russia and did not come under Russian control until the early 18th century. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Baltics became the only former Soviet states to join the European Union and NATO, joining both blocs in 2004. This brought NATO, a Western military alliance designed to counter Russia, right to Russia's border. The U.S. proposal to hold military exercises with the Baltic states is the latest move in Washington's overall effort to establish influence in Russia's near abroad as part of the countries' ongoing standoff on the Iranian nuclear issue. With Moscow unwavering in its military and technical support of Iran, the United States has increased its cooperation with countries all over Russia's periphery. Washington's efforts have ranged from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's series of visits and provocative statements in the region to considering the installation of Patriot missiles in Poland to U.S. Defense Department official Alexander Vershbow's effort to increase military cooperation with Ukraine and Georgia. The United States has answered the Baltic states' call for increased protection and cooperation. There is little doubt that the Russians will respond to the announcement of the military exercises as part of their overall response to U.S. pressure. Tensions will continue increasing between Washington and Moscow.