VICENZA, Italy — A company of paratroops arrived in Poland Wednesday, the first U.S. ground combat troops to deploy to eastern Europe since the geopolitical crisis in Ukraine began months ago setting Russia and the West in a Cold War-like clinch.
The troops, from the Vicenza-based 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, deployed a day after the Pentagon announced the plan to dispatch units to Poland and the Baltics — about 600 troops in all.
Since the escalation of tensions between NATO and Russia after the latter annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, the U.S. and NATO allies have dispatched fighter jets and other aircraft to Poland and the Baltics, all of which share a border with Russia. But the deployment of troops could be the first step in a move eastern European leaders have long sought: stronger NATO security guarantees and permanent U.S. boots on the ground.
“It is, of course, a political gesture,” said Witold Waszczykowski, a Polish diplomat and former foreign minister, referring to the 150 paratroops arriving in Poland. “It says that this is a first step to change our security status. We hope this is one of the many steps to enhance the security of Poland and central Europe.”
Two C-130s from Ramstein Air Base transported the troops to Poland, a spokesman for U.S. Air Forces in Europe said.
Three more company-size elements of the 173rd — about 450 soldiers in all — were being sent to Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said Wednesday, “the remaining companies we can move in tomorrow, and by Monday, everyone will have arrived.”
This will be the first in a series of rotational deployments, to last about a month, for training exercises that will continue through the year and possibly beyond, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said.
“Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has renewed our resolve to strengthening NATO’s defense plans and capabilities, and to demonstrate our continued commitment to collective defense in reinforcing our NATO allies in central and eastern Europe,” Kirby said.
About 40,000 Russian troops are massed on Ukraine’s eastern border, and U.S. officials say Russia has sent special operatives into eastern Ukraine to destabilize the country, which is not a member of NATO. Russian President Vladimir Putin has asserted the right to intervene in Ukraine to protect the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers.
Asked if sending 600 soldiers to eastern Europe was symbolic, Kirby said no.
“Any time you put troops on the ground and doing exercises, in this case for a month at a time, it’s more than symbology,” he said. “The kind of work that we’re going to be doing is real infantry training. And that’s not insignificant.”
Though the Pentagon announced the deployment Tuesday, the unit has been preparing for Poland for the last month or so, said Maj. Benjamin Shepherd, who is temporarily overseeing the 173rd’s tactical operations center.
“It has been shorter notice than we would like in terms of our normal,” he said.
Due to the compressed preparation schedule, the brigade had less opportunity to develop training plans for the various areas where they’ll be working with Polish forces, Shepherd said. But at all sites, the training will include instruction in small arms and tactical vehicle movements, Shepherd said. Capabilities will expand the longer the 173rd spends in Poland, he said.
“We would really like to jump at each location, because that is what we do and that’s cool and that’s what we love.”
Shepherd said the entire brigade as a whole has been organized to support the deployment.
“We actually had a previously planned combined airborne operation with Poland that will be conducted while this training is going on.”
Speaking at a ceremony welcoming the 173rd soldiers to Poland, Maj. Gen. Richard Longo, U.S. Army Europe’s deputy commander, said that Poland has lived up to its obligations in the NATO alliance.
While many countries have drawn down significantly in Afghanistan, Poland still has nearly 1,000 soldiers on the ground there, according to NATO figures, making it one of the largest troop contributors among allied nations.
Wednesday’s ceremony at the Polish airbase at Swidwin “demonstrates that the NATO alliance is committed to Poland as well,” Longo said, according to prepared remarks.
The upcoming bilateral training would include maneuvers up to company level as well as live ammunition – training Longo described as “graduate level.”
NATO is a mutual defense organization, and an attack on one nation is considered an attack on all. But for years after the tiny Baltic nations joined the alliance in 2004, only rudimentary plans were developed for how to defend them until 2010, and few exercises have tested those plans.
Further, when Poland and the Baltic nations joined, NATO officials said there would be no nuclear weapons, no troops and no major military installations placed in the new member nations.
“Fifteen years ago, when we joined NATO, it was a second-class, class B membership,” Waszczykowski said of Poland, which was among the first former Warsaw Pact members to join NATO in 1999. “It was a completely different geopolitical situation. We expected Russia would, many of us hoped would, follow along with democratization. We know now we were living under an illusion.”
Russia has maintained that a mass deployment of NATO forces in Eastern Europe would violate the 1997 security accord which covers the terms of cooperation between Moscow and NATO. Polish officials say that that deal has been voided by what they say is Russia’s violation of international law.
“This political commitment from the 1990s is not valid anymore,” said Waszczykowski, who is a member of the Polish Parliament. “This is a vital interest of NATO, not just something to satisfy our dignity. We hope other countries will deploy troops.”
However, European members of NATO are likely to be more reluctant to do so, especially Germany with its strong economic interests with Russia.
In Brussels, a senior NATO diplomat described the U.S. deployment as a “symbolic” move made in response to Poland’s call for the permanent stationing of a large NATO force on its territory.
“They asked for a significant and permanent basing of troops in Poland,” said the envoy who spoke on customary condition of anonymity. “Instead (NATO) decided on a small, rotational detachment that will conduct training with the Polish allies.”
Successive Polish governments had repeatedly asked for NATO troops, preferably U.S. troops, to be stationed on Polish soil. Seeking that was one reason Poland deployed troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“A permanent deployment has been a constant request for the past 15 years,” Waszczykowski said.
Stars and Stripes reporters Jason Duhr, Matt Millham, Slobodan Lekic, Jon Harper and Chris Carroll contributed to this report.