The U.S. is sending about 600 ground troops to Eastern Europe this week to “reassure” allies there as Washington resumes its campaign of pressure on Russia over the Ukraine standoff.
About 150 soldiers from the 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), based in Italy, are heading to each of four countries — Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — in rotational deployments that the Pentagon says will be sustained until further notice.
The paratroopers will take weapons and ammunition for “infantry exercises” and be in place by the end of the week, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon. The roughly company-sized units will remain in place for about a month, and then new ones will follow them until at least the end of the year.
While President Barack Obama has ruled out the use of force to resolve Russia’s military incursions into Ukraine, the Army deployments are a way to show America’s European allies, as well as Moscow, the level of its concern about what Kirby called “Russian aggression.”
“We take our obligations very, very seriously on the continent of Europe,” Kirby said.
He said the Sky Soldiers of the 173rd would take part in bilateral exercises with the militaries of their host countries, as opposed to having been deployed under the auspices of NATO. But he said that more deployments or operations involving NATO could be in the works and urged reporters against concluding that bilateral action by the Defense Department was a sign of some NATO members’ unwillingness to make deployments of their own.
The Pentagon will not send additional soldiers to Europe to replace the troops rotating into Eastern Europe, Kirby said.
The Obama administration appears to have all but concluded that a diplomatic agreement struck last week to try to deescalate the Ukraine crisis isn’t working. The White House already has announced more new non-lethal assistance to Kiev, and the next step could be new rounds of sanctions on Russian leaders.
The White House said earlier Tuesday the U.S. would provide another $50 million in aid “to help Ukraine pursue political and economic reform and strengthen the partnership between the United States and Ukraine.” Included in that package is more non-lethal military material, including bomb disposal equipment, radios, “vehicles” and “individual tactical gear,” such as armor or protective shields, for Ukraine’s border guard.
Vice President Joe Biden, who appeared in Kiev on Tuesday with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk make clear that Washington was prepared to continue its assistance and to keep up its isolation of Moscow.
“We call on Russia to stop supporting men hiding behind masks in unmarked uniforms, sowing unrest in Eastern Ukraine,” Biden said. “And we have been clear that more provocative behavior by Russia will lead to more costs and to greater isolation.”
But military action is off the table, the White House says. So this week’s ground troop deployments to Eastern Europe are only the latest example of the administration attempting to rattle its saber having said it would not draw it.
More Air Force fighters are rotating into Poland and the Baltic countries, and Kirby said the U.S. Navy’s presence in the Black Sea would also continue.
The destroyer USS Donald Cook, which was buzzed by an unarmed Russian attack jet soon after its arrival, will be replaced by the frigate USS Taylor, he said.
American commanders originally sent the Taylor to the Black Sea to provide additional security for the Winter Olympics in Russia, but the ship ran aground in a port in Turkey and destroyed its propeller. Tugs moved it to a U.S. naval base in Crete, where the ship was repaired, and Kirby said it would take the Donald Cook’s place as part of the American desire to “reassure” allies there.
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Contributed by Philip Ewing of Politico.