Poland welcomes US troops as part of NATO buildup

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ZAGAN, Poland  — Poland’s leaders are set to stage a formal welcome ceremony Saturday for the biggest US troop deployment to Europe in decades.

Some 4,000 US soldiers have been deployed as part of troop rotations to Europe that the Pentagon has said are intended to bolster ties with NATO allies and send a clear message to Russia.

Russia has criticized the continuous deployments as “a threat” to Russian security.

Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz are expected to attend Saturday’s event in the Polish town of Zagan.

A convoy of US troops and military equipment crossed the border into Poland on Thursday, having arrived in the German city of Bremerhaven on Sunday.

After assembling in Poland, the 3rd Armored Combat Brigade Team of the 4th Infantry Division, deployed from Fort Carson, Colorado, will disperse across seven locations in Eastern Europe for training and exercises with European allies.

It will serve as part of a rotation of American military assets in the region and is part of an effort to demonstrate America’s “rock solid” commitment to its European allies in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Ukraine, according to US European Command Deputy Commander Lt. Gen. Tim Ray.

Deploying the troops and military hardware is the latest in a series of moves by the US to ramp up its land, sea and air presence in Europe, against a backdrop of concern over potential Russian aggression.

Russia: ‘A threat to us’

Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov told journalists on a conference call Thursday that Russia’s response was a natural reaction to an increase in military strength by a neighbor.

“We see it as a threat to us. This is an action that threatens our interests, our security, moreover, this is a third nation (apart from Russia and Poland) that is increasing its military presence near our borders in Europe, and it’s not even a European nation.

“One thousand or 10,000 — we’re talking about the increase of military presence. There’s nothing to add.”

US President-elect Donald Trump has said that he would like to improve US relations with Russia.

But Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski warned in an interview Friday with Poland’s RMF radio that any warming of the US-Russia relationship should not come at Poland’s cost.

Posting on Twitter, Waszczykowski said he had spoken with Trump’s advisers in the United States. “Americans think about the world and relations with Russia much like we do. We have nothing to fear,” he said.

Poland and other NATO allies in the region are keen to show their support for the US deployment, which comes at a time of uncertainty over the incoming Trump administration’s commitment to NATO.

During campaigning, Trump repeatedly questioned the utility of NATO and its members’ financial contributions to the alliance, which many see as a vital bulwark against potential Russian aggression.

However, his nominee for defense secretary, Ret. Gen. James Mattis, a former supreme allied commander of NATO, voiced unequivocal support for the alliance in confirmation hearings this week, and said he had said as much to Trump.

Joint exercises

A significant portion of the 4,000-strong US force will be garrisoned at Polish military bases in Zagan, Boleslawiec, Swietoszowa and Skwierzyna, the US Embassy in Poland said.

While on deployment, the US troops will carry out training and exercises in Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary, the embassy said.

“We’re here to deter any aggression that would threaten peace and security in this region,” said Col. Christopher R. Norrie, commander of the 3rd Armored Combat Brigade Team of the 4th Infantry Division, in a US Army Europe news release.

“To move a brigade combat team here is a very visible, credible expression of our commitment to further ensuring the already strong deterrent capability resident in Eastern Europe and with our NATO allies.”

Along with the troop increase, 2,400 pieces of military equipment including tanks, armored fighting vehicles, artillery, trucks and containers have been deployed.

They were transported using three cargo ships, rail, commercial line-haul and a military convoy, US Army Europe said.

Maj. Gen. Jaroslaw Mika, commander of Poland’s Black Division — the 11th Lubuska Armored Cavalry Division — said the two nations’ service members would carry out joint exercises to improve cooperation and skills, according to a Polish government news release.

Concern over Russian moves

The US troop deployment to Europe was agreed following NATO summits in 2014 and 2016 that were dominated by deep concern over Russia’s increased assertiveness and military power.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the war waged by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have particularly unnerved NATO members in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.

“Russia, as you know with their incursion into Ukraine, that’s something that has a lot of our allies and partners concerned,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters on Monday.

“Being able to demonstrate tangibly our commitment to their defense is an important element of our overall collective defense in Europe.

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