“They are very concerned about their adversary next door,” said General Raymond Thomas, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), at a national security conference in Aspen, Colorado, in July. “They make no bones about it.”
The “they” in question were various Eastern European and Baltic nations. “Their adversary”? Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Thomas, the commander of America’s most elite troops — Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets among them — went on to raise fears about an upcoming Russian military training event, a wargame, known as “Zapad” or “West,” involving 10 Russian Navy ships, 70 jets and helicopters, and 250 tanks. “The point of concern for most of these eastern Europeans right now is they’re about to do an exercise in Belarus… that’s going to entail up to 100,000 Russian troops moving into that country.” And he added, “The great concern is they’re not going to leave, and… that’s not paranoia…”
Over the last two decades, relations between the United States and Russia have increasingly soured, with Moscow casting blame on the United States for encouraging the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine a year later. Washington has, in turn, expressed its anger over the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia following the Russo-Georgian War of 2008; the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine after pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych was chased from power; and interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. There have been recriminations on both sides over the other nation’s military adventurism in Syria, the sanctions Washington imposed on Moscow in reaction to Crimea, Ukraine, and human rights issues, and tit-for-tat diplomatic penalties that have repeatedly ramped up tensions.
While Zapad, which took place last month, is an annual strategic exercise that rotates among four regions, American officials nonetheless viewed this year’s event as provocative. “People are worried this is a Trojan horse,” Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, who commands U.S. Army forces in Europe, told Reuters. “[The Russians] say, ‘We’re just doing an exercise,’ and then all of a sudden they’ve moved all these people and capabilities somewhere.”
Russia is not, however, the only military power with “people and capabilities” in the region. In passing, SOCOM’s Thomas also mentioned the presence of other forces; troops that he readily admitted the public might not be aware of. Those soldiers were — just as he feared of the Russian troops involved in Zapad — not going anywhere. And it wasn’t just a matter of speculation. After all, they wear the same uniform he does.
For the past two years, the U.S. has maintained a special operations contingent in almost every nation on Russia’s western border. “[W]e’ve had persistent presence in every country — every NATO country and others on the border with Russia doing phenomenal things with our allies, helping them prepare for their threats,” said Thomas, mentioning the Baltics as well as Romania, Poland, Ukraine, and Georgia by name.
Commandos and Their Comrades
Since 9/11, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) have grown in every conceivable way from funding to manpower, the pace of operations to geographic sweep. On any given day, about 8,000 special operators — from a command numbering roughly 70,000 in total — are deployed in around 80 countries. Over the course of a year, they operate in about 70% of the world’s nations.
According to Major Michael Weisman, a spokesman for U.S. Special Operations Command Europe, elite U.S. forces have deployed to 21 European countries in 2017 and conducted exercises with an even larger number of nations. “Outside of Russia and Belarus we train with virtually every country in Europe either bilaterally or through various multinational events,” he told TomDispatch.
The number of commandos in Europe has also expanded exponentially in recent years. In 2006, 3% of special operators deployed overseas were sent to the continent. Last year, the number topped 12% — a jump of more than 300%. Only Africa has seen a larger increase in deployments over the same time span.
This special-ops surge is also reflected in the Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) program, overseas missions designed to prepare American commandos in a variety of warfighting skills while also strengthening relations with foreign forces. In 2012, special operators conducted 29 JCETs on that continent. Last year, the number reached 37, including six in Bulgaria, three in Estonia, three in Latvia, three in Poland, and three in Moldova.
The United States has devoted significant resources to building and bolstering allied special ops forces across the region. “Our current focus consists of assuring our allies through building partner capacity efforts to counter and resist various types of Russian aggression, as well as enhance their resilience,” SOCOM’s Thomas told members of the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year. “We are working relentlessly with our partners and the Department of State to build potency in eastern and northern Europe to counter Russia’s approach to unconventional warfare, including developing mature and sustainable Special Operations capabilities across the region.”
