U.S. military creep continues apace in Europe. Under the cover of the ever present 'military exercise', some 500 U.S. Marines literally landed on the beaches of the easily forgotten Baltic country of Estonia. The U.S. military says its' probably a first. It may seem insignificant, afterall, it was only about 500 Marines, but it is part of a trend to turn as much of the globe's land and waterways into so much U.S. military terrain.Estonian Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo said such exercises add stability in the region.
As mentioned, the Marines were breaking new ground in the Baltic Sea.
In the joint exercise, 130 marines and 50 Estonian troops disembarked from the transport vessel USS Gunston Hall to occupy a beach near the town of Loksa on Estonia's northern coast.
"I'm not aware of us landing with amphibious (vessels) on the Baltic Sea before," said Brig. Gen. Paul W. Brier, head of Marine Corps in Europe. "I don't think we have done that before, we've done offloads of (Marine) ships."
The exercises were part of an annual routine called the slightly awkward, Baltops. Ironically, the Russians, always ansy about any U.S. military encroachment towards their territory, have taken part in the maneuvers in the past.
For the Estonians and the two other Baltic states, Lithuania and Latvia, it's the Russians who are the enemy, potential at least, although never ever bluntly stated as such.
So, NATO putting boots on the ground sends a comforting signal to elites in these parts.
"NATO is not merely a name on paper but an organization offering concrete cooperation," Aaviksoo said. "It gives us the assurance that we will not be alone at a critical moment."
Estonia, a nation of 1.3 million, has all of 3,000 soldiers who earn a wage, and another 2,500 conscripts, plus reserves of around 12,000.
Crucially, NATO has set up its own cyber-defense HQ in Estonia.
It was Estonia that was allegedly the target of a 'cyber attack in 2007, largely blamed on Russia, although as the Guardian points out in today's high-tech world it's hard to find fingerprints.
Just as any hard evidence to suggest the Russian military approved the Estonian cyberattack in 2007 is largely missing, so proving that China or Russia are directly responsible for other attacks is almost impossible. And, experts admit, it would be politically smart for a truly destructive organisation to mask their attacks and make them seem like they originated from a country already under scrutiny.
In truth, it could be almost anybody, almost anywhere. Rudimentary hackers' toolkits are available to buy cheaply online, while an illicit black-market trade in more complex tools takes would-be attackers out of the reach of the authorities on the so-called "darknet". And while a highly intelligent virus such as Conficker may have required some skill to program, other hackers may succeed simply by having the time to experiment rather than any great raw ability. (Gary McKinnon, the Briton accused of hacking into Pentagon computers, bumbled his way into supposedly secure networks by guessing that the password had not been changed from the default "password").
It may be paranoia. The three small Baltic states are independent, integrated into the U.S. war machine NATO and entangled in the tentacles of the EU. The Soviet Union is consigned to history's scrap heat, and the rump of it, Russia, is struggling put down a swelling Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus, let alone branch out on some imperial mission.
But, as elsewhere in Europe, history always looms.
As the Marines were stomping in the sand of the Baltic Sea, the leaders of the three Baltic states paid tribute to the tens of thousands of their citizens deported to the Soviet Union during World War II.
"In each of our souls there is a deep scar. Every day we complain about small things, but today we need to remember their stories, understand that there is no Latvian family who did not suffer," Latvian President Valdis Zatlers said at a ceremony.
He was speaking on June 14, the date Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia mark as memorial day.
That was the date in 1941 when some 10,000 Estonians, 15,000 Latvians and 18,000 Lithuanians were herded onto cattle trains and sent deep into the Soviet Union, where many died.
Whole families were swept up as the invading Soviets cracked down on opposition -- real and imagined.
"Those things won't disappear from my mind. We lost my mother, the family property, my homeland and health," Lithuanian survivor Vytautas, 70, told AFP.
Also speaking to the French agency was Latvian student Emils Soms, 20, who said he travels every day past an area in Riga where the victims were loaded onto trains.
"I was not directly affected by the tragedy. Instead I look forward to days that celebrate the positive side of Latvian life," he said.
Marines as a guarantee of their liberty and freedom. For many in the Baltics that message rings true. The Russians can complain of U.S. military creep, and justifiably so, but they can't escape history.