SUWALKI GAP, LITHUANIA — On a raw, rainy June morning — through forests, farm fields and familiar summer bugs — Minnesota National Guard soldiers began a major military-training exercise.
The location was Lithuania, not Camp Ripley, and the geopolitical context was the risk that an invasion by a resurgent Russia could cut off Baltic nations from the rest of Europe, a concern that became more than an abstraction in Eastern Europe after Russia illegally cleaved Crimea and destabilized eastern Ukraine.
The war-gaming took place on the geopolitically strategic Suwalki Gap, a 60-mile border between Poland and Lithuania that divides Russia-backed Belarus to the east and Kaliningrad, a rump Russian territory, to the west.
The exercise was “an opportunity to actually operate on the ground that we might actually fight on, that we might actually have to come to the defense of our partners, as opposed to being at Camp Ripley or even being at some other European training range,” said Maj. Gen. Neal Loidolt, deputy adjutant general of the Minnesota Guard. Loidolt spoke from a Soviet-era airfield in Kazlu Ruda in southern Lithuania, where troops took to Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters in an air-assault exercise.
Across portions of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, forces from 19 NATO nations (and NATO partner Finland) took part in an exercise called Saber Strike 17. The goal was to improve coordination and readiness within Baltic nations and to show U.S. Army Europe’s operational speed and reach.
That speed was impressively implemented from the moment Minnesota National Guard equipment arrived in the Baltic Sea port of Klaipeda. An ambitious goal was set to get across the country to the Pabrade Training Area in eastern Lithuania in just 72 hours. It took the Guard just under 71. “To get all of our equipment here that rapidly and move it across the whole country of Lithuania was just exciting and exceptional for our soldiers,” said Lt. Col. Jason Benson.
The convoy’s trek may have seemed familiar. “There’s so many times that we drove from the port and you would sit and say, ‘This could be outside of Alexandria, or this could be up in Grand Rapids,’ ” said Benson, who is the county engineer for Cass County in North Dakota. More crucially, Benson added, despite linguistic and cultural differences, there were military similarities. That was a common theme in dozens of discussions with soldiers not just from the Minnesota Guard but from other participating nations, too.
“Within the National Guard, frequently you’ll hear people say, ‘It’s best not to exchange business cards the day of a tornado or the worst day of the flood,’ ” Loidolt said. “You can take that analogy and play it here: Let’s not try to figure out what our communications problems are, let’s not try to figure out what challenges you have in tactics and procedures, on the first day we fight the enemy. It’s best to figure it out now when you can work out the kinks in what’s going on, and so that’s really what Saber Strike does.”
Not surprisingly for a training exercise, there were some kinks at the Suwalki Gap.
“It didn’t go [according] to plan, and I think that’s probably a good thing,” Maj. Simon Cox of the British Royal Marines said between stages of the exercise. Cox, camouflaged from face to uniform to fit into the lush Lithuanian landscape, added with British understatement that “it’s not the sort of thing you get in a sterile training environment.”
That fact made it an “eye-opening experience,” said Cpl. Jesse Nowicki, originally from Oconomowoc, Wis., who said being at the National Training Center in California last year was “kind of a bigger picture and real-world, and this takes it to a whole new level of interacting with other countries.”
Nowicki, who works at an environmental consulting company while working toward her graduate degree in civil engineering at the University of Minnesota, said her role as an intelligence analyst during the training challenged her more than previous exercises, a theme repeated by several soldiers from Minnesota and coalition nations.
Training in Lithuania doesn’t mean that Minnesota Guard members won’t still fight floods or respond to tragedies like tornadoes back home. But the Guard has a dual mission, said Minnesota’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Richard Nash. Speaking in Vilnius, Lithuania’s pristine, progressive capital city, Nash added that while the post-Soviet era was one of relative peace, now “a revisionist Russia has certainly changed the calculus on that.”
While there is no immediate indication Moscow intends to replicate the Crimea crisis in the Baltics (especially since, unlike Ukraine, the Baltic countries are NATO members), those familiar with the region are wary. And as if to remind them, Russia reportedly is planning its own nearby exercise in Belarus in September with up to 100,000 troops, compared with the more than 11,500 (including more than 700 from Minnesota across Lithuania) who took part in Saber Strike.
“People in this part of the world know it in their bones, they know it in their DNA that the neighbor to the east is tough, that they are in a tough neighborhood,” said Anne Hall, the U.S. ambassador to Lithuania.
Hall, observing the Suwalki Gap exercise, added that “this is critically important, because the little land bridge between Belarus and Kaliningrad is very small and very narrow, so this is a particularly strategic area.” Reflecting on that “neighbor to the east,” Hall said, “since Crimea, I think the sense here is [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will go wherever he sees a vacuum, so you make sure that you don’t leave a vacuum.”
That analysis was amplified by German Lt. Gen. Carsten Jacobson while he watched multinational troops informally interact with citizens amid a “static display” of military equipment in the placid city of Birstonas in southern Lithuania.
“When President Putin took control over Crimea and started hybrid warfare in eastern Ukraine, he sent a very clear signal to the world that he was willing to underline political ambition with military capabilities and use the military again, neglecting borders in Europe,” Jacobson said. “The only thing that has stopped him in further progressing was that NATO reacted very, very quickly, very decisively.”
“A very good example”
Indeed, the notion that NATO is “obsolete,” as President Donald Trump once alleged of the alliance but later retracted, was belied by demonstrable appreciation from many Lithuanians, both civilian and soldier alike.
“When you show that we are together — the U.S., Germans, other allies — people see stronger armies,” said Valdemaras Rupsys, the brigadier general of the Lithuanian Army. “If you look at Russia’s propaganda they always say, ‘You are too small, we will take you in one or two hours,’ and usually people in Lithuania say, ‘maybe, because we are too small, our armaments are not so modern.’ But when we are together and show to our citizens, ‘Look — we have the most modern military technique and the most advanced weaponry,’ they trust in the Army and they trust in the state.”
As for this state and its citizen soldiers, Rupsys said that when asked on national TV to contrast this and other training exercises, he answered: “The biggest difference is because we have Minnesota’s National Guard here, this very strong battle group. … I have just extremely good briefs and reports from the colonel leading this group who said that your soldiers are a very good example for us.”
They’re a good example for us, too, particularly this Independence Day weekend, of how selfless soldiers, most of whom balance military and civilian careers with family demands, make Minnesota — and increasingly the world — more secure.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.