By Vasco Cotovio, Fred Pleitgen and Claudia Otto, CNN
A US Navy SEAL jumps out of a Romanian helicopter and slides down a rope. He’s one of several American special forces units taking part in a military drill on the Black Sea, just 100 miles from Ukraine, where Russia continues to wage its war.
Their mission? Stop a ship occupied by insurgents that have disrupted trade in the region. To succeed, they are using not just the helicopter but four rigid inflatable boats to board the vessel.
“The helicopter insertion and boat insertion, their synchronization is very important in order for all the teams to get on board the ship at the exact time they should,” a special forces group leader, who cannot be named for security reasons, told CNN.
Working with other nations adds another layer of difficulty but for this Romanian service member all the years of training are paying off. “It’s not the first or the second time we work with [the US],” he said. “We train all the time with the US, it was very simple.”
The scenario is fake but for Romania, disturbances to its commercial lanes on the Black Sea are very real — especially as Russia continues to project strength in the region and as its war on Ukraine, now in its third month, rages on.
The war has already reached the edge of Romania’s exclusive economic zone, at Snake Island, also known as Zmiinyi Island. The small but strategic landmass, less than 30 miles from Romania’s coast, has been the site of fierce battle and bombardment.
NATO says it has tried to support Ukraine, which is not a member of the alliance, while also attempting to prevent the conflict from spreading other countries in the region, an alliance special forces official told CNN. But above all, NATO’s main objective continues to be to protect its member nations, he said.
“[These exercises are] even more important now,” the official said, referring to the potential of the conflict spilling over Ukraine’s borders. “It’s even more important that you continue (them), that you don’t show that you are scared.”
The drills are part of Trojan Footprint, which involves 30 nations and more than 3,300 special and conventional forces, according to the official. While Ukraine is not taking part this year, many of the exercises are happening in areas around the country, close to Russian territory. But the drills — and their location — are not new: Ukraine participated in 2021 and was slated to be involved this year before the Russian invasion began in February.
Also absent this year is Russia who, although not officially invited to oversee the exercise, usually shadows NATO vessels and units operating in the area.
“You can always safely assume that someone is watching you,” the official said. “Right now they’re busy with the war,” but we should be even more careful about “operational security.”
Monday’s exercise took place as Russian troops paraded through Moscow’s Red Square, celebrating Victory Day, marking the Soviet and allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II — and a national celebration of Russia’s military achievements.
Despite the war and heightened tensions with Moscow, the official says the risk of escalation caused by the drills is one worth taking.
“You don’t back away just because there’s a crisis,” he said, explaining that the backdrop of war makes this year’s exercises unique.
“You could do same operation in the Baltic Sea — what’s different (this year) is (the) geopolitical situation,” the official said, adding that “a miscalculation can always lead to something, but the risk of not doing anything is worse than the risk of doing it.”
A Romanian special forces task force commander, who coordinated the exercise and who cannot be named for security reasons, shared a similar outlook.
He told CNN: “We do what we did last year, two years before and so on.” Our objective is just to train so it’s not important who or what the challenge is. “It’s important on the level of training that you reach.”
But the commander conceded that the conflict in Ukraine plays into their calculations, adding that the war is real and so they are prepared for anything.
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