The U.S. is moving tanks, armored vehicles and artillery to eastern Europe, saying the measure is designed to prevent further military moves by Russia against its neighbors.
About 250 pieces of heavy equipment will be shipped to European bases to enable U.S. soldiers to conduct more intensive training exercises and boost combat readiness, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Tuesday in Tallinn, Estonia. NATO last week said a number of other countries in the alliance may also store war-fighting equipment in the region.
The more-than-yearlong conflict in Ukraine has chilled relations between Russia and the U.S. and its allies to the worst since the end of the Cold War. Pre-positioning equipment closer to the front lines of a potential future conflict is part of a salvo of measures by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the U.S. aimed at responding to a resurgent Russian threat.
“The United States and the rest of the NATO alliance are absolutely committed to defending the territorial integrity of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania just as we’re committed to defending all of our allies,” Carter said.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- former Soviet republics now members of NATO as well as the European Union -- have voiced concern about the potential threat of Russian aggression since Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014.
“We have reasons to believe that Russia views the Baltic region as one of NATO’s most vulnerable areas, a place where NATO’s resolve can be tested,” said Sven Mikser, Estonia’s defense minister.
Russia will move forces closer to its western border in response to any movement of U.S. heavy weaponry into eastern Europe, while posing no thereat to the Baltic states, Nikolai Bordyuzha, general secretary of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, said in an interview last week.
Aside from the three Baltic countries, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria will also receive new shipments of equipment packages ranging in size from company to battalion. Germany already hosts U.S. combat gear.
Putin said in an interview published this month that “only an insane person and only in a dream can imagine that Russia would suddenly attack NATO” and that some countries are using a fear of Russia to gain defense benefits.
U.S. forces are involved in 20 separate military exercises this week across Europe, Carter said. That increase in activity is part of a year-old European Reassurance Initiative aimed at rotating higher numbers of U.S. troops through Europe.
The allies also need to buttress their defenses against cyberattacks, “especially from Russia,” Carter said. He said the U.S. would work with researchers at a NATO cybersecurity think tank based in Tallinn on new strategies to harden electronic networks against penetration.
Monday, Carter was in Germany to announce U.S. contributions to a new NATO rapid-reaction force designed to reach crisis spots in 48 hours.
Allied officials meeting in Brussels later this week are expected to discuss additional measures to streamline crisis decision-making to meet Russia’s military thrusts that fall short of outright invasion, known as “hybrid warfare.”
Carter described the equipment moves as “temporary” since the combat gear will move among different exercise locations in the individual countries participating. But the U.S. is girding for a lengthy souring in relations with Russia, the defense secretary has said.
“The European security order has been challenged by Russia and continues to be challenged by Russia,” said Janis Sarts, state secretary for the Latvian defense ministry.