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The U.S., Sweden, Finland and Ukraine are among the 14 nations conducting major exercises in Estonia.
According to NATO, "Hedgehog 2022" is one of the largest exercises in Estonia's history. Some 15 000 soldiers from 14 countries, including members of the U.S.-led military bloc as well as their partners, will take part in the drills.
As reported by the Finnish public broadcaster Yle, all branches of the armed forces will be involved in the drills, including air, sea and land exercises and cyber warfare training. A NATO statement said that the U.S. Navy's Wasp-class landing ship "Kearsarge" will also partake in these exercises.
The military bloc and the deputy commander of the Estonian Defense Forces, Major General Veiko-Vello Palm, have rejected that the drills conducted just over 60 km from the Russian border are linked to the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Western officials, for their part, said that the drills began just a day after Finland and Sweden made official announcements of their plans to become NATO members, noting that they were planned well before the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine.
In addition to NATO's "Hedgehog 2022" maneuvers in Estonia, the military bloc also conducts major military activities in Lithuania, another Baltic state close to the Russian border. The territory of Lithuania hosts the "Iron Wolf" maneuvers, in which 3 000 NATO troops and 1 000 pieces of military equipment, including German Leopard 2 tanks, are participating.
The #NATO starts drills near Russian border has sparked a wave of criticism from Moscow, which warned that it would have to respond if Finland and Sweden join NATO. Moscow also maintains that it considers NATO’s expansion as a direct threat to its own security.#Warmongerspic.twitter.com/BlmQoVS6ZN
Moreover, with eight other countries, Poland is hosting "Defender Europe" and "Swift Response," two of NATO's largest exercises. According to NATO's Friday statement, 18 000 soldiers from 20 countries are taking part. Otherwise, the NATO Response Force has now engaged in the 7 500-strong "Wettiner Heide" exercises in Germany.
NATO's spokesperson Oana Lungescu said that "exercises like these show that NATO stands strong and ready to protect our nations and defend against any threat" and added that the drills "help to remove any room for miscalculation or misunderstanding about our resolve to protect and defend every inch of allied territory."
These large-scale military activities come at a time when tensions between Russia, NATO, and some of NATO's partners are running high. Following Russia's special military operation in Ukraine, Finland and Sweden announced their intention to join the military bloc. Moscow has said it would respond accordingly, considering NATO expansion an outright threat to Russia's national security.