Soldiers from the 173rd Airborne are heading to Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia for month-long military exercises. By Ben Watson
The Pentagon is sending about 600 U.S. troops from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team to Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia in a show of support for Eastern European countries uneasy with Russian forces still lingering near Ukraine.
“Nothing we've seen out of Russia or their armed forces, is de-escalating the tension, is making things any more stable in Ukraine or on the continent of Europe,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters Tuesday.
The first steps of the increased U.S troop presence will occur in Poland and involves approximately 150 paratroopers from the 173rd, based in Vicenza, Italy. Those troops are expected to arrive Wednesday.
The 173rd, which has deployed once to Iraq and four times to Afghanistan since 2003, was already on call to help with NATO security in Europe, led by the alliance’s top military commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove. The paratroopers will be conducting infantry exercises with their Polish counterparts, Kirby said. The other 450 troops — also from the 173rd — will arrive by next week to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
“This isn't the first time that the 173rd has done exercises with these countries,” Kirby said. “So there's a relationship there. But yes, these exercises were conceived and added onto the exercise regimen as a result of what's going on in Ukraine.”
Kirby was asked if the troop deployment is meant to send a message to Russia, after the annexation of Crimea in Ukraine and subsequent buildup of Russian troops along its eastern border set off fresh worries in other former Soviet Union countries. “Any time you put troops on the ground and doing exercises, in this case for a month at a time, it's more than symbology,” Kirby replied. “The kind of work that we're going to be doing is real infantry training. And that's not insignificant.” Still, he said the message is intended to reassure Eastern European allies, not to provoke Russia.
The additional U.S. troops will be maintaining a “persistent rotational presence” through at least the end of the year and maybe longer depending on how the situation in Ukraine develops. The exercises are part of a bilateral operation, and as such, not official NATO events, Kirby said. Regardless, he added, “You’re going to see more [troop and equipment deployments] coming through the alliance, but you’re also going to see more coming bilaterally.”
The Pentagon will also be sending one of its warships, the USS Taylor, to the Black Sea to backfill the guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook in the coming days. Tensions flared on April 12 when Russian fighter jets — ignoring repeated radio warnings from U.S. sailors — made multiple, close-range passes near the USS Donald Cook for nearly 90 minutes.
The White House announced Monday it would send another $8 million in aid to Ukraine, including vehicles, explosive disposal equipment, handheld radios and tactical gear.