VILNIUS (Lithuania) • Dozens of US special operations forces are in the Baltics to bolster the training and resolve of troops who are confronting a looming threat from Russia, and to enhance the Americans' ability to detect Moscow's shadowy efforts to destabilise the former Soviet republics.
General Raymond Thomas, head of the Pentagon's Special Operations Command, said the militaries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were "scared to death" of Russia.
The general, who visited Lithuania recently, added: "They are very open about that. They're desperate for our leadership."
As a result, Gen Thomas said, US commandos have a "persistent" presence in Lithuania with Baltic special operations troops, after forging close ties with them over the past decade while fighting together in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Americans bring sophisticated surveillance technology and broad sources of intelligence. The Baltic partners have a deep understanding of conventional Russian military might. They also know well Moscow's increasing use of cyber warfare and information subterfuge - among other means used to weaken the Western-backed governments.
It is unclear how supportive President-elect Donald Trump will be of this initiative as he aims to mend fences with Moscow.
DESPERATE FOR LEADERSHIP
They're scared to death of Russia... They are very open about that. They're desperate for our leadership.
GENERAL RAYMOND THOMAS, head of the Pentagon's Special Operations Command, on the militaries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
Mr Trump suggested during the US election campaign that only Nato allies that paid their fair share deserved protection from the United States, although he has since softened his warning. His remarks alarmed the Baltic nations, which count on Nato's collective security efforts to deter an unpredictable Russia.
In response to Russia's annexation of Crimea, the clandestine war in eastern Ukraine, and Moscow's growing military force on patrol off the coasts of the Baltics and Western Europe, the US and its Nato allies have bolstered their military exercises in recent years. The US this year will send battalions of 800 to 1,200 troops to each of the three Baltic states and Poland.
Russia's deployment last year of nuclear-capable Iskander ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad, between Lithuania and Poland, underscored Moscow's efforts to intimidate the Baltics and the West, Baltic officials said. Russia dismissed such fears, saying the missile movements were routine drills.
Last week, US senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Amy Klobuchar visited all three Baltic countries to reassure regional leaders who are concerned that Mr Trump might not be fully committed to their defence.
In November, the top commander of US Special Operations in Europe, Major-General Mark Schwartz, met the chief of Lithuania's special operations forces, Lieutenant-General Jonas Vytautas Zukas, in Lithuania to discuss the security situation and military cooperation, including exercises.
The US commandos have deployed quietly but deliberately in the past several months, to send a message.
The deployment of about a dozen US special operations forces to each of the Baltic states is a piece of the larger allied military strategy to deter any future Russian aggression.
Embedded with their Baltic counterparts, the US commandos augment intelligence-gathering and other assessments by the Central Intelligence Agency and US diplomats on the threat posed by Russian activities.
Lt-Gen Ben Hodges, commander of US Army forces in Europe, said this new focus had improved the US forces' "speed of recognition" of Russian activities.
The intelligence also informs planning in Washington. In October, the military's Joint Staff conducted a three-day confidential simulation exercise involving four possible situations in Latvia in which Russia used drones, cyber warfare and media manipulation.
The Baltic states have taken steps to increase their ability to resist overt and covert Russian advances. Since the Ukraine crisis nearly three years ago, orders for new defence equipment in the Baltics have doubled and will double again in the next two years, according to an analysis by IHS Markit, a London-based research firm.