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U.S. NATO troops surge in Europe after Russian aggression

January 22, 2017 at 3:32 PM EDT
The Obama administration sent thousands of American troops to Europe through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in response to Russian aggression -- the largest deployment since the end of the Cold War. It’s a move that has been denounced by Russia. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Christopher Livesay reports from Germany and Poland about the military mission.
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CHRIS LIVESAY, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND: In the port city of Bremerhaven on Germany’s North Sea coast, approximately 4-thousand American troops and 25-hundred vehicles began arriving in early January. Known as the Iron Brigade, they’re from the Army’s 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division, based in Fort Carson, Colorado.

This is the largest deployment of U-S forces in Europe since the end of the Cold War 25 years ago. It’s part of the European Reassurance Initiative and Operation Atlantic Resolve — a three-and-a-half billion dollar effort paid for by the United States to reinforce NATO.

MAJ. GEN. TIMOTHY MCGUIRE: I am very proud that we’re a member of NATO.

CHRIS LIVESAY: At the start of the deployment, Army Major General Tim McGuire joked by rushing to meet the deadline set by the Obama Administration, his units weren’t able to change their vehicle camouflage.

MAJ. GEN. TIMOTHY MCGUIRE: To get them here as scheduled in January, just do not have time to paint them green.

CHRIS LIVESAY: But the Army is anxious to deliver a serious message: to demonstrate to allies and adversaries alike the U.S. is determined to assist NATO in defending Eastern Europe from potential aggression from Russia.

MAJ. GEN. TIMOTHY MCGUIRE: The combat power here is a tangible sign of the continued commitment of the United States of America. It is one that enables us to work with our allies and send a message that we remain committed.

BRIGADE COMMANDER COLONEL CHRISTOPHER NORRIE: You’ve got tanks here…

CHRIS LIVESAY: Brigade commander Colonel Christopher Norrie describes his unit as “lethal.”

BRIGADE COMMANDER COLONEL CHRISTOPHER NORRIE: So we’re an armored brigade combat team. So as part of that team we have tanks, Bradleys, we have indirect fire systems, Paladins, we have a whole range of vehicles that make up our team here.

BRIGADE COMMANDER COLONEL CHRISTOPHER NORRIE:
You can see now, you’ve got one ship here, one ship there, both offloading all of our equipment in preparation for onward movement.

CHRIS LIVESAY: Norrie’s troops spent the past year training for this mission.

BRIGADE COMMANDER COLONEL CHRISTOPHER NORRIE: What’s up iron strong!

CHRIS LIVESAY: Algenon Lewis and Thomas Rodriguez are Army mechanics.

PVT THOMAS RODRIGUEZ, U.S. ARMY: This is my first time in Europe, pretty excited to be here. Going to miss home, but it’s also nice to be here helping out our NATO allies.

CHRIS LIVESAY: These soldiers concede outside of their families few folks back home may know about their assignment.

PVT THOMAS RODRIGUEZ, U.S. ARMY: Probably not. Probably not, honestly. I don’t think they do.

SGT. ALGENON LEWIS, U.S. ARMY: I don’t think a lot of them know what NATO actually does.

CHRIS LIVESAY: Under NATO, the U.S., Canada, and 26 other nations pledge to defend each other in case of attack. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, which is not a NATO member. But that sent jitters across Europe, especially in the five NATO countries bordering Russian territory, Poland, Finland, and the former Soviet Republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

CHRIS LIVESAY: After international sanctions were imposed on Russia, then-President Obama pledged to beef up American military presence in Europe which had shrunk from its Cold War level, over 300-thousand troops to 120-thousand in 2000 and 65-thousand in 2015.

CHRIS LIVESAY: Six days after arriving in Germany, Colonel Norrie’s military convoy reached the first of those nervous border states, Poland, where U-S troops will begin the first of their nine month rotations planned for the next seven years. This is the first large-scale continuous presence of U.S. troops in Poland.

CHRIS LIVESAY: This army video shows the symbolic moment a Polish flag was added to the lead U.S. vehicle. Colonel Norrie was officially welcomed by Polish Major General Jaroslaw Mika.

MAJOR GENERAL JAROSLAW MIKA: It is important for security not only for Poland, for Europe, and for all the world.

CHRIS LIVESAY: Why should the U.S. care about what is happening so far away here in Poland?

MAJOR GENERAL JAROSLAW MIKA:
Common cooperation, common training, and all these things provide more security for all countries. You have to be prepared for a war, yeah?

CHRIS LIVESAY: Prepared for a war?

