US Army Major Christopher Rowe scanned the unfamiliar terrain as his Stryker armored vehicle sped past the Russian border, less than 15 miles away. It was just after 3:00am, but the summer sun was already rising over northeastern Poland. From the commander's hatch, Rowe looked out on a stretch of rolling farmland and thick pine forests that US military planners now consider the most vulnerable chink in the NATO alliance.
Solitary horses in twilit fields and drunks teetering out of 24-hour truck stops gazed back at Rowe, 38, who was leading a Stryker column down a two-lane highway through the so-called Suwalki Gap. In the Pentagon's nightmare scenario, Russia seizes this 40-mile-wide bottleneck in a surprise attack, effectively cutting off the tiny Baltic republics — Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia — from their NATO allies. Rowe's mission was to show that the American cavalry was still capable of galloping to the rescue.
The US 2nd Cavalry Regiment's passage through the sleepy Suwalki Gap earlier this month was the anticlimactic highlight of a 1,500-mile road march that would take the regiment's Fourth Squadron from their base in southern Germany to the northern tip of Estonia.
"There's another horse," Rowe's voice crackled over the Stryker's intercom as his column approached the border with Lithuania. Thanks to passport-free travel within the European Union, motorists zipped past the boarded-up customs houses without even braking.
Achieving comparable freedom of movement for military vehicles among NATO countries has become the US Army's top priority in Europe after Russia caught the world off guard by massing tens of thousands of soldiers on Ukraine's borders and then occupying and annexing Crimea two years ago. The underlying fear is that an emboldened Kremlin may stir up trouble in the Baltics — not just to retake territory that once was part of the Soviet Union, but to prove NATO a paper tiger should the 28-member alliance fail to defend its weakest members.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, most Eastern European countries strove to join NATO as a way of safeguarding their newly won independence. Yet even as the US-led alliance grew, the Pentagon slashed its forces in Europe in the belief that the continent would settle future conflicts via political bargains or lawsuits, not weapons. Russia's invasion of Ukraine changed everything.
With little fanfare, the United States has quietly begun expanding its military footprint in a region that during the Cold War was deep inside the Soviet-controlled Warsaw Pact. Operation Atlantic Resolve is an expansive program designed to go beyond mere reassurance of new NATO allies and to provide a credible deterrent against Russia. Next year the Pentagon plans to spend $3.4 billion in Europe on joint exercises, prepositioning equipment, and upgrading local infrastructure. An American armored brigade is due to begin rotating through Eastern Europe in February.
Related: Putin says US is 'probably world's only superpower,' walks back Trump compliments
The 2nd Cavalry — whose regimental motto is toujours prêt, French for "always ready" — plays a key role in projecting American power eastward. At the beginning of June, the unit was present in 10 countries, according to regimental commander Colonel John Meyer. Dragoon Ride, as the road march through the Suwalki Gap was dubbed, passed through three overlapping military exercises conducted in Poland and the Baltic states. "It's defensive," Meyer said in an interview. "We're really doing tactical tasks that demonstrate operational capability with strategic effect."
Not surprisingly, Moscow is using the growing US military presence to bolster its narrative of encirclement by NATO. President Vladimir Putin said last week that the West had fomented unrest in Ukraine to justify the alliance's existence. "They need an external adversary, an external enemy, otherwise why is this organization necessary?" he said. "There is no Warsaw Pact, no Soviet Union, so whom is it directed against?"
Criticism has also come from Berlin, even though Germany is a leading NATO member and took part in recent exercises, including Dragoon Ride. Reflecting a strand in German politics that calls for accommodating rather than confronting Putin, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier condemned "loud saber-rattling" and "symbolic tank parades" on NATO's eastern border.
Over the past century, Russia and Germany have repeatedly clashed in a swath of Eastern Europe that Yale historian Timothy Snyder has termed "bloodlands." As the US Army Strykers rolled through the Polish countryside, they passed road signs pointing to the sites of battles and pogroms, sieges and Nazi death camps. At the end of World War II, the 2nd Cavalry Regiment was the US unit that pushed farthest east, liberating parts of what was then Czechoslovakia from the Germans. By that time, Poland and the Baltics were already firmly under Soviet domination.
While the officers of Fourth Squadron were well aware of the region's dark history, they were preoccupied with making the road march as safe as possible. Soldiers spent their nights sleeping inside or next to their Strykers at sprawling Soviet-era military bases. Departure times were often set before daybreak to avoid clogging up highways. Because of local requirements, one 170-mile leg of Dragoon Ride turned into a 330-mile steeplechase.
The eight-wheeled Stryker, which can be fitted with a cannon, mortar, or anti-tank missiles, gained popularity in Iraq because it has thicker armor than a Humvee but doesn't chew up roads like the tracked Bradley Fighting Vehicle. A 20-ton beast that barely gets six miles to the gallon, the Stryker is also prone to breakdowns under the unforgiving demands of the military. On Major Rowe's vehicle, the long-range communications were out, as was the heating.
