As NATO refocuses on its eastern borders after Russia's annexation of Crimea, the United States is quietly training special forces in former Soviet bloc states that are anxious about Moscow's intentions.
Major exercises began last month in Poland, Slovakia and the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia involving several hundred personnel from U.S. special forces, the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) said in a statement to Reuters.
Long-term plans include further training drills that will consistently keep about 100 U.S. elite troops on the ground at any one time in NATO states close to Russia, with teams working in several countries, U.S. official said.
The events in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-speaking insurgents using sophisticated weapons are threatening to split the country, have put the whole former Soviet bloc region on alert and eager for NATO reassurance.
EUCOM says its Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) increased the size and scope of its planned exercises after Ukraine flared into violence, reinforcing Washington's message to Moscow that it would stand by its allies.
"Training with our partners in their home countries is something that we have always done," said SOCEUR spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Sternberg. "The difference is that now we will maintain a (permanent) Special Operations Forces presence in theater along the eastern front of NATO on this training mission," Sternberg said.
The exercises have involved practicing house-to-house fighting, mock raids in assault boats and coordinating parachute drops and air strikes, the SOCEUR Facebook page shows.
Joint exercises this spring have included the May 18-30 "Exercise Flaming Sword" in Lithuania, which brought together special forces from the U.S. and six European countries. Elite U.S. forces were also integrated into the major annual military exercises of Latvia and Estonia.
U.S. special forces have also been involved in the "Exercise Combined Resolve" in Germany, which runs through the end of June and includes about 4,000 troops from 15 allied countries.
Analysts see little imminent prospect of Russia attacking any eastern NATO member, but if it did U.S. and local special forces would likely be at the heart of the response.
Highly trained and equipped with advanced communications equipment and weapons, special forces are often used in counterterrorism or reconnaissance operations. They can infiltrate enemy lines to tie down much larger numbers of opposition troops.
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