U.S., NATO Troop Buildup in Eastern Europe to Counter Russians Is Largest Since Cold War

Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea radically changed the calculus between the West and Russia that has defined the last 25 years. NATO is now trying to reassure a nervous Eastern Europe and deter Moscow from new aggression. This level of tension hasn’t been felt in a generation. In the final installment of their weeklong series on Eastern Europe for PBS NewsHour, Pulitzer Center grantees Nick Schifrin and Zach Fannin report on U.S. and NATO troop buildup from Szczecin, Poland.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: Leaders from NATO countries met in Poland today to finalize plans to beef up the military alliance.

For the first time since the Cold War, multinational troops will continuously rotate through four countries in Eastern Europe.

Special correspondent Nick Schifrin, with the help of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, concludes our series with a look at America’s largest military buildup there in a quarter-century, and why Russia sees it as a threat.

NICK SCHIFRIN, Special Correspondent: Here’s the scenario: An unnamed enemy has invaded a NATO ally. The U.S. response is heavy and swift. For U.S. troops who have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is more firepower than they have ever had.


CAPT. JOEL MARBUT, U.S. Army: We have been fighting an insurgency for the last 14 years. Now we’re prepared to fight someone who is closely matched to our combat power.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Captain Joel Marbut deployed twice to Afghanistan. This exercise, held last month, was the largest in Eastern Europe since the Cold War.

CAPT. JOEL MARBUT: Now they’re prepared for any enemy counterattack to come back across the international border.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Marbut isn’t allowed to name that enemy. But in the command tent, Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Evans pulls fewer punches when discussing his Polish hosts.

LT. COL. JOHNNY EVANS, U.S. Army: And they see examples of Russian aggression. Us being here, assuring them that the U.S. has not abandoned them, that the U.S. is still a strong supporter of NATO can do nothing but provide additional assurance.

NICK SCHIFRIN: On the training ground, there was even a burned-out Soviet-style tank for target practice. This is not only assurance to allies. It’s also deterrence and a warning to Russia.

After the Cold War, the U.S. military dramatically downsized in Europe, from 200,000 to 30,000 troops. Now the U.S. is planning to quadruple spending. And it will rotate 4,200-soldier heavily armored brigades back to back with their own equipment at the highest level of readiness.

LT. GEN. BEN HODGES, Commander, U.S. Army Europe: That is a powerful capability that will be very effective at help — changing the calculus for Russia or any potential adversary in Europe.

NICK SCHIFRIN: General Ben Hodges commands all U.S. Army forces in Europe. Those new American troops are in addition to 700-person NATO battalions deploying to the Baltic states and Poland.

We spoke to Hodges during the Poland exercise.

LT. GEN. BEN HODGES: I think a combination of a NATO battalion, plus a U.S. armored brigade combat team, that’s a powerful deterrent. If deterrence fails, now you’re talking about a liberation campaign.

NICK SCHIFRIN: For the Poles, that word liberation doesn’t feel farfetched.

ANNA MARIA ANDERS, Senator: The Poles are very nervous, obviously, because of World War II.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Few Polish politicians have more World War II credentials than Minister and Senator Anna Maria Anders. Her father was Wladyslaw Anders, who fought the Soviets as Poland’s army commander.

Today, this community remembers how, during the war, the Soviets deported local residents to Siberia.

ANNA MARIA ANDERS: These people are worried that it will happen again.

NICK SCHIFRIN: What convinced them it could happen again?

ANNA MARIA ANDERS: Crimea. Crimea.

NICK SCHIFRIN: In 2014, Russian soldiers in Crimea sparked an annexation from Ukraine. It took less than a month.

ANNA MARIA ANDERS: I think that we all have become a little complacent. We haven’t had a war in so long.

NICK SCHIFRIN: U.S. soldiers are teaching Poles military hardware, starting in childhood.

LT. COL. DERIC HOLBROOK, U.S. Army: That’s where the trust starts, from that youngest generation building trust. They understand that America is aligned with Poland.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Lieutenant Colonel Deric Holbrook leads the 2nd Cavalry’s Field Artillery Squadron. Part of the Polish exercise is visiting small towns like Suwalki. Soldiers and fathers encouraged kids to become comfortable with guns.

Nearby, young baton twirlers entertained the crowd. It seemed like this entire town of 60,000 showed up in support. The next morning, Holbrook’s men hit the road.

