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Explainer: Why The U.S.-NATO Exercises In Eastern Europe Are Important


U.S. soldiers take part in joint military exercises in northwestern Poland on June 2.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended several military exercises, but now that restrictive measures have been eased some are going forward, albeit in a scaled-down form.

Two kicked off in early June in Poland and the Baltic Sea, drawing particular interest around the world, and not just because of the logistics of holding them amid an ongoing pandemic. The proximity of the training to Russian territory is seen by many as a possible signal that the U.S. military is shifting its interest in Europe eastward.

What Are The Exercises?

The first exercise involves 4,000 U.S. soldiers and 2,000 Polish troops in northwestern Poland. The bilateral training features a Polish airborne exercise and division-size river crossing from June 5 to June 19.

Dubbed Allied Spirit, the exercise was supposed be linked to a much larger U.S.-led multinational exercise in Europe, including NATO members, called Defender Europe 20, which had to be significantly scaled down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The second one, Baltops 20, runs from June 7 to June 16 in the Baltic Sea region. The maritime-focused exercise, which has been held annually since 1972, involves 28 maritime units, 28 aircraft, and up to 3,000 personnel from 19 countries, with Finland and Sweden being the only non-NATO participants.

Both exercises are designed to show international resolve against any potential threat and improve the "interoperability" of national armies' land, sea, and air assets.

How Has COVID-19 Affected The Exercises?

The pandemic has forced military commanders to modify and reduce the scale of Defender Europe 20. The exercise was originally planned to be the largest deployment of U.S.-based forces to Europe in more than 25 years, involving 20,000 soldiers and nine NATO allies practicing military maneuvers in several European countries.

Before the pandemic shut down most of the continent, more than 6,000 U.S. soldiers and 3,000 pieces of equipment had already arrived in Europe. Most of the original plans were scrapped but the U.S.-Polish exercise received a green light in mid-May.

NATO ships sail in formation during Boltops 20 exercises in the Baltic Sea on June 8.
NATO ships sail in formation during Boltops 20 exercises in the Baltic Sea on June 8.

Baltops 20 has also been modified. There will be no land element to complement the air and sea operations to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. This means normally standard features of naval exercises such as amphibious landings, exchanging personnel between ships, and merchant vessel boarding will not take place.

Are The Exercises Directed At Russia?

The U.S. military and NATO have been quick to point out that all exercises are "defensive in nature." Lisa Franchetti, the commander of the Naples-based U.S. 6th Fleet, told journalists that Baltops 20 should not be interpreted as a threat to any specific country and exercises are held in international waters and international airspace. Franchetti encouraged the Russian military to behave professionally.

However, many observers expect the Russian Navy to make close approaches to the exercises and that Russian jets may "buzz" allied planes, meaning that they will fly so close as to create "wake turbulence."

A NATO official recently told RFE/RL that, in 2019 alone, allied aircraft took to the skies 290 times to escort or shadow Russian military aircraft across Europe. Even though the alliance doesn't reveal numbers for specific regions, it is believed most of the incidents occurred around the Baltic Sea.

The Allied Shield exercise takes place in Drawsko Pomorskie, some 350 kilometers from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. When Defender Europe 20 was announced, Russia planned its own war games in direct response but called off its exercise as the coronavirus pandemic hit. Moscow has called on NATO to scale down military activity and move them away from Eastern Europe to reduce tensions.

Will The Russian Military Officially Observe The Exercises?

No. U.S. military officials told RFE/RL that they "were not aware of any Russian notification to inspect exercise Allied Spirit in Poland." The threshold for required observation in accordance with Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Vienna document on the transparency of military exercises is 13,000 troops -- twice as many as will be present in Poland in June. Naval exercises such as Baltops 20 are not subject to notification and observation requirements enshrined in the Vienna Document.

Why Is The Presence Of U.S. Troops In Poland Politically Significant?

Because of what is happening in Poland's western neighbor, Germany. U.S. President Donald Trump has authorized a plan to reduce the U.S. permanent troop presence in Germany by 9,500 from the 34,500 service members who are currently there. The move will also cap the number of American soldiers in Germany at 25,000. More than 1,000 of the troops leaving Germany may be redeployed to Poland, adding to the 4,500 already there on a rotational basis.

Poland, whose government enjoys close ties with the Trump administration, is pushing for an even bigger American presence on its soil and hopes to capitalize on its special relationship with the United States in the future. The very fact that a joint exercise has been resuscitated despite the pandemic can be seen in this light.

It can also be viewed against the backdrop of tensions between Washington and Berlin over everything from Germany wanting to complete the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to bring Russian gas directly to Germany under the Baltic Sea, Germany failing to meet its NATO military-spending target, trade tensions, and a host of other disputes including the Iran nuclear deal and climate change.

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