U.S. Army paratroopers begin joint exercises with their Polish counterparts Wednesday in Poland with additional companies deployed in the three Baltic States in what a Pentagon spokesman called a "tangible expression" of the U.S. commitment to Europe. Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said the decision follows what he called Russia's "aggression" in Ukraine and is a way to reassure U.S. allies and partners.
Kirby said a company of about 150 members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, based in Italy, will be part of a "rotational" U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe in the wake of tensions over Ukraine.
"This exercise is the first in a series of expanded U.S. land force training activities in Poland and the Baltic region that are scheduled to take place in the next few months and beyond. Additional companies from the 173rd will move in the coming days to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia for similar exercises," said Kirby.
Initially, some 600 troops will take part in what Kirby called a "persistent rotational presence" that will last about one month. He added that fresh troops will then move in, and this presence could last a year or more.
The spokesman said the United States is in consultation with its NATO allies and the force could be expanded in size and scope of countries involved. He also stressed that the exercises were bilateral and run by the participating countries, not NATO.
"Since Russia's aggression in Ukraine, we have constantly been looking at ways to reassure our allies and partners, and these exercises, two points, they're bilateral; they're between the United States and the country in question. It's not a NATO exercise and, number two; it's in response to that need by Secretary Hagel reaching out and talking to [Supreme Allied Commander, Europe] General Breedlove, talking to [Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman] General Dempsey and looking for ways we can constantly reassure our allies and partners of our commitment to Article 5 to the alliance, but also to them and their security," said Kirby.
Kirby said that while these exercises were added because of tensions in Ukraine, the U.S. unit involved has worked with all four European countries in the past.
The Pentagon spokesman said the message of these exercises is an explicit one to the four countries involved, that the United States is serious about its obligations under Article 5 of NATO, even though they are not NATO exercises.
"If there is a message to Moscow, it is the same exact message that we take our obligations very, very seriously on the continent of Europe," said Kirby.
Kirby said Russia has done nothing to de-escalate the situation or make Ukraine and Europe any more stable. He said what would be helpful is if Russia would remove its forces from Ukraine’s borders and take concrete steps to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine.
The Latvian government welcomed the Pentagon announcement, calling it "a fast and practical response." Lithuania's president said the deployments will "strengthen our readiness for collective defense and add to ensuring the safety of our people." Estonia's defense minister said it will "significantly" increase his country's security.
Kirby said the United States is encouraging its NATO partners to look for opportunities to take similar actions for each other.
He also said the United States is providing more than $14 million in non-lethal aid to Ukraine's armed forces and state border guard.