American troops were met with waving American flags on Thursday as they arrived in Poland as a part of NATO efforts to deter Russian aggression in the region, and the Kremlin isn’t pleased about it.
A total of approximately 3,500 U.S. troops are currently being deployed to seven Eastern European nations, along with more than eighty tanks and hundreds of armored vehicles as a part of NATO’s Operation Atlantic Resolve. This show of force is a direct response to the military annexation of Crimea by Russian forces in 2014, as well as continued tensions between Putin’s regime and those who share a border with the Russian state.
“This is the fulfilment of a dream,” said Michal Baranowski, director of the German Marshall Fund, a think tank in Warsaw, Poland. “And this is not just a symbolic presence but one with a real capability.”
American commitment to this operation was promised by now-departing U.S. President Barack Obama, as a part of a larger effort to protect and stabilize the region after fears of continued Russian expansion gripped Eastern Europe. Now, many fear that incoming President Donald Trump will undermine the expansion of NATO defenses in the region due to his softer stance on Putin’s regime.
“All recent U.S. presidents have thought there can be a grand bargain with Russia,” said Marcin Zaborowski, a senior associate at Visegrad Insight, an analytic journal on Central Europe. “Trump has a proclivity to make deals, and Central and Eastern Europe have reason to worry about that.”
Russia’s response to the surge in troops has been swift and concise – referring to the operation as a direct threat to Russian borders.
“These actions threaten our interests, our security,” Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday. “Especially as it concerns a third-party building up its military presence near our borders. It’s not even a European state.”
He added, “We interpret this as a threat to us and as actions that endanger our interests and our security.”
Poland’s Undersecretary of State for Defense, Tomasz Szatkowski, countered Russia’s statements by explaining that the added defenses are necessary as a result of “large exercises” being conducted by the Russian military near their border, as well as Russia’s “aggressive actions in our vicinity – I mean Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea.”
Months ago, Russia deployed nuclear capable Iskander missiles to Kalingrad, located between Poland and Lithuania. Soon thereafter, they reinforced their missile sites with Bastion anti-ship missile launchers.
Currently, all U.S. troops participating in Operation Atlantic Resolve are massing Poland, to be dispersed to European nations Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary in the weeks to come. A headquarters unit will be establishing in Germany, set for nine month rotations, with another unit coming to relieve them in September.
Another, separate NATO operation will soon see four additional battalions deployed to Poland and three other Baltic nations. One such battalion will be led by U.S. forces.
Despite allied concerns about a softer stance on Moscow’s aggression coming from the inbound Trump administration, the President Elect’s pick for Defense Secretary, James Mattis, made his stance on Russia clear during his confirmation hearing on Thursday.
“I think right now the most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with (in) Mr. Putin,” Mattis said. “We recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance, and that we take the steps, the integrated steps, diplomatic, economic, military and the alliance steps, working with our allies to defend ourselves where we must.”
It seems unlikely that Mattis would advise a drawdown of forces perched on the edge of Russian territory regardless of how chummy the two nation’s presidents may be perceived to be. In addition, recent allegations regarding Trump’s possible collusion with the Kremlin’s efforts to discredit former Secretary of State and Democratic candidate for President, Hillary Clinton, would make removing said forces extremely hazardous for Trump’s reputation stateside, where even if the allegations prove false, a dark cloud of doubt will likely remain regarding the election in the minds of many Americans.
In effect, even if Trump is friendly with the Kremlin, he’ll need to tread lightly in order to ensure Americans don’t think him too friendly.
Polish Foreign Minister, Witold Waszczykowski, said in a statement earlier this week that Poland does not want to stand in the way of improved American-Russian relations, “provided that this does not happen at our expense.”
Image courtesy of AFP