“Through the so-called Atlantic Resolve operation there is US armor coming back to Europe and it is a response to what Russia has been doing,” NATO Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller told the Baltic news agency BNS.
US troops and tanks began streaming into Poland on Thursday as part of one of the largest deployments of US forces in Europe since the Cold War, an operation that Russia angrily branded a security “threat.”
“I do want to emphasize that it is proportionate and measured,” Gottemoeller said of the deployment of some “3,500 personnel, 87 tanks and 144 Bradley fighting vehicles.”
“This is an important step, but it is meant for deterrence and defense,” she said. The Atlantic Resolve mission will see US soldiers and heavy equipment also deployed in NATO partners Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary on a rotational basis.
Tensions between Russia and the West have escalated over the past two years, triggered by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its military campaign in Syria since late 2015.
Also last year, Moscow’s deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander missiles into its Kaliningrad outpost and frequent military drills in the Baltic region rattled neighboring NATO members Poland and Lithuania.
Gottemoeller said she saw “legitimate possibilities for future dialogue” between NATO and Russia, but insisted the Western alliance needed to be very “clear-eyed” about reducing risks on its eastern flank.
“We want to reduce risks so that we do not have a possibility of a crisis emerging that could possibly escalate into conflict,” the NATO official told BNS speaking on the sidelines of an informal security policy summit in Lithuania.
Last summer, NATO leaders endorsed plans to rotate troops into Poland and the three Baltic states to reassure them they would not be left in the lurch if Russia was tempted to repeat its Ukraine intervention.
The former top US general in Europe told AFP on Friday that dialogue with Russia was “inevitable” after President-elect Donald Trump takes office, but recommended taking small steps.
“What we need to do is begin a series of dialogues and address small incremental things that we see as mutually beneficial,” said retired general Philip Breedlove, who was also attending the security conference in the resort town of Trakai on the outskirts of the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
“If we have success… then we move on to something a little more challenging,” Breedlove said.