This year, U.S. commandos could be found in nations all along Russia’s borders. In March, for example, Green Berets took to snowmobiles for a cold-weather JCET alongside local troops in Lapland, Finland. In May, Navy SEALs teamed up with Lithuanian forces as part of Flaming Sword 17, a training exercise in that country. In June, members of the U.S. 10th Special Forces Group and Polish commandos carried out air assault and casualty evacuation training near Lubliniec, Poland. In July, Naval Special Warfare operators took part in Sea Breeze, a two decade-old annual military exercise in Ukraine. In August, airmen from the 321st Special Tactics Squadron transformed a rural highway in Jägala, Estonia, into an airstrip for tank-killing A-10 Thunderbolts as part of a military drill. That same month, U.S. special operators advised host-nation commandos taking part in Exercise Noble Partner in the Republic of Georgia.
“Working with the GSOF [Republic of Georgia’s Special Operations forces] was awesome,” said Captain Christopher Pulliam, the commander of the Georgia Army National Guard’s Company H (Long-Range Surveillance), 121st Infantry Regiment. (That, of course, is a unit from the American state of Georgia.) “Our mission set requires that we work in small teams that gather specific intel in the area of operations. The GSOF understand this and can use our intel to create a better understanding of the situation on the ground and react accordingly.”
Special Warriors and Special Warfare
The United States isn’t alone in fielding a large contingent of special operations forces. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency estimates that Russia’s Spetsnaz (“special purpose”) troops number around 30,000, a sizeable force, although less than half the size of America’s contingent of commandos. Russia, SOCOM’s Thomas told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year, is “particularly adept at leveraging unconventional approaches to advancing their interests and it is clear they are pursuing a wide range of audacious approaches to competition — SOF [special operations forces] often present a very natural unconventional response.”
Indeed, just like the United States and myriad militaries around the world, Russia has devoted significant resources to developing its doctrine and capabilities in covert, clandestine, and unconventional forms of warfare. In a seminal 2013 article in the Russian Academy of Military Science’s journal Military-Industrial Courier, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov explained the nature of modern hybrid warfare, including the use of elite troops, this way:
“In the twenty-first century we have seen a tendency toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace. Wars are no longer declared and, having begun, proceed according to an unfamiliar template… The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness… [t]he broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures… is supplemented by military means of a concealed character, including carrying out actions of informational conflict and the actions of special operations forces.”
Spetsnaz troops have indeed played a role in all of Russia’s armed interventions since 2001, including in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria. During that same span, U.S. Special Operations forces have been employed in combat in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria, Niger, and the Central African Republic. They have also had a presence in Jordan, Kenya, Djibouti, and Cameroon, among other countries to which, according to President Trump, U.S. combat-equipped forces are currently deployed.
In an interview late last year, retired Lieutenant General Charles Cleveland, chief of U.S. Army Special Operations Command from 2012 to 2015 and now the Senior Mentor to the Army War College, discussed the shortcomings of the senior military leadership in regard to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the “bad national policy decisions… that shaped U.S. campaigns in those theaters,” and a reliance on a brand of conventional war-fighting with limited effectiveness in achieving political goals. “[I]t is important to understand why SOF has risen from footnote and supporting player to main effort,” he added, “because its use also highlights why the U.S. continues to have difficulty in its most recent campaigns — Afghanistan, Iraq, against ISIS and AQ [al-Qaeda] and its affiliates, Libya, Yemen, etc. and in the undeclared campaigns in the Baltics, Poland, and Ukraine — none of which fits the U.S. model for traditional war.”
U.S. Special Operations Command Europe failed to answer TomDispatch’s questions about those “undeclared campaigns” on Russia’s doorstep, but more public and conventional efforts have been in wide evidence. In January, for example, tanks, trucks, and other equipment began arriving in Germany, before being sent on to Poland, to support Operation Atlantic Resolve. That effort, “designed to reassure NATO allies and partners… in light of the Russian intervention in Ukraine,” according to the Congressional Research Service, began with a nine-month rotation of about 3,500 soldiers from the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, who were replaced in September by 3,300 personnel and 1,500 vehicles from the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, which would be deployed to five countries. Earlier this month, Russia’s Defense Ministry complained that the size of the U.S. contingent in the Baltics violates a Russian-NATO agreement.
