US leads war games near Russian border with 18,000 troops on eve of World Cup

Drills show 'demonstration of the commitment and solidarity' of Nato forces in face of aggression from Moscow, says American army

Chris Baynes
Thursday 14 June 2018 13:21 BST
US troops from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment take part in military exercises near Kaunas, Lithuania
US troops from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment take part in military exercises near Kaunas, Lithuania (Lithuanian Ministry of Defence)

More than 18,000 troops from 19 nations, including the UK, have taken part in US-led war games in countries bordering Russia.

The American army said the drills were “a demonstration of the commitment and solidarity” of Nato forces at a time of heightened tensions with Moscow.

But it stressed the exercises, carried out in the days before the World Cup begins in Russia, were “not a provocation”.

The drills, known as Sabre Strike, have been taking place in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. They centred around a hypothetical attack and aimed to test the response and co-operation of the 19 countries involved,.

“It is important for the United States of America, it is important for the continent of Europe, and really it is important to the world,” said Brigadier General Ross Coffman.

“What it really shows is that we stand side-by-side here on the continent and support one another,” added the general, who commands 1st Infantry Division troops involved in Atlantic Resolve, a Nato mission launched in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Donald Trump this week said the US would halt joint military exercises with South Korea, noting after his historic summit with Kim Jong-un that the war games were “very provocative” and expensive.

It is the eighth year the Sabre Strike exercises have taken place, but this year’s drills come amid increased concerns about Russian military manoeuvres and in the wake of the poisoning of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury.

Brig Gen Coffman described the assassination attempt on the former MI6 informant as “horrific” but said the drills were not adjusted as a result.

“These training objectives were set long ago, they’re clear, they’re pertinent and they are necessary,” he added.

The drills, which began on 3 June and will conclude on 15 June, were “clearly focused on readiness”, the general said.

Israel, which is not a Nato member, was involved in Sabre Strike for the first time this year.

A section of the Neman river on the outskirts of the Lithuanian city of Kaunas became a hive of military activity on Wednesday as more than 150 vehicles and 700 troops attempted to cross.

They were assisted by more than 40 British personnel from Royal Engineers, as well as their German counterparts, who jointly operate the amphibious vehicles known as M3 Rig.

Able to travel by road, the military vehicles unfold when they go into water and float, creating platforms that link together to form either a ferry or bridge, allowing vehicles to cross rivers and stretches of water.

Brigadier Eldon Millar, the commander of 8 Engineer Brigade, which is responsible for the British army’s Royal Engineer capability, likened the 200m river crossing to “aquatic ballet”.

He said he hoped Britain’s allies would be impressed by the capability that the UK and Germany bring together, adding: “When you see it in action it really is quite something.”

Major Jim Edwards said the capability was “hugely important in the context of Nato”, adding “there are not that many pieces of equipment that are able to cover gaps as big as this”.

Sabre Strike also includes air assaults and force-on-force training.

Major Mike Podojil of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, said the drills were the largest exercises for his unit since Desert Storm during the Gulf War.

Travelling from their base in Vilseck, Germany to Lithuania through the Czech Republic, Poland and Latvia, the regiment moved in a convoy of 2,800 personnel and 950 vehicles.

“In this environment, the collective defence of Europe, we will have to rely on each other and it is very important we practice and rehearse together for all our security,” added Maj Podojil.

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