NATO has launched its largest military exercise in more than a decade, with the United States and its allies increasingly concerned about Russian military moves and growing instability in the Middle East.
The Western military alliance said during the three-week exercise, dubbed Trident Juncture, 36,000 troops from more than 30 NATO member-nations and partners will undergo "intensive training" across Italy, Spain and Portugal.
Speaking to reporters Monday at Tapani air force base in Italy, NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Alexander Vershbow stressed the military exercise involves a "fictitious adversary" and said NATO seeks "confrontation with no one."
But Vershbow noted the alliance is facing "fundamental challenges" both to the south and the east, “turmoil and extremism in the Middle East and North Africa,” and “Russia’s continuing destabilization of Ukraine and now its intervention in Syria.”
In response, he said, NATO is enhancing its "readiness" and "flexibility."
"We are very concerned about the Russian military build-up," Vershbow said in response to a question about the challenge from Russia.
"The increasing concentration of forces in Kaliningrad, the Black Sea and now in the eastern Mediterranean does pose some additional challenges that our planners are going to have to take seriously into account," he added.
The exercises will test a new 5,000-strong "spearhead" force comprising air, maritime and special operations components as part of a 40,000-strong rapid reaction force.
While planned two years ago, the exercises are timely. In the fictitious training scenario, a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizes a NATO mission to help protect a threatened state and to safeguard the seas, Reuters reported.
Meanwhile, Reuters news agency quoted General Philip Breedlove, NATO's top commander in Europe, as saying Monday he had assurances that NATO countries will keep their forces in Afghanistan at current levels.
U.S. President Barack Obama announced last week that American troops will remain in Afghanistan at the current level of 9,800 throughout 2016 and then be reduced to around 5,500 troops in 2017.