Red Dawn in the Gray Zone
Late last year, a group of active-duty and retired senior military officers, former ambassadors, academics, and researchers gathered for a symposium at the National Defense University (NDU) in Washington, D.C., titled “Russian Engagement in the Gray Zone.” Conducted via Chatham House rules — that is, in accounts of the meeting, statements could not be attributed to any specific speaker — the Americans proceeded to vilify Russia both for its bellicosity and its underhanded methods. Among the assessments: “Russia is always at a natural state of war and it prioritizes contactless war”; “Russia de-emphasizes kinetic activities and emphasizes the indirect/non-lethal approach”; and “Russia places a priority on subversion.”
The experts at NDU called for a comprehensive campaign to undermine Russia through sanctions, by courting “disenfranchised personnel” and “alienated persons” within that country, by developing enhanced cyber-capabilities, by utilizing psychological operations and “strategic messaging” to enhance “tactical actions,” and by conducting a special ops shadow war — which General Charles Cleveland seems to suggest might be already underway. “[T]he United States should learn from the Chechnya rebels’ reaction. The rebels used decentralized operations and started building pockets of resistance (to include solo jihadists),” reads a synopsis of the symposium.
“SOCOM actions will need,” the NDU experts asserted, “to be unconventional and irregular in order to compete with Russian modern warfare tactics.” In other words, they were advocating an anti-Russian campaign that seemed to emphasize the very approach they were excoriating Russia for — the “indirect/non-lethal approach” with a “priority on subversion.”
In the end, Russia’s much-feared “West” war game, in which Spetsnaz troops did participate, concluded with a whimper, not a bang. “After all the anxiety, Russia’s Zapad exercise ends without provocation,” read the headline in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes on September 20th.
For months, while Russia insisted its war game would involve fewer than 13,000 soldiers, the U.S. and its allies had warned that, in reality, up to 100,000 troops would flood into Belarus. Of those Russian troop levels, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Möller, a Swedish military observer who attended Zapad, said, “We reported about 12,400.” Of such exercises, he added, “This is normal military business as we do in all countries with armed forces. This is not training for attacking anyone. You meet the enemy, you stop the enemy, you defeat the enemy with a counterattack. We are doing the same thing in Sweden.”
Indeed, just as Möller suggested, more than 20,000 troops — including U.S. Special Operations forces and soldiers from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Lithuania, Latvia, Norway, and Sweden — had gathered in his country during the Zapad exercise for Aurora 2017. And Sweden was hardly unique. At the same time, troops from the U.S., Bulgaria, Canada, Estonia, Georgia, Italy, Lithuania, Moldova, Norway, Poland, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom were carrying out Rapid Trident, an annual military exercise, in neighboring Ukraine.
What message was the U.S. sending to Russia by conducting training exercises on its borders, Catherine Herridge of Fox News asked General Raymond Thomas in Aspen? “That’s a fascinating question because I am — I try to appreciate the adversary’s optic to — I realize that a way to gauge a metric if you will for how well we’re doing,” the SOCOM chief replied somewhat incoherently.
Herridge was, of course, asking Thomas to view the world through the eyes of his adversary, to imagine something akin to Russia and its ally Syria conducting war games in Mexico or Canada or in both countries; to contemplate Spetsnaz troops spread throughout the Western hemisphere on an enduring basis just as America’s elite troops are now a fixture in the Baltics and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
In the end, Thomas’s take was understated in a way that undoubtedly wouldn’t have been the case had the roles been reversed. “I am curious what Putin and his leadership are thinking,” the special ops chief mused. “I think it was a little unnerving.”
Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch, a fellow at the Nation Institute, and a contributing writer for the Intercept . He recently covered ethnic cleansing by government forces in South Sudan for Harper’s Magazine and the Columbia Journalism Review. His latest book is Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan. His website is NickTurse.com.