As NATO operation Saber Strike 17 came to a close on Sunday, around 11,000 service members from twenty different nations returned to regular duties the world over, confident that their activity increased international cooperation and served as a powerful deterrent to the potential of Russian aggression in the Baltics.  That word, “deterrent” is an important part of the strategy behind Saber Strike, as it marks a subtle shift in the terminology employed by military leaders, but a significant one in terms of actual operations.

“Less than one year ago, our alliance said we were going to transition from assurance to deterrence,” said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the commander of U.S. Army Europe, who led the exercise. “One of the manifestations of that transition was the creation of the EFP Battlegroups. In less than one year, these battle groups are exercising already in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. That is an amazing accomplishment for our great alliance.”

Hodges added, “Deterrence means you have to have the capability to compel or defeat a potential adversary. You have to demonstrate that capability and the will to use it, and these exercises are that demonstration.”

This year’s Saber Strike exercises involved training for NATO’s enhanced forward presence (EFP) battle groups, which are integrated units comprised of members of multiple NATO-allied nations.  On paper, the exercise entailed “conducting an integrated, synchronized, deterrence-oriented field training exercise designed to improve the interoperability and readiness of participating nations’ armed forces.”

In reality, it was intended to serve as a message to Russia: NATO is prepared to counter an advance of Russian forces into the Baltics or Poland.

The Saber Strike training included a military convoy from Orysz, Poland, to southern Lithuania, a maritime prepositioned offload of staged supplies and equipment in Latvia, a Marine amphibious assault in Latvia, two combined arms live-fire exercises in Poland and Lithuania; an air assault by the British Royal Marines at the Polish and Lithuanian border, and finally, a river crossing in that same area.

Each of these exercises presupposed the possibility of a Russian advance through a narrow stretch of territory called the Suwalki Gap, which runs for about 65 miles between Poland and Lithuania.  The Russian enclave of Kaliningrad sits on the western edge of the Suwalki Gap, meaning they could feasibly launch an offensive that cuts the Baltic States off from Poland, and in turn, the rest of their NATO allies.  Strategically, it would be the logical first step to the military annexation of the Baltics, if Russia saw fit to repeat their 2014 antics in Crimea.

“If you would like to have skilled soldiers, you have to train every day,” said Latvian Army Chief of Defense Maj. Gen. Leonids Kalnins. “If you would like to be safe as a state, you have to find allies; but if you would like to be the winner and create a great future for all countries, for all society, you have to participate in such exercises as this one.”