AFP — The first American troops arrived in Poland on Wednesday, after Washington said it was sending a force of 600 there and to the Baltic states amid rising tensions with Russia over Ukraine.
Some 130 soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade — nicknamed “Sky Soldiers” — touched down early afternoon in Swidwin, in the northwest of the country, and were welcomed by Poland’s defense minister.
“Every day we work on the defense of our country but in a world that is changing, and that is full of threats, we need strong and steadfast allies such as the United States and NATO,” Minister Tomasz Siemoniak said under a cloudy sky.
The troops, who are usually based in Vicenza, Italy, arrived at the base on two Hercules transport planes.
A further 450 US troops will be deployed in the next few days in the ex-Soviet Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, following Washington’s announcement Tuesday that it would increase its presence in the region to reassure its NATO “allies and partners”.
“Poland has been there for the United States,” US ambassador to Poland Stephen Mull said at the ceremony in accented Polish.
“And today, as the transatlantic community confronts Russia’s unacceptable aggression against Poland’s neighbor Ukraine, a sovereign and independent state, we have a solemn obligation in the framework of NATO to reassure Poland of our security guarantee.”
US troops are due to carry out military exercises in the region for the rest of the year.
“We’re going to do everything from rifle ranges to company live fires…. The plan here is not to do training for a show. We’re going to do some very good and hard infantry training with the Polish Sixth Airborne Brigade,” said Major Michael Weisman, the US brigade’s spokesman.
“We’re paratroopers, so our job in Europe is we’re the contingency response force. So we’re prepared to go anywhere in the world under 18 hours and we’re usually the force that commanders call for when there’s an important mission,” he told AFP.
‘Threats are real’
The US has pulled no punches in describing the purpose of the mission, with Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby calling the deployment a “message to Moscow” that Washington takes its obligations in Europe “very, very seriously”.
Russia has an estimated 40,000 troops poised on Ukraine’s eastern border, and NATO has warned they could strike on short notice if ordered.
Russia has already annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine since pro-Western protests forced Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych from power in February, and tensions over the ex-Soviet republic continue to deepen.
Kirby said the Poland exercises are “bilateral” US operations and not NATO exercises, although he said there was no reluctance by other alliance members to send ground troops to countries bordering Russia.
Polish and Baltic leaders have applauded Washington’s move.
“I am happy that allies reacted very quickly, assessed that threats are real and not imaginary, and the reinforcement comes at our request,” Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite told reporters on Wednesday.
“When it comes to military security, we’re aware that Poland will have no better guarantor than the United States,” said Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
Soon after the welcome ceremony, the US soldiers piled into buses with their bulky travel bags and left for the nearby town of Drawsko Pomorskie, where they will be stationed.
Local nurse Dominik Jawilak stood by the military base gates as the soldiers rode off waving from the buses.
“We came here to watch the planes land,” said the 40-year-old, who drove up from the nearby town of Redlo with his sons and their friends.
He said he was glad to see his country’s allies and NATO fulfil their commitments to Poland but stressed that he did not fear any spillover from the Ukraine crisis.
“No one here is worried. It’s far away from us, for the moment it has nothing to do with us, and whatever is to happen will happen. We have no influence over it,” he told AFP.