MOSCOW – U.S. military combat vehicles paraded Wednesday through an Estonian city that juts into Russia, a symbolic act that highlighted the stakes for both sides amid the worst tensions between the West and Russia since the Cold War.
The armored personnel carriers and other U.S. Army vehicles that rolled through the streets of Narva, a border city separated by a narrow frontier from Russia, were a dramatic reminder of the new military confrontation in eastern Europe.
The soldiers from the U.S. Army’s Second Cavalry Regiment were taking part in a military parade to mark Estonia’s Independence Day. Narva is a vulnerable border city separated by a river from Russia.
It has often been cited as a potential target for the Kremlin if it wanted to escalate its conflict with the West onto NATO territory.
Russia has long complained bitterly about NATO expansion, saying that the Cold War defense alliance was a major security threat as it drew closer to Russia’s borders.
The anger grew especially passionate after the Baltic states joined in 2004, and Russian President Vladimir Putin cited fears that Ukraine would join NATO when he annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March last year.
Russia’s Baltic neighbors, meanwhile, have said that what happened in Ukraine demonstrates exactly why they wanted to join NATO in the first place.
U.S. tanks rolled through the streets of Riga, Latvia in November for that nation’s Independence Day parade, another powerful reminder of U.S. boots on the ground in the region.
The United States has sent hundreds of military personnel to joint NATO exercises in the Baltics. NATO nations committed in September to forming a rapid reaction force that could deploy quickly to eastern Europe if they are invaded.
As NATO increases its presence in the Baltic region amid worries of “Russian aggression,” Lithuania has published a manual which advises its citizens how to survive a war on its soil.
“Keep a sound mind, don’t panic and don’t lose clear thinking,” the manual advises. “Gunshots just outside your window are not the end of the world.”
Lithuanian Defense Minister Juozas Olekas unveiled the 100-page public information pamphlet last Tuesday at a press conference in Vilnius. The book, “How to act in extreme situations or instances of war” aims to educate the country’s citizens on what to do in the case of an invasion.
The manual instructs Lithuanians how to “act during the organization of civil resistance, but also how to act under battlefield conditions,” in addition to containing information on governmental changes following a declaration of war and procedures for evacuating a building, according to Olekas.
The book suggests demonstrations and strikes or “at least doing your job worse than usual” as means of resisting foreign occupation. It also advises citizens to use social media to organize resistance and promotes staging cyber-attacks against the enemy.
Olekas said the project, a collaboration between the Defense Ministry and Lithuania’s Fire Brigade was prompted by “Russia’s recurring aggression against its neighbors – presently in Ukraine.” Copies of the pamphlet are to be distributed to libraries, secondary schools and non-governmental organizations, while an online version will be available for download from the Defense Ministry’s website, Olekas said.
The Lithuanian government is also considering requiring all future buildings to include a bomb shelter.
Lithuania’s Russian minority is around 6 percent according to the country’s last census in 2011, unlike the two other Baltic enclaves, Estonia and Latvia where Russian speakers account for approximately one-quarter of the population.
Recently, President Dalia Grybauskaite, an outspoken critic of Russia, has moved to restrict the broadcast of Russian state channels in Lithuania.
NATO’s General Philip Breedlove announced this week that the alliance was looking to beef up its operations in the Baltic region.
“There will be several adaptations of our exercise program. The first series of changes will not be an increase in number but they will be to group them together … to better prepare our forces and to allow nations to work together as a NATO force, but we are looking at increasing some exercises,” he said Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Ruptly news agency on Thursday captured footage of a train loaded with various American military vehicles rolling through Klaipeda, a coastal town in western Lithuania.
In November, during the Iron Sword military drill, 2,500 servicemen from nine NATO countries staged a two-week training operation in Lithuania. Iron Sword was originally planned as a purely Lithuanian endeavor but was expanded in response to the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine.
In the birch woods that ring the eastern Estonian city of Tartu, 50km from the Russian border, Nato is preparing for cyber war.
From this Baltic outpost, the alliance this week conducted the world’s biggest digital war game. Security was so tight that Nato did not reveal the existence of the event until after it had begun – for fear that the simulated hack would be hacked.
More than 670 soldiers and civilians – from 80 organisations in 28 countries – participated, making it more than twice the size of any previous Nato cyber drill.
As a demonstration of resolve, it is both impressive and needed: since the Ukrainian crisis plunged the alliance into an icy stand-off with Russia, its cyber weaknesses have been exposed. Nato’s core networks alone have to cope with more than 200m suspicious events a day, alliance officials told the Financial Times. Of those, some of which are merely spam emails, at least 100 warrant significant further inspection. As many as 30 turn out to be highly sophisticated cyber-espionage attempts.
“Cyber attacks can be as dangerous as conventional attacks. They can shut down important infrastructure and they can have a great impact on our operations,” Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general, said during a visit to Tallinn, the Estonian capital.
Robert Hoar, the US Navy commander in charge of the war game, said the goal of the cyber drill was “to flex our systems – to test our ability to react to the threats in the current environment.”
