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Inside the Pentagon’s plan to place arms in East Europe

June 14, 2015 at 5:12 PM EDT
For the first time since Russian forces annexed Crimea last year, the U.S. is poised to reassure NATO allies in several eastern European and Baltic countries by possibly sending heavy military equipment into the region. New York Times reporter Steven Lee Myers joins Hari Sreenivasan from Washington D.C. for a closer look at the proposal.
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HARI SREENIVASAN:  For the first time since Russian forces annexed Crimea last year, the United States is reportedly poised to send heavy military equipment into several Eastern European and Baltic nations near Russia. It’s meant to reassure American allies and to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from what the West considers military aggression.

New York Times reporter Steven Lee Myers broke the story, and joins me now from Washington, D.C., to explain the Pentagon’s possible plan. So, what kind of equipment are we talking about here?

STEVEN LEE MYERS:  We are talking about a brigade’s worth of heavy equipment that would include tanks, armored vehicles, artillery pieces, and so forth.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  And where would this be stationed?

STEVEN LEE MYERS:  What they’re looking to do is to deploy it in several of the NATO allies. A bulk of it would be in a place like Poland.  They are looking at Bulgaria and Romania, and then smaller contingents of it that would be in the three Baltic nations, which are — are seen as the most vulnerable to a potential Russian attack.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  And are these countries or have these countries been asking for it?  How — what is their sense on the ground on why they need this equipment now?

STEVEN LEE MYERS:  They have been asking, actually.

And it’s other NATO members who are a little bit reluctant, including the U.S. before.  For many years after the end of the Cold War, NATO didn’t look at Russia as an adversary.  And now, once again, after the events in Crimea, the war in Eastern Ukraine, they’re looking at a need to reassure the allies about the United States, the alliance’s willingness to defend these countries.

Since the annexation of Crimea last year, NATO has stepped up a number of exercises that they have been doing, operations, training missions, and so forth.  So, you have seen a lot of increased activity.  Every time the United States participates in that, they have to send troops from — either from Germany, where there are bases, or all the way from the United States.

And when you’re dealing with heavy machinery, heavy weapons like tanks, that is an enormous logistical lift.  And so a lot of people in the Pentagon are saying, it makes a lot more sense now to have that equipment, as they say, prepositioned in the places where these troops will rotate more and more frequently, and for the time being.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  So, how far along is the plan to deploy these weapons, this equipment?

STEVEN LEE MYERS:  The Pentagon has been working on this for a number of months now.

And it’s expected that the secretary of defense, Ashton Carter, will present this to the NATO defense ministers when they meet in Brussels later this month.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Is it in anticipation of an increased amount of aggression from Russia?

STEVEN LEE MYERS:  I think it’s more of a response to the aggression that has been seen.

I mean, you have seen a lot of additional Russian overflights, a lot of Russian exercises right on the borders, in the Baltic area particularly, but also in the south, around, obviously, Eastern Ukraine.

And the — I think that they’re — the — the NATO allies, NATO commanders are looking at this as a way to build up reassurance, a trip wire, if you will, that, you know, any move against any of these NATO allies would encounter very quickly American military equipment and the troops who could quickly respond and fall in on it.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  So, one country’s prepositioning could be another country’s threat, right?  So, what is the response from the Kremlin, or has there been one yet?

STEVEN LEE MYERS:  There hasn’t been so far today, that I have seen anyway.

And, you know, there’s no question that they will — that they will view this as an aggressive act.  I mean, Putin, for a long time, has been complaining that NATO, specifically the American military, is encroaching closer and closer to Russia’s borders.

And the fact is, is that the United States really hasn’t.  And since the events over the last year, you know, it’s now becoming a reality, exactly what Putin feared most.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  And so what are the likely outcomes here?

STEVEN LEE MYERS:  I think there are a lot of people in the NATO alliance, in the United States that don’t want to see us back into a cycle of response and counter-response, tit-for-tat kind of buildup.

But the fact is, is that, you know, with so many Russian troops so close to NATO’s borders with the Baltic states, that, you know, they’re — the Pentagon is considering and believes it necessary to show a little bit more resolve, commitment to the collective defense of the alliance.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  All right, Steven Lee Myers of The New York Times joining us from D.C., thanks so much.

STEVEN LEE MYERS:  Thank you.

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