January 1, 2017
By Eric Schmitt
Dozens of United States Special Operations forces are now in the Baltics to bolster the training and resolve of troops who are confronting a looming threat from Russia, and to enhance the Americans’ ability to detect Moscow’s shadowy efforts to destabilize the former Soviet republics.
“They’re scared to death of Russia,” Gen. Raymond T. Thomas, the head of the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command, who visited here recently, said of the tiny militaries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. “They are very open about that. They’re desperate for our leadership.”
As a result, General Thomas said, American commandos now have a “persistent” presence here with Baltic special operations troops, after forging close ties with them over the past decade while fighting together in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Americans bring sophisticated surveillance technology and broad sources of intelligence. The Baltic partners have a deep understanding of conventional Russian military might as well as Moscow’s increasing use of cyberwarfare, information subterfuge and other means less than all-out war to weaken the Western-backed governments.
It is unclear how supportive President-elect Donald J. Trump will be of this initiative as he aims to mend fences with Moscow. Mr. Trump suggested during the election campaign that only NATO allies that paid their fair share deserved protection from the United States, although he has since softened his warning. His remarks alarmed the Baltic nations, which count on NATO’s collective security efforts to deter an unpredictable Russia.
In response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the clandestine war in eastern Ukraine, as well as Moscow’s heightened military force on patrol off the coasts of the Baltics and Western Europe, the United States and its NATO allies have bolstered their own military exercises in recent years, and this spring will send battalions of 800 to 1,200 troops to each of the three Baltic States and Poland.
Russia’s deployment this fall of nuclear-capable Iskander ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad, between Lithuania and Poland, underscored Moscow’s efforts to intimidate the Baltics and the West, Baltic officials said. Russia dismissed such fears, saying the missile movements were routine drills.
Last week, Senators John McCain, Republican of Arizona, Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, and Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, visited all three Baltic countries to reassure regional leaders who are concerned that Mr. Trump might not be fully committed to their defense.
In November, the top commander of American Special Operations in Europe, Maj. Gen. Mark C. Schwartz, met here with the chief of Lithuania’s special operations forces, Lt. Gen. Jonas Vytautas Zukas, to discuss the security situation and military cooperation, including exercises.
The American commandos have deployed quietly but deliberately in the past several months, to send a message. “Do the Russians know we’re there?” General Thomas said. “Yes.”
The Baltic States have taken steps to increase their ability to resist overt and covert Russian advances. Since the Ukraine crisis began nearly three years ago, orders for new defense equipment in the Baltics have doubled and will double again in the next two years, according to an analysis by IHS Markit, a London-based research firm.
Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia increased spending on new defense equipment to $390 million in 2016, from $210 million in 2014. Latvia and Lithuania have had the two fastest-growing defense budgets in the world since 2014, according to an IHS Jane’s analysis.
Like the other Baltic States, Estonia, a NATO member with a population of 1.3 million people and a standing army of about 6,000, would not stand a chance in a conventional war with Russia. But since the Ukraine war, Estonia has increased training for members of the Estonian Defense League, teaching them how to become insurgents, right down to the making of improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.s, the weapons that plagued the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lithuania has updated its civil defense booklet, which tells citizens what to do in the event of a Russian invasion. Tens of thousands of copies of the 75-page guide have been distributed. “It is most important that the civilians are aware and have a will to resist — when these elements are strong, an aggressor has difficulties in creating an environment for military invasion,” the manual says.
In 2015, Lithuania announced that it would reintroduce conscription for men between the ages of 19 and 26. In addition, Lithuania’s self-defense league, akin to the National Guard in the United States, is to grow this year to about 4,900 citizen-soldiers from 4,600, Lithuanian officials said.
The deployment of about a dozen American Special Operations forces to each of the Baltic States is a piece of the larger allied military strategy to deter any future Russian aggression. Embedded with their Baltic counterparts, the American commandos augment intelligence-gathering and other assessments by the Central Intelligence Agency and American diplomats on the threat posed by Russian activities.
Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the commander of United States Army forces in Europe, said this new focus had improved the American forces’ “speed of recognition” of Russian activities. “A big part is being on the ground and getting a feel for what’s happening,” General Hodges said in a telephone interview.
The intelligence also informs planning in Washington. In October, the military’s Joint Staff conducted a three-day confidential simulation exercise involving four possible situations in Latvia in which Russia used drones, cyberwarfare and media manipulation.
Russia has employed disinformation, a tactic dating to Soviet days, to try to discredit the Lithuanian government and NATO, officials here said. In March, for instance, one national Lithuanian exercise involved the simulated contamination of a ship with an unknown chemical weapon. A blog announced that the threat was real and that five people had died from the chemicals. Lithuanian military officials were hiding the truth, the blog said.
Although the report was patently false, it made its way into Russian-language news sites in the country, as well as antigovernment Facebook groups, which posted the reports.
“Here in the Baltics, we experience an avalanche of propaganda against our states,” said Darius Jauniskis, the director of Lithuania’s State Security Department and a former commander of Lithuanian special operations forces. “Its purpose is to subvert our political and social coherence, to spread mistrust between state authorities and society, and even to disclaim our statehood.”
In July, during the NATO summit meeting in Warsaw, at which decisions regarding stationing multinational NATO battalions in the Baltic States and Poland were made, another blog reportedly quoted a top Lithuanian general as saying that basing NATO forces in the country “was posing a threat to stability in ties between NATO and Russia.” This kind of language was typical in Russian propaganda, and was quickly picked up by Russian news sites. The Lithuanian general publicly denied having said this.
“It’s difficult to recognize in this foggy environment the actions that are taking place,” Mr. Jauniskis said.