From barracks in Tartu, a team of around 100 soldiers and intelligence officials on Monday began throwing sophisticated technical attacks at Nato teams across Europe and North America: Troops’ android phones were hacked after a downloadable app turned out be hiding sophisticated malware; an imaginary supplier of military equipment was found to have had its own manufacturing process compromised, with security loopholes built into its computer chips; a Nato emergency response team was flown to Greece after one scenario in which the attackers succeeded in seizing control of the systems running Nato’s Awacs surveillance aircraft – one of the alliance’s most prized possessions.
Monitors were switched off and rooms in the Tartu facility fell silent as a small group of visitors was given a brief tour in the midst of the action. “Scrub the whiteboard!” yelled one officer, apparently fearful that a lone IP address scrawled on it in marker pen – an unintelligible string of letters, numbers and symbols – might find its way out of the Estonian woods.
Number of suspicious events Nato’s core networks deal with daily that turn out to be sophisticated cyber-espionage attacks
In a particularly lurid cyber storyline, a senior Nato officer had his family kidnapped and was then blackmailed into stealing huge amounts of classified data from the alliance’s secure military networks.
“Eventually,” said Luc Dandurand, deputy director of the exercise, “[the participants] work out that all these attacks are coming from a single entity – it’s all from one nation state.”
Officially, the attacker was meant to be disrupting a Nato mission in a fictitious, war-torn state in the Horn of Africa. In reality, the scenario was a thinly disguised version of the threats confronting the alliance as a result of the crisis in Ukraine. Russia, though never mentioned, loomed large.
There is a lot of reality involved. These storylines are based in the real world and in some cases may have happened to Nato already– Robert Esposito, Nato
In one simulated attack, for example, the classified communications of the general in charge of the fictitious Nato deployment were hacked. The hackers then leaked the information to a global newspaper, which promptly published the Nato military chief’s private declaration that the war was unwinnable.
That was eerily reminiscent of an episode in Kiev in February when a candid conversation between US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland and Washington’s ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, was secretly recorded and leaked to the press.
“There is a lot of reality involved. These storylines are based in the real world and in some cases may have happened to Nato already,” says Robert Esposito, a former Royal Air Force officer who is now a senior official in Nato’s cyber operations team at the alliance’s supreme headquarters.
“The only way to see if you can cope is to do it for real or to do it in an exercise like this,” he added. “And it’s better to do it like this.”
Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania have agreed to set up joint military unit of several thousand soldiers.Defence ministers from the three countries signed the deal on Friday.
Poland’s defence ministry said the brigade would be based in the eastern Polish city of Lublin but the soldiers would remain in their home countries.
Poland and Lithuania are eager to bolster defences following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula earlier this year.
Russia sent thousands of troops to the peninsula in March, eventually forcing Ukrainian soldiers to withdraw.
Shortly afterwards, pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions declared their independence.
More than 3,000 people have died in fighting between Ukrainian government forces and separatists since April.
A spokesman for the Polish defence ministry said work to form the joint unit with Ukraine and Lithuania first began in 2007, adding that it would operate under the guidance of the UN, Nato and the EU.
The unit would participate in peacekeeping missions, the spokesman added, but no details were given on any potential role in Ukraine’s conflict.
Earlier this week, soldiers from Poland and Lithuania joined about 1,300 soldiers from 15 countries – including the US and other Nato members – in military exercises in western Ukraine.
In response, Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said it must boost its forces in Crimea to counter the presence of Western troops in Ukraine.
Also on Friday, Nato defence chiefs agreed to set up regional centres in several Eastern European countries, during a meeting Lithuania’s capital Vilnius.
Lithuania’s chief of defence Jonas Vytautas Zukas said the “command-and-control” centres would be launched in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland and Romania and would each employ up to 120 military personnel,
Meanwhile, Sweden said on Friday that it had lodged a complaint with Russia’s ambassador in Stockholm about two Russian fighter planes entering Swedish airspace.
Swedish officials said the jets had briefly violated Swedish airspace on Wednesday near the eastern island of Oland.
In another diplomatic row, Lithuania said it had summoned Russia’s ambassador to Vilnius after a Lithuanian fishing vessel was detained by Russian authorities earlier this week.
The two Su-24 attack planes took off from Kaliningrad and skirted the Polish coast before heading north at low altitude towards the Swedish island of Öland in the Baltic Sea, newspaper Expressen reports.
A source told the newspaper several JAS Gripen fighter jets scrambled to intercept the Russian aircraft, which left Swedish airspace when one of the Swedish planes arrived and headed off the encroachment.
The government was informed of the violation, which took place at lunchtime on Wednesday, and has requested the Armed Forces to file a report as a matter of urgency, Expressen said.
The Armed Forces declined to comment on what happened until it has conducted a full analysis.
Expressen’s source however said the Armed Forces believed Russia had sent the fighter jets to test how ready Sweden was to respond.
Estonia’s president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, noted that the violation occurred while Sweden’s outgoing foreign minister, Carl Bildt, was discussing regional security with the country’s military.