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As tension with Russia flares, U.S. senators meet with Marines in Baltics

Apr. 18, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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Ramping up in Europe

U.S. Marines assigned to the Black Sea Rotational Force, based at Mihail Kogalniceanu air base in Romania, wrapped up a 10-day exercise called Summer Shield with Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian troops on April 17. Two days prior, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz.; John Barrasso, R-Wyo.; and John Hoeven, R-N.D., showed up to observe some of the training.

The senators were there to assess the situation in neighboring Ukraine, which has added to rising Cold War-era tensions between the U.S. and Russia.

“I would say to you that we live in a very dangerous world today, and we may need you,” McCain told the troops. “This kind of training is vital.”

The Baltic states are paying close attention to Russia’s recent maneuvers. Latvia and Lithuania have banned Russian state television, according to recent media reports. Since Marines deployed along the Black Sea have conducted several iterations of Summer Shield with troops from those countries, they have established a working partnership.

Marines have also worked closely with Georgian troops over the past decade, which borders Russia along the Black Sea. The Georgia Deployment Program, launched in 2009, was extended several times as Marines trained Georgian troops to deploy alongside them in Afghanistan. Lt. Gen. Richard Tryon, commander of Marine Corps Forces Europe, traveled to Georgia to meet with local military officials in late MarchCQ, according to a Marine Corps news release.

“The U.S. will continue to be engaged with our partners and allies in the region calling for de-escalation and a peaceful solution to the crisis in Ukraine,” Tryon said, according to the release. “The presence of Russian military forces in Ukraine is not acceptable.”

While speaking with Latvia’s chief of defence, Lt. Gen. Raimonds Graube, McCain asked how many of his troops were Russian-speaking. Through another soldier interpreting, Graube responded that about 30 percent of his soldiers speak Russian, but the Latvians were quick to add that they are good soldiers who are happy to serve in their armed forces.

Forces and missions

The senators’ visit highlights the growing unease within the U.S. government about Russia’s annex of Crimea and foray into east Ukraine. While Pentagon officials have indicated that any regional U.S. military assets could be diverted to aide Ukraine, Marine Corps officials are quick to assert that a recent boost to the number of Marines in Spain and Romania has nothing to do with Russia’s behavior.

The Black Sea Rotational Force, which numbers about 250 Marines and answers to U.S. European Command, is one of three rotational Marine units based in Europe. All three are manned by personnel from the same unit: 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C. The other two are Special-Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force-Crisis Response and SPMAGTF-Africa , both of which answer to U.S. Africa Command.

Prompted by a deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, the Marine Corps activated its crisis-response force several months later to respond to emergencies throughout Africa. The Marine Corps recently boosted the size of this unit, spreading the additional Marines between Morón Air Base in Spain and Romania, bringing the number up to nearly 1,000.

When 175 crisis-response Marines were sent to Romania, Army Col. Steve Warren told reporters they can respond to crises throughout the region, even though they fall under AFRICOM.

The 150 members of SPMAGTF-Africa, based in Sigonella, Italy, conduct theater security cooperation with African military partners. The Corps also has a Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Team based in Rota, Spain. FAST platoons are typically called to shore up security at diplomatic posts in need of additional Marine assets.

AFRICOM and EUCOM routinely share assets with each other and other combatant commands based on priorities set by the defense secretary and the president, said Army Maj. Fred Harrell, a spokesman for AFRICOM. That’s especially efficient between AFRICOM and EUCOM, he added, because they share component staffs for the European based Marines, sailors and airmen.

“In some instances, we already have memorandums of agreement regarding the sharing of forces,” Harrel said. “In other cases, such as in emergency situations, the combatant commanders can quickly agree and execute force-sharing requirements, notifying DoD and the Joint Staff. And there could be cases where force sharing requirements will require DoD approval.”

The Marine Corps also added an element of cohesion to the process by establishing a new measure called the single battalion concept when staffing Black Sea Rotational Force, SPMAGTF-Crisis Response and SPMAGTF-Africa from the same infantry unit. The concept provides combatant commanders with cohesion instead of units who might not have experience working together, said Capt. Eric Flanagan, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon.

While tensions heat up around the Black Sea, the Marines’ mission there won’t change, said Maj. Lauren Schulz, a spokeswoman for MARFOREUR. They’ll conduct training with their European partners as planned.

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