US troops arrive in Poland, boosting NATO defense in Eastern Europe

The roughly 1,000 troops are the first of a 3,500-strong unit. Russia criticized the deployment, calling it a threat to security.

Agencja Gazeta/ Anna Krasko/Reuters
US soldiers arrive in Zagan, Poland, on Jan. 12, 2017, as part of the NATO deployment to shore up defenses along the Russian border.

On Thursday, 1,000 US troops arrived in the western Polish town of Zagan, the first members of a 3,500-man armored combat brigade unit, along with 87 tanks and 144 armored vehicles. The deployment marks the beginning of the first-ever continuous deployment to the region from a NATO ally, as Eastern Europe steps up defense near the Russian border.

For many Poles wondering whether Russia has expansionist motives after the annexation of Crimea, the troops' arrival was cause for celebration. 

"This is the fulfillment of a dream," Michal Baranowski, the director of the German Marshall Fund think tank in Warsaw, told the Associated Press. "And this is not just a symbolic presence but one with a real capability."

A "permanent" deployment would violate agreements with Russia, The Guardian reports, and so troops will be rotated out every nine months. After arriving in Germany and gathering in Poland, the first units will fan out across seven countries, from Estonia to Bulgaria.

But the arrangement could prove short-lived, some fear, given President-elect Donald Trump's willingness to mend US-Russia relations. 

"Trump has a proclivity to make deals, and Central and Eastern Europe have reason to worry about that,” Marcin Zaborowski, a senior associate at Visegrad Insight, a journal on Central Europe, told the AP. Speaking more bluntly, Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski voiced hope that any overture to Russia "does not happen at our expense."

Since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe has looked to NATO as a safeguard against Russian expansion. President-elect Trump has questioned the current alliance, however. At a campaign rally in April, he called the alliance "obsolete," and criticized allies for not pulling their financial weight. In doing so, he said, these countries are "ripping off the United States. Either they pay up … or they have to get out. And if it breaks up NATO, it breaks up NATO."

Of the United States' 27 NATO allies, only four have met the group's target of dedicating 2 percent of GDP to its defense. However, the "free rider" problem is easing, as The Christian Science Monitor noted in November: Estonia has already reached the 2 percent target, and Latvia and Lithuania will likely follow suit in 2018.

Originally, the US troops' deployment was scheduled for the end of January, a change that may be intended to "lock the president-elect into the strategy," as The Guardian's Ewen MacAskill notes. During Senate confirmation hearings, Trump's nominees for secretary of Defense and secretary of State – retired Gen. James Mattis and former Exxon Mobil chief executive Rex Tillerson, respectively – have signaled support for NATO. 

The Kremlin criticized the deployment on Thursday.

"These actions threaten our interests, our security," spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. "Especially as it concerns a third party building up its military presence near our borders. It's not even a European state."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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