WASHINGTON -- U.S. troops are headed for Poland and the three Baltic countries for live-ammunition infantry exercises with armed forces from the four former Soviet-bloc nations.
Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said Tuesday that the dispatch of 600 troops from U.S. bases in Italy and Germany for military maneuvers near Russia's western border is in response to its aggression in Ukraine.
"If there's a message to Moscow, it is the exact same message [as delivered before], that we take our obligations very, very seriously," he told reporters at the Pentagon.
The American troops will be in Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania by Monday, Adm. Kirby said, and more U.S. forces could be sent to other NATO nations in the future. "These exercises were conceived and added to the [regular] exercise regime as a result of what's going on in Ukraine," he said.
Adm. Kirby said the first 600 troops, which will be drawn from the 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), headquartered in Italy, will conduct month-long exercises with about 150 airborne soldiers assigned to each of the four countries. That first group will be replaced in a month by a similar-sized contingent divided among the four nations, with subsequent rotations planned each month for the rest of the year. "What we're after here is a persistent presence -- a persistent rotational presence in these exercises," Adm. Kirby said.
Russian troops early last month began seizing control of Crimea, a peninsula in southeastern Ukraine with a Russian naval port. Russia claimed to have annexed Crimea, which has a majority ethnic-Russian population, as a result of a March 16 referendum in the region. The United States, along with many other governments and the United Nations, has not recognized the referendum results.
The United States last month stepped up its participation in NATO air patrols over the Baltics and in NATO training of Polish military pilots. But Adm. Kirby said the new troop movements are U.S.-bilateral exercises beyond the auspices of the transatlantic military alliance.
Ukraine is not a NATO member. Poland joined the military alliance in March 1999, more than seven years after the demise of the Soviet Union. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania became members in March 2004.
Responding to reporters' questions, Adm. Kirby denied that the absence of other NATO members in the infantry exercises reflects a reluctance among some European governments to escalate tensions with Russia over Ukraine. "It's not at all designed to indicate unwillingness by any other NATO partners," he said.
But with NATO having ruled out military intervention in Ukraine, Adm. Kirby insisted that the series of U.S.-bilateral exercises was not merely symbolic. "Any time you put troops on the ground and doing exercises -- in this case, for a month at a time -- it's more than symbology," he said. "The kind of work that we're going to be doing is real infantry training. And that's not insignificant."