Is the U.S. Ready for Russia’s Largest Military Exercises Since the Cold War?

Before his visit to Estonia, Vice President Mike Pence probably didn’t know the Russian word for “west” — zapad. But he knows it now, because it is the codename for one of the largest military exercises that Russia traditionally undertakes in the Baltic region. Estonia, along with Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland are bracing for the appearance of up to 100,000 Russian troops in Belarus and western Russia, including the imposing 1st Guards Tank Army, ahead of the September exercise. Alarmed at the size of the exercise, set to take place so close to the Baltics, the United States has sent additional forces to the region to reinforce NATO forces already deployed there.

The vice president now seems to be the administration’s “go to” person for reassuring allies in Europe that the United States is committed to NATO and to the defense of the continent. He said all the right things in Estonia, visited NATO forces there, and met with Baltic heads of state and government. But unfortunately, both his words and the 600 or so U.S. reinforcements are thin gruel when bets are being placed on the Russians doing something mischievous in September. The Russians may do nothing more than leave behind in Belarus a substantial troop presence to bring that nation to heel and to further intimidate the Baltics. Such a repositioning would also put Russian forces in an advantageous position for an aggressive move against the Baltics later on. Or it could be something worse. All eyes will be watching the Russian exercise buildup in August to anticipate what is in store for September. Thus far, the Russians are not allowing allied observers to monitor the exercise, which is the standard procedure for exercises of a certain magnitude in order to ensure transparency and confidence building. But confidence building is not in the Russian playbook.

Once his European tour ends, Pence will return to Washington and to the president’s agenda, which has languished since his inauguration. Burning in the president’s inbox is the crisis with North Korea, which is tumbling towards a military option with each new and improved missile launch. But unlike the president, Pence will know that his new friends in the Baltics are counting on him not to take his eye off what could be an even more immediate military crisis in the region. If the Russians choose to use Zapad to cause trouble, it may be the president will turn to his “globalist” vice president to be the point man on the…

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