by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
Fourteen months after Russia invaded Ukraine, tensions between Washington and Moscow continue to escalate. So this is becoming an increasingly common refrain — U.S. Army tanks are back in the Baltic states.
On April 9, four M-1A2SEPv2 Abrams tanks from the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment fired their huge 120-millimeter cannons—along with smaller .50-caliber and 7.62-millimeter machine guns—during a live-fire demonstration at the Pabrade Training Ground in Lithuania.
2–7th Infantry is in the small Baltic country as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, the Pentagon’s efforts to reassure NATO allies. Troops from the battalion are training with Estonian, Latvian and Polish forces.
The battalion and its tanks took over from the Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment in March. The cavalrymen then proceeded to drive all the way back to their home base in Germany in a major show of force.
“At some point you have to be on the ground to dominate the terrain,” said Army colonel Robert Ashe, commander of the 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division — the brigade that includes 2–7 Infantry. “You can’t do that in any other way besides having soldiers and tanks on the ground.”
The 70-ton Abrams is arguably the best tank in the world. The $6-million vehicles boast advanced sensors and computers, remote machine gun turrets and tons of armor.
After Moscow seized Ukraine’s Crimea region, the U.S. military “conducted 67 … significant military-to-military engagements with the Baltic states and Poland from April to October 2014,” Air Force general Philip Breedlove, chief of the Pentagon’s top headquarters in Europe, told the House Armed Services Committee on Feb. 25.
Having been part of the Soviet Union until 1991 — and being home to significant ethnic Russian populations — the Baltic governments are especially worried about violence spreading into their territories.
They fear Russian special forces or agents could foment similar uprisings within their borders. The Pentagon shares this concern.
“Countries are seeking to expand their claims of sovereignty outside of recognized borders … [and] are sponsoring and relying upon non-state actors to act on their behalf abroad,” U.S. Special Operations Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel warned in remarks to the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 26.
“Russia is taking this approach and is systematically undermining neighboring governments and complicating international responses to its aggressive actions,” Votel added.
To be sure, the Army’s recent deployments are much smaller than the massive war games of the Cold War. But the tanks and troops are right on Russia’s doorstep.
To put things into perspective, the Russian frontier is only 200 miles east of Pabrade, with Kremlin ally Belarus situated in between. The Russian enclave of Kaliningrad is only half that distance in the other direction.
“The European Security Initiative and Operation Atlantic Resolve is a particularly visible U.S. presence in Lithuania and a message that we are not on our own,” Lithuania’s Defense Minister Juozas Olekas told a delegation of American legislators on April 2.
Olekas, members of his country’s armed forces and civilians all watched the Army’s tanks do their thing a week later.
But not everyone is completely satisfied with NATO’s response. Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves wants the alliance to do even more. Ilves’ country shares a border over 100 miles long with Russia. And Tallinn worries it could be next on the Kremlin’s list.
In September 2014, the Federal Security Service — better known by its Russian acronym FSB — arrested an Estonian intelligence officer. In turn, Tallinn accused Moscow of kidnapping the agent in his own country and spiriting him across the border.
“We get exercises that take place behind our borders that have 40,000 to 80,000 soldiers,” Ilves also complained in an interview with The Telegraph. “If you look at the exercises that are done by our neighbor, they’re basically instantaneous.”
By comparison, Estonia’s entire standing military amounts to around 17,500 soldiers plus 200,000 reservists. The country’s entire population is 1.5 million — about the same size as a single Moscow suburb.
The Estonian leader called for NATO to base troops in his country. But NATO cannot legally base non-local troops in Estonia or anywhere else east of Germany — the result of a deal the military bloc cut with Moscow in 1997.
The Pentagon has gotten around this rule with its small — and temporary — rotations of troops in the Baltic states and other Eastern European countries. At the moment, American tanks are also in Estonia, where they performed a heavily armored ballet of sorts—seen in the video above—to mark their arrival.
U.S. troops with wheeled Stryker armored vehicles also recently started training with Romanian and Bulgarian troops. And with Russia showing no sign of backing down, Ilves and his neighbors can expect visits from American tank and troops … for the foreseeable future.