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Rehearsing for a shadow war against a foe embraced by Trump

Small teams of commandos from 10 countries rehearsed clandestine reconnaissance missions, sneaking up on potential targets and passing along information to local forces, during exercises with special forces in Hungary in June 2019.
Small teams of commandos from 10 countries rehearsed clandestine reconnaissance missions, sneaking up on potential targets and passing along information to local forces, during exercises with special forces in Hungary in June 2019.(Nanna Heitmann/The New York Times)

SZOLNOK, Hungary — Secretive, behind-the-lines mission rehearsals and other operations by 1,400 US and allied commandos to combat shifting Russian threats have laid bare a fundamental tension in the Trump administration: While the president courts Moscow, much of his government considers it an increasingly dangerous foe.

Just days before President Trump made light of Russia’s interference in US elections during a meeting last month with President Vladimir Putin, teams of Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs were practicing support missions for local resistance forces in Eastern Europe and the Baltics should they have to confront Russian commandos without insignia, the so-called little green men who helped Moscow seize Crimea in 2014.

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Under a revamped Pentagon strategy to counter growing threats from Russia and China, US commandos are teaming up with partners on Europe’s eastern flank to thwart Russia’s so-called hybrid warfare, which allied officials say increasingly involves manipulating events using a mix of subterfuge, cyberattacks, and information warfare. The threats hark back to Cold War-era intrigue, but so far are being fought with bytes and bandwidth, not bombs and bullets.

“This is back to the future,” General Richard D. Clarke, the head of the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command, said in an interview. “Special Operations forces have to work on the edges to counter Russian aggression.”

The two-week exercise in Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania offered a window into shadowy so-called gray-zone operations, which are meant to stay below the threshold of inciting open conflict but always run the risk of touching off exactly what both sides are trying to avoid: a shooting war.

But in an unexpected geopolitical twist, American and Hungarian officers here at the headquarters of this country’s special operations forces 60 miles east of Budapest sought to stay far away from domestic politics in their countries and from questions about the close links with Moscow that their commanders in chief have embraced.

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Trump gave Viktor Orban, the authoritarian prime minister of Hungary and one of Europe’s leading nationalists, a warm welcome in May despite concerns about Orban’s rollback of democratic institutions and warming ties with Russia.

Once a leader in the move to adopt Western values when the Soviet bloc collapsed three decades ago, Hungary has charted a different course since Orban assumed office in 2010. Even though Hungary is a NATO ally, Orban’s government has pressured nongovernmental organizations, brought most of the news media under control of his allies and upended the electoral process to favor his party.

During Orban’s visit to Washington, Trump made no mention of the fact that Hungary spends only 1.15 percent of its economy on defense, one of the proportionately lowest in NATO, even though he routinely criticizes other leaders for not meeting the 2 percent goal set by the alliance. Likewise, Trump said nothing about Hungary’s growing energy ties with Russia, unlike his repeated criticism of Germany on the same issue.

Meantime, Trump has dismissed bipartisan concerns about Russia, most recently last month when he warmly greeted and joked with Putin on the sidelines of an international summit in Japan.

When asked about these seeming contradictions, the top Hungarian and American officers overseeing the commando exercise exchanged glances and, after an awkward silence, chose their words carefully.

“Military-to-military relations are really resilient to what’s going on in the political environment,” Brigadier General Tamas Sandor, the head of Hungary’s 1,000 special operations troops, said in an interview in his office. “I’m staying in my professional lane.”

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In many ways, Sandor’s personal journey tracks the evolution of Eastern European militaries to NATO allies and post-9/11 comrades in the battlefields of Afghanistan from Cold War rivals.

Sandor, 52, joined the army as a cadet in the late 1980s, when Hungary was still part of the Warsaw Pact. He later trained at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Fort Bragg, N.C., and the National Defense University in Washington. He served three tours in Afghanistan alongside US forces.

Sitting across from him was Captain Mark Schafer, 47, a member of the Navy SEALs who is heading the US-led exercise here and in neighboring Bulgaria and Romania.

“We hear the background music; we’re not deaf to it,” Schafer, a native of Utica, N.Y., whose first taste of European conflict came when he deployed to Bosnia in the late 1990s, said of the highly charged political discourse. He now commands 600 Navy SEALs on the East Coast and has deployed to war zones more than 15 times since Sept. 11, 2001.

“But as the operational commander,” Schafer said, “I’m focused on our partnered capabilities. That’s my mission.”

The Special Operations exercise came at the same time as one of the largest US-led exercises since Russia invaded Crimea. It involved thousands of other conventional American and European troops and some 50 ships staging a mock assault on the Baltic coast near Russia.

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And it is not just in Eastern Europe and the Baltics where US commandos are gearing up to counter Russia. Swedish and Norwegian special forces have passed along tips on having the right gear not just to survive in the increasingly contested Arctic region, but to operate effectively and improve tactics there as well, said Major General Kirk W. Smith of the Air Force, an Afghan war veteran who is the commander of several thousand American Special Operations forces in Europe.

In their efforts, the US and its allies must overcome one natural disadvantage: Authoritarian powers, like Russia, have an easier time with hybrid conflicts built on deceptions and falsehoods.

In the run-up to elections in Ukraine this year, US officials said, Russian-backed social media targeted US Special Operations forces and conventional troops in disinformation efforts aimed at sowing distrust between the two countries.

Ukrainian authorities acted quickly to debunk the bogus information and urged the public to report messages that they found suspicious, US officials said.

“This is going to be a very long, sustained campaign,” Smith said, referring to countering Russian efforts. “They are trying to get through the seams. Our job is to recognize that, and compete with, counter and disrupt them.”