Some people waved and held up American flags as U.S. troops in tanks and other vehicles crossed into southwestern Poland from Germany and headed toward the town of Zagan, where they will be based. Poland's prime minister and defense minister will welcome them in an official ceremony Saturday.
"This is the fulfilment of a dream," said Michal Baranowski, director of the German Marshall Fund think tank in Warsaw. "And this is not just a symbolic presence but one with a real capability."
U.S. and other Western nations have carried out exercises on NATO's eastern flank in past years, but the new deployment — which includes some 3,500 U.S. troops — marks the first-ever continuous deployment to the region by a NATO ally.
It is part of a larger commitment by President Barack Obama to protect a region that grew deeply nervous when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and then began backing separatist rebels in Ukraine's east.
There are fears, however, that the enhanced security could eventually be undermined by the pro-Kremlin views of President-elect Donald Trump.
Poland and the Baltic states also feel threatened by Russia's recent deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, the Russian territory wedged between Poland and Lithuania.
But Russia says it's the one who is threatened.
"These actions threaten our interests, our security," President Vladimir Putin's 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."
Worries about the permanence of the new U.S. security commitments are rooted in a tragic national history in which Poland has often lost out in deals made by the great powers.
Poles still feel betrayed by Obama's "reset" with Russia early on in his administration, which involved abandoning plans for a major U.S. missile defense system in Poland and replacing it with plans for a less ambitious system, still not in place.
"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."
Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski expressed hope this week that any new effort at reconciliation with Russia "does not happen at our expense."
The armored brigade combat team arriving in Poland hails from Fort Carson, Colorado. The troops arrived last week in Germany and are gathering in Poland before units will fan out across seven countries from Estonia to Bulgaria. A headquarters unit will be stationed in Germany. After nine months they will be replaced by another unit.
In a separate but related mission, NATO will also deploy four battalions to its eastern flank later this year, one each to Poland and the three Baltic states. The U.S. will also lead one of those battalions.
|Maj. Gen. Timothy McGuire, deputy commander of US miltary in Europe, supervises the unloading of US military vehicles from a transport ship in the harbor in Bremerhaven, northwestern Germany.|
Russia says US troop buildup is 'a threat'
Russia has criticized US troop deployments in Europe, saying that the deployment of thousands of US soldiers as part of continuous troop rotations to Eastern Europe is "a threat" to Russian security.
When asked about US and NATO troops in Poland, 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 ten thousand -- we're talking about the increase of military presence. There's nothing to add."
Earlier this week 4,000 US soldiers arrived in Germany as part of troop rotations to Europe that the Pentagon said are meant to send a clear message to Russia.
"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."
Along with the troop increase, 2,400 pieces of military equipment that included tanks, armored fighting vehicles, artillery, trucks and containers were deployed.
The equipment will be moved to Poland, where it will be dispersed across seven locations in Eastern Europe for training and exercises with European allies.
Hopes for future detente
Asked about the incoming administration's change of attitude towards relations with Moscow, Peskov reiterated there should be more mutual respect between Russia and the US. The comments came after President-elect Donald Trump held a news conference on Wednesday, where he acknowledged the likelihood of Russian involvement in hacking ahead of the 2016 US election.
"President Putin with his actions and his statements has clearly and undoubtedly showed his readiness to respect our partners, but this respect can only be mutual, it cannot be unilateral.
"That's why, of course, there should be more mutual respect in Russia-US ties, from our viewpoint, much more."
He said that the Kremlin hoped that the two leaders "will get along."
"At least, Mr. Trump was talking about his readiness to have a dialogue. It does not mean a readiness to agree with each other on everything, that's what Moscow does not expect, but a dialogue is what we should hope for in search of many complicated situations."
Peskov also responded to remarks this week from prospective Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who claimed Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 was an "illegal action" and that Moscow "must be held to account for its actions."
CNN asked Peskov about Tillerson's statement. He said: "This is his position, we take it into consideration. Of course, Russia will patiently keep explaining the matter (to him). Of course, we don't agree with (Tillerson's) wording and will be reasonably explaining our position (to him)."
Tillerson admitted Wednesday he had not spoken with the incoming President on policies regarding Russia.
During an exchange with New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, the retired ExxonMobil CEO said that a conversation about Russia between himself and Trump had "not yet occurred" and that the two had only discussed global affairs in general terms.
Thousands of US troops on Russia's doorstep in Poland deployment
Thousands of U.S. troops crept up on Russia's doorstep Thursday, rolling into Poland amid a slew of unanswered questions about their future in the region.
It marked the first deployment of armored brigade combat teams and armor to Europe after a long drawdown from the continent. For decades, Poland had asked for help in keeping Moscow at bay, but at the same time, President-elect Donald Trump has signaled he could try to pursue a friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Still, the president-elect said Wednesday nothing was off the table. "I don't know that I'm going to get along with Vladimir Putin. I hope I do. But there's a good chance I won't."
Russia clearly wasn't happy with the deployment. "We perceive it as a threat," President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. "These actions threaten our interests, our security, especially as it concerns a third party building up its military presence near our borders."
Moscow also announced it deployed anti-aircraft missile systems around the city. Russia had already been using the s-400 Triumph air defense system, capable of hitting moving targets including missiles and planes, in Syria, The Sun reported.
Soldiers in camouflage with tanks and other vehicles crossed into southwestern Poland on Thursday morning from Germany and headed for Zagan, their planned base. Poland's prime minister and defense minister said they would attend official ceremonies Saturday celebrating the Americans' arrival.
The deployment "symbolizes a turn in our efforts on this front, and is an important part of our continued effort to deter Russian aggression and maintain a free Europe," U.S. European Command spokeswoman Meghan Henderson responded.
U.S. and other Western nations have carried out exercises on NATO's eastern flank, but this deployment -- which includes around 3,500 U.S. troops -- marks the first-ever continuous deployment to the region by a NATO ally. It represents a commitment by President Barack Obama to protect a region that became deeply nervous when Russia stormed Ukraine and took over Crimea in 2014, and then began backing rebels in Ukraine's east.
The deployment was "separate yet complementary to NATO's deterrence and defense activities," Henderson added.
Many people in Poland said they still felt betrayed by Obama's own "reset" with Russia early on in his administration, which involved abandoning plans for a major U.S. missile defense system in Poland and replacing it with plans for a less ambitious system.
Many U.S. soldiers said they were optimistic. "Hopefully we can get right into training, get some range time in and have some fun," Spc. Kyle Smith, an infantryman with the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, told Stars and Stripes.