By Claudette Roulo
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 22, 2014 – A company-sized element of the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team -- about 150 soldiers -- will arrive in Poland tomorrow to begin a bilateral infantry exercise with Polish troops, the Pentagon press secretary said today.
In the coming days, about 450 additional soldiers from the Vicenza, Italy-based 173rd ABCT will arrive for similar exercises in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said.
The exercises are the first in a series of expanded U.S. land force training activities in the Baltic region scheduled to take place this year and possibly into next year, he said.
“Russia's aggression in Ukraine has renewed our resolve to strengthening NATO's defense plans and capabilities, and to demonstrate our continued commitment to collective defense in reinforcing our NATO allies in Central and Eastern Europe,” Kirby said.
The troops will be in place in all four countries by April 28, he said, noting that the exercises will last about a month. “But then we will rotate fresh troops in for more exercises,” the admiral added.
The intent is to develop a persistent rotational presence through the exercises, Kirby explained.
Discussions are ongoing about expanding the bilateral exercises into other countries in the region, he said. Discussions regarding the establishment of combined exercises involving other NATO member and partner countries also are taking place, Kirby said.
“It doesn't have to be either/or,” he said. “I think we're looking for a broad swath of ways that we can help reassure our allies and partners, and it doesn't all have to be through the alliance.”
Since Russia's aggression in Ukraine began, the admiral said, the United States has been constantly looking for ways to reassure its allies and partners of the nation’s commitment to the collective defense principles in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.
These bilateral exercises were conceived in part to do just that, Kirby said.
The message to the people of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, is that “the United States takes seriously our obligations under Article 5 of the NATO alliance, even though these aren't NATO exercises,” he said.
“It's a very tangible representation of our commitment to our security obligations in Europe, … and we encourage our NATO partners to likewise look for opportunities of their own to do this same kind of thing for one another,” the admiral continued.
If there’s any message to Moscow, Kirby said, it’s the same as that being sent to the people of the Baltic region: “We take our obligations very, very seriously on the continent of Europe.”
The exercises are more than symbolic, the admiral said. The commitment to putting troops on the ground for an extended period and conducting exercises is “not insignificant,” he noted.
“These are countries that we routinely operate with,” Kirby said. “These are units that the 173rd have worked with before, in all four countries. So they know each other. This isn't the first time that the 173rd has done exercises with these countries. So there's a relationship there.”
The situation remains tense along Ukraine’s eastern border, he said. “Nothing we've seen out of Moscow, nothing we've seen out of Russia or their armed forces is de-escalating the tension [or] is making things any more stable in Ukraine or on the continent of Europe,” the admiral said.
“What would be very helpful is if they removed their forces off that border and took concrete actions to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine,” he said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said that the events in Ukraine have had the effect of consolidating the alliance and giving it a sharper view of itself and its future, Kirby said.
“NATO is a very strong alliance, more relevant now than it's ever been. … Secretary Hagel was pretty clear with the military leadership that he wanted to look for a wide range of opportunities through which we could continue to reassure our partners in Europe,” the admiral said.
Elsewhere in the region, the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook is wrapping up its rotation in the Black Sea, Kirby said.
The Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate USS Taylor returned to the Black Sea today after completing repairs in Naval Support Activity Souda Bay, Greece, and will assume the reassurance mission from the Donald Cook, Navy officials said.