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Task Force Saber, under the command of the U.S. Army?s 4th Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, travel through Poland on Friday, June 3, 2016, as part of a more than 1,400-mile convoy operation Dragoon Ride II. This exercise will run through the Polish-led, multinational training event Anakonda 16, which kicked off Monday, June 6, 2016, with a ceremony in Warsaw, Poland. 

Jennifer Bunn/U.S. Army
Task Force Saber, under the command of the U.S. Army?s 4th Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, travel through Poland on Friday, June 3, 2016, as part of a more than 1,400-mile convoy operation Dragoon Ride II. This exercise will run through the Polish-led, multinational training event Anakonda 16, which kicked off Monday, June 6, 2016, with a ceremony in Warsaw, Poland. Jennifer Bunn/U.S. Army (Jennifer Bunn/U.S. Army)
Task Force Saber, under the command of the U.S. Army?s 4th Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, travel through Poland on Friday, June 3, 2016, as part of a more than 1,400-mile convoy operation Dragoon Ride II. This exercise will run through the Polish-led, multinational training event Anakonda 16, which kicked off Monday, June 6, 2016, with a ceremony in Warsaw, Poland. 

Jennifer Bunn/U.S. Army
Task Force Saber, under the command of the U.S. Army?s 4th Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, travel through Poland on Friday, June 3, 2016, as part of a more than 1,400-mile convoy operation Dragoon Ride II. This exercise will run through the Polish-led, multinational training event Anakonda 16, which kicked off Monday, June 6, 2016, with a ceremony in Warsaw, Poland. Jennifer Bunn/U.S. Army (Jennifer Bunn/U.S. Army)
The U.S. Army?s 4th Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, winds through Poland on its way from Vilseck, Germany, to Tapa, Estonia as part of Dragoon Ride II road march. This convoy will run through the Polish-led, multinational training event Anakonda 16, which kicked off Monday, June 6, 2016, with a ceremony in Warsaw, Poland. 

Jennifer Bunn/U.S. Army
The U.S. Army?s 4th Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, winds through Poland on its way from Vilseck, Germany, to Tapa, Estonia as part of Dragoon Ride II road march. This convoy will run through the Polish-led, multinational training event Anakonda 16, which kicked off Monday, June 6, 2016, with a ceremony in Warsaw, Poland. Jennifer Bunn/U.S. Army (Jennifer Bunn/U.S. Army)
U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Mark A. Milley addresses a crowd of dignitaries, officials and military servicemembers at the National Defense University of Warsaw on Monday, June 6, 2016. Milley, along with U.S. Army Europe commander Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges were among the military officials representing the U.S. at the opening ceremony of the Polish-led multinational training exercise, Anakonda 16.
U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Mark A. Milley addresses a crowd of dignitaries, officials and military servicemembers at the National Defense University of Warsaw on Monday, June 6, 2016. Milley, along with U.S. Army Europe commander Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges were among the military officials representing the U.S. at the opening ceremony of the Polish-led multinational training exercise, Anakonda 16. (Michael S. Darnell/Stars and Stripes)
A Polish military color guard marches past the reviewing officials during the opening ceremony of the multinational training exercise Anakonda 16 held in Warsaw, Poland, Monday, June 6, 2016.
A Polish military color guard marches past the reviewing officials during the opening ceremony of the multinational training exercise Anakonda 16 held in Warsaw, Poland, Monday, June 6, 2016. (Michael S. Darnell/Stars and Stripes)
Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz passes by a formation of Polish and American soldiers during the opening ceremony of the multinational training exercise Anakonda 16 in Warsaw, Poland, Monday, June 6, 2016.
Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz passes by a formation of Polish and American soldiers during the opening ceremony of the multinational training exercise Anakonda 16 in Warsaw, Poland, Monday, June 6, 2016. (Michael S. Darnell/Stars and Stripes)
Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz gives his opening remarks at the opening ceremony of Anakonda 16, held at the National Defense University of Warsaw on Monday, June 6, 2016.
Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz gives his opening remarks at the opening ceremony of Anakonda 16, held at the National Defense University of Warsaw on Monday, June 6, 2016. (Michael S. Darnell/Stars and Stripes)

WARSAW, Poland — Thousands of NATO troops spread out across much of Poland as alliance commanders gathered Monday at Warsaw’s National Defense University to mark the official start of the multinational training exercise Anakonda 16.

Originally established in 2006 as a solely Polish exercise, Anakonda has grown from its humble beginnings to a 24-nation, 31,000-troop event. It now serves mainly to test NATO’s response to potential aggression from Russia against member states along the alliance’s eastern periphery.

Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz opened Monday’s ceremony by speaking of the growing importance of Anakonda to a crowd of dignitaries, including U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Mark A. Milley and U.S. Army Europe commander Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges.

“The Anakonda exercise is the biggest allied exercise in independent Poland,” Macierewicz said. “However, taking into consideration the difficult circumstances in Poland and also in the eastern flank, it is very important to highlight that ... this exercise has a purely defensive character.”

Anakonda 16 is the largest iteration of the biennial exercise yet, stretching 450 miles across Poland.

Thousands of troops have arrived in Poland in to begin the 10-day series of engagements, including air-ground assaults and electronic warfare scenarios. Airborne units, infantrymen, medics, military police and aviation units will operate jointly throughout the exercise, which culminates in a massive live-fire event led by the U.S. Army’s 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division.

Originally planned for later this year, Polish officials moved the event up to show NATO’s deterrence capabilities ahead of the alliance’s summit in Warsaw in July, Hodges said.

“When you talk about who is being provocative, or that sort of thing, it’s useful to remember Russia still has 7,000 soldiers occupying Abkhazia and South Ossetia [in Georgia] without any legal basis and of course, they still occupy Crimea and are operating in eastern Ukraine.”

Milley said the U.S. military’s presence at Anakonda serves a singular purpose. “That is to bring all of us together, to demonstrate that we are shoulder to shoulder with the Polish people, we are shoulder to shoulder with the Polish army and that we are shoulder to shoulder with NATO to ensure that all of the countries of NATO remain free and independent.”

This year, Anakonda will run concurrently with — and in some cases overlap — several USAREUR military exercises.

The U.S Army’s 82nd Airborne Division will fly directly from its home base in Fort Bragg, N.C., to parachute in at the Polish town of Torun as part of Swift Response 16.

At the same time, the U.S. Army’s Vicenza, Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade will drop in and clear a path for the U.S. Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment to pass through the Drawsko Pomorskie training area.

That Stryker regiment is currently engaged in the second iteration of its Dragoon Ride convoy operation, which began in Vilseck, Germany, on May 27. It will end about 1,400 miles away in Tapa, Estonia, on June 15. From there the Regiment will join troops from a dozen other nations in the USAREUR-led Saber Strike 16.

darnell.michael@stripes.com

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