- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2016

Nearly 1,300 American and European troops will participate in a massive military drill in eastern Europe, a major step toward creating a new NATO force designed to curb Russian aggression in the region.

The exercise, dubbed Noble Partner 2016, kicked off Thursday and will run until May 26, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters at the Pentagon.

The exercise will “increase education, cooperation and training” between the 500 Georgian light infantry troops and the 800 U.S. and British troops participating in the drills, which will focus on mechanized armor and heavy artillery operations, Capt. Davis said.

“This [NATO force] provides a rapid military response force to deploy quickly wherever needed,” he said. “And in addition to its operations role, it uses opportunities like Exercise Noble Partner to increase cooperation, education and training for all participants.”

The Georgian troops participating in the exercise will be the same ones who will be the country’s contribution to a proposed NATO rotational force in the Baltic states and possibly Poland, set up as a deterrent to Russian aggression there.

The proposed force would consist of four battalions, or 4,000 troops, and would be in addition to the 4,200-man U.S. Army armored brigade Pentagon officials plan to deploy separately to the region next February, according to the Pentagon.

In response, Moscow announced plans to create three new military divisions to protect its southern and western borders, days after U.S. and NATO military leaders unveiled plans for a 4,200-man force in eastern Europe to counter recent Russian aggression there.

The new divisions, totaling roughly 30,000 troops, the bulk of which will be deployed to Russia’s Western Military District, will be in place by the end of this year, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a televised interview with Russian media outlets earlier this month.

Tensions between Moscow and Washington have increased in recent weeks, after a series of aggressive engagements between both countries’ forces in the Baltics.

However, recent public statements by Russian officials seem to indicate Moscow’s willingness to defuse tensions with the U.S. and NATO.

On Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry officials said Moscow stands ready to work with NATO “on an equal basis” even in the face of the alliance’s troop buildup.

“We are open to dialogue, but our only condition is that the dialogue should be mutually respectful and take into account each other’s interests,” Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters in Moscow.

But she did note recent deployments of U.S. anti-ballistic missile systems in eastern Europe would almost certainly shot down any dialogue between Russia, the United States and NATO.

The missile system, based in Poland and Romania, represented “a direct threat to regional and international stability” in the region, Ms. Zakharova said, adding Russia “retains the right to adopt responsive measures of military and technical nature,” to respond to the perceived threat.

Russia claims the U.S. missile systems, deployed to protect U.S. and Europe from potential intercontinental ballistic missile attacks from North Korea and Iran, could be easily be turned toward Russian ballistic missile sites.

Capt. Davis refuted such claims, saying the missile defense systems based in eastern Europe were “not about Russia.”

When asked whether the systems could shift their sights onto Russian targets, Capt. Davis replied: “There are no plans to do that, and if we do take actions to deter Russia that is something we are going to tell you about.

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