MAJOR GENERAL JAROSLAW MIKA:
You would like to avoid any war, but you have to do a lot of training to be prepared.
CHRIS LIVESAY: Training is what these troops will be doing. Their Bradley Fighting vehicles transported from Bremerhaven by train were positioned in the snowy fields of Poland in temperatures close to zero degrees.

TROOPS: It’s cold! It’s beautiful, though.

CHRIS LIVESAY: Some American troops will remain in Poland. Others will be sent farther East for training and war exercises in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary. Pre-positioning equipment and ammunition in Eastern Europe can reduce the time needed for additional troops to deploy, if ever needed. Other NATO members like the U.K., France, and Denmark, are deploying more troops to Eastern Europe as well.

CHRIS LIVESAY: Many NATO member states are boosting their military spending, but only five countries, including the U.S., the U.K., and Poland, meet the target of spending two percent of their Gross Domestic Product on defense. The rest, including France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy, spend less.

CHRIS LIVESAY: Overall, the U.S. accounts for three-quarters of NATO’s military expenditures.

CHRIS LIVESAY: In a formal ceremony in the western Polish city of Zagan, where some of the new American troops will be based, Poland’s prime minister and defense minister welcomed the military help, saying it would help ensure freedom, independence, and peace.

CHRIS LIVESAY: While Operation Atlantic Resolve might reassure leaders in Eastern Europe, it is angering Russia, which has repeatedly denounced the buildup along its borders as a provocation that demands countermeasures. “We consider this a threat to us,” a Kremlin spokesman said as the troops arrived.

CHRIS LIVESAY: The Russian military has been conducting military exercises of its own and last October, near the borders of Poland and Lithuania, Russia placed missiles that could be armed with nuclear warheads and reach the German Capital of Berlin.

CHRIS LIVESAY: Russia has called this build up a provocation. Is this a provocation?

BRIGADE COMMANDER COLONEL CHRISTOPHER NORRIE: We are here to deter, and a part of that deterrence is putting this formation together as part of a really exceptionally strong team of teams. I would view it as a deterrent, and if I was looking at it through the lens of a potential aggressor, I would say it’s an exceptionally capable deterrent.

CHRIS LIVESAY: Russia has even recently aligned missiles that are capable of being mounted with nuclear warheads along the border. What are you doing to prepare for that?

BRIGADE COMMANDER COLONEL CHRISTOPHER NORRIE: We’ve trained for every eventuality. I mean, the soldiers that we have in this formation, the capability by battalion here throughout the brigade, they’re ready for the full range of any kind of a threat. Our commitment to our allies is very very important. Right now we are continuing to build combat power here in Western Poland to rapidly mass our formation and then demonstrate that we are ready to fight.

CHRIS LIVESAY: In the towns and countryside of Poland, we found mixed feelings about what Operation Atlantic Resolve would mean. This Polish truck driver says he’s already comfortable with the American presence. After all, Poland is used to less friendly foreign troops dating back to the Germans who invaded in World War Two or the Soviets who occupied and oppressed Poland for decades after that.

TRUCKER: Deutschland, Ruskies.

CHRIS LIVESAY: “First it was the Germans, then the Russians, and now the Americans are in Poland,” he says.

CHRIS LIVESAY: And is that okay? Is that a good thing?

TRUCKER: “It is good,” he says. “We need protection.”

CHRIS LIVESAY: But other Poles worry the deterrent force might too easily be drawn into a fight.

TRUCKER: “The troops are for war. They didn’t come here to fish, right?”

CHRIS LIVESAY: This man works for a small communications company in Zagan.

WORKER: “Maybe it’s politics? I suppose it’s politics. Ordinary people, we are afraid. We are afraid.”

CHRIS LIVESAY: Another element of uncertainty in all of this: These American troops now have a new Commander-In-Chief, President Trump, who has voiced skepticism about NATO and has signaled he wants closer ties with Russia.

CHRIS LIVESAY: In an interview with British and German reporters a few days before his inauguration, President Trump said “NATO is very important to me,” but again called it “obsolete, because it wasn’t taking care of terror,” and said that “a lot of these countries aren’t paying what they’re supposed to be paying, which I think is very unfair.”

CHRIS LIVESAY: At a press conference before the Trump inauguration, Colonel Norrie was asked whether he expects orders to turn around and go home.

BRIGADE COMMANDER COLONEL CHRISTOPHER NORRIE: We’ve been training for this operation, for this mission for a very, very long time. And our arrival here just demonstrates how fully committed our nation and our army is to providing that credible deterrent force here and enabling security in a vital part of the world.

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