They were on a 500-mile drive, the longest military movement in Eastern Europe since World War II. They drove through this 60-mile-wide gap between NATO members Poland and Lithuania.

This is the Suwalki Gap, where NATO’s notion of collective self-defense is perhaps most vulnerable. Thirty miles to my west is Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave. Thirty miles to my east, Belarus, a Russian ally. If Russia wanted to move into this gap, it could most likely cut off the Baltic states from the rest of Europe and the rest of NATO.

That geography is a product of NATO’s expansion east. In 1949, NATO’s eastern border was Italy. By 1999, it had added seven more countries, by 2009, nine more countries, including the Baltics. Suddenly, NATO had beachheads on Russia’s borders.

DIMITRI SIMES, Center for the National Interest: If we would discover that there would be Russian troops in Mexico, I wonder how many American politicians and indeed American people would that think this is an acceptable situation.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Dimitri Simes leads the Washington think tank the center for the National Interest.

For Russia, NATO isn’t defensive. Since 1999, NATO has launched wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya. Each one ended in regime change.

DIMITRI SIMES: That certainly made an impression in Moscow that NATO expansion was a direct threat, not just to their security, but also to their domestic stability.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Russia again felt threatened when the U.S. either encouraged or supported revolutions in previously pro-Russian countries. The final straw was Ukraine.

DIMITRI SIMES: If Ukraine is hostile and joins NATO, that would be viewed by Russia as an existential threat.

NICK SCHIFRIN: This isn’t only the thinking of intellectuals or the Moscow elite.

VITALIY ANATOLIEVICH, Cossack Commander (through translator): We are not going to Mexico. Imagine if Russia moved its troops there.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Vitaliy Anatolievich is a Cossack commander in the breakaway Ukrainian region of Donetsk. His forefathers, known as free Cossacks, were notorious and feared 19th century horsemen. They fought and died for this land they referred to as Greater Russia.

Today, they’re training their children what Cossacks have stood for, for generations, love of land and church. It’s a nostalgia for the days before the Soviet Union collapsed.

Do you feel like what you’re doing now is trying to restore the power and pride that was lost in 1991?

VITALIY ANATOLIEVICH (through translator): Of course I feel that. It’s a renaissance here. This is pure patriotism.

NICK SCHIFRIN: That patriotism is a pledge to be an irregular force for Russia in Ukraine and beyond. And they cheer disunity in the European Union because they oppose what they perceive as Western culture.

VITALIY ANATOLIEVICH (through translator): We don’t educate them as they do in Europe about gay pride and all that. Is that normal? It’s not normal.

NICK SCHIFRIN: The cultural and military divides within Europe are widening. Another flash point? Newly built NATO missile defense sites in Romania and Poland. Russia labels them threats, and vows to retaliate.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia: Yesterday, in those areas of Romania, people simply didn’t know what it means to be in the crosshairs. Then, today, we will be forced to carry out certain measures to ensure our security.

LT. GEN. BEN HODGES: For Russia to say that this is threatening to them is a ridiculous assertion.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Russia would say those missile defense systems can be turned from the Middle East toward Russia.

LT. GEN. BEN HODGES: If — and it’s extremely unlikely — but if Russia ever launched a nuclear or a missile strike, I mean, there would be hundreds of missiles. So this defense shield that’s been installed is for individual — I mean, it’s a completely different scenario.

NICK SCHIFRIN: President Putin’s threats are made possible by nearly a decade of Russian military expansion. According to one study, if it wanted to, Russia could overwhelm NATO troops in the Baltics in fewer than three days.

Is it really a deterrence to have a few battalions in Eastern Europe, when Russia has hundreds of thousands of troops across the border?

LT. GEN. BEN HODGES: You make a fair point. Certainly, Russia has been provocative. They talk about nuclear weapons against Sweden, Denmark, Romania.

DIMITRI SIMES: When they feel that they are threatened, they have a tendency to close ranks. Putin now has universal excuse. Whatever is going wrong in Russia, he is blaming it on Obama, he is blaming it on NATO, he is blaming it on the European Union.

And most patriotic Russians, they feel, well, perhaps our country is being under tremendous threat.

NICK SCHIFRIN: That fuels a cycle of increasingly large exercises and increasingly violent warnings. This level of tension hasn’t been felt in a generation. And it’s being taught by both sides to the next generation.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Nick Schifrin in Szczecin, Poland.