Besides maintenance, the second greatest challenge is complacency, said Rowe, a father of two who did one tour in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. "It does become monotonous," said the Tallahassee native. "You gotta watch your battle buddy and make sure they're staying awake and paying attention to what they're doing."
The biggest part of soldiering is waiting: for an order, for the enemy, for a meal. At pit stops along the way, soldiers refueled their Strykers from Army tanker trucks and stocked up on hotdogs, sandwiches, and soft drinks — anything to supplement the mysterious, vacuum-packed contents of MREs, "meals, ready-to-eat," the standard US military rations.
For most soldiers, contact with the civilian population was limited to roadside convenience stores and the view from a Stryker hatch. Judging by the frequency that passersby stopped to wave at the US armored columns, the mood seemed generally welcoming. But conversations with locals revealed an ambivalence toward the Americans — and a feeling of helplessness to stop the wheel of history.
"War is near, don't you think?" asked Karol Kolenkiewicz in Suwalki, the Polish town that was known for its summer blues music festival before the US military arrived. For the past year, the tattooed, 22-year-old bartender has been serving drinks to off-duty US troops. Rather than find their presence reassuring, Kolenkiewicz saw it as a sign that something was horribly wrong. "It's kind of frightening," he said.
Related: Russian track and field athletes just got banned from the Rio Olympics
To dispel locals' fears, advance teams of Strykers headed into the towns along the route and parked on public squares. Dressed in their combat fatigues, officers donned the regiment's black Stetsons and ceremonial spurs before mingling with crowds of curious onlookers, mostly elderly folk and families with small children. "Civic engagements are a huge part of this mission," Rowe said as he arrived in Kupiskis in northeastern Lithuania. The most threatening moment came when the town drunk briefly contemplated dropping his trousers in a supermarket parking lot.
As parents photographed their offspring posing with machine guns and American troops, a smartly dressed man observed the spectacle skeptically. "The military doesn't decide anything, the politicians do. The soldiers are just guys like me and you," said Bronius Jonuska, 56. "Threats are created artificially. We're talking big bucks; billions are spent on arms."
While Jonuska, a railway worker, said he supported Lithuania's independence 25 years ago, he missed the financial security of the Soviet system. His son and girlfriend both work in Britain, and her son found a job in Norway. Paradoxically, the price of freedom is the inability to make a decent living at home.
"If you're a big country, you can talk about independence, but if you're small, you can't be completely independent. Lithuania is little, so we'll always depend on someone," Jonuska said. "It would be better not to see soldiers from any side."
The barrel-chested mayor of Kupiskis, Dainius Bardauskas, 51, showed little patience for such anxiety. "Only old people say that we don't need to provoke Russia. They remember Siberia and the repressions, so they're cautious," he said. "I'm happy our allies came to our little town. People must feel NATO has serious intentions."
Those intentions were on display two hours to the north in neighboring Latvia, where US military aircraft — A-10 Warthog attack planes and Blackhawk helicopters — stood at Lielvarde air base. The three Baltic nations have minuscule militaries that lack tanks or fighter jets. NATO, which has been responsible for policing the region's airspace since 2004, quadrupled the number of planes patrolling Baltic skies after Russia's aggression against Ukraine.
At Lielvarde, US troops on a nine-month rotation from Fort Hood, Texas, were quartered in the barracks and popping into town to grab bacon cheeseburgers and Belgian beer at the local food joint. Their comrades from 2nd Cavalry had to rough it on a field adjacent to the base. Most of them hadn't taken a shower since Suwalki.
"This has ruined camping for me. I get enough of nature when I'm out here," said Staff Sergeant Gregory Hill, 28, as he hand-washed his laundry behind a Stryker. Hill, who joined the Army straight out of high school, saw combat in Iraq. "When I enlisted, my focus was on the fight in the Middle East," he said. "If you'd asked me a couple of years ago, I wouldn't have seen myself in Eastern Europe." Hill said he didn't believe that the United States was in a new cold war with Russia and attributed renewed tensions to "media hype."
How their mission was being perceived was constantly on the minds of Fourth Squadron's commanders. As officers gathered for an evening meeting, Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Due mentioned a news report of off-duty American sailors wreaking havoc in Greece. Should soldiers get permission to drink once they arrived in Estonia, they must exercise restraint, Due said. "Two drinks is not a suggestion, it's an integer." Foreign IO, "information operations," could be at work, Due cautioned.
When Fourth Squadron reached Estonia, the country was hardly in a celebratory mood. The northernmost Baltic country was marking an annual day of mourning to remember the tens of thousands of Estonians deported by the Soviet Union in the 1940s. "We lost almost 15 percent of our nation," Romek Kosenkranius, the mayor of Parnu, told the Americans. "That's one reason why we must protect our country and independence."
The only visible opposition to the US Army came from a Russian-speaking granny who wore a reflective vest and a captain's hat. "Estonia dragged these guys here only to disturb the Russians who live here," she said. "If Putin wanted to, he'd take Estonia in 15 minutes."
The next morning, Fourth Squadron trundled on to its final destination, Tapa air base, two weeks after leaving Germany. Major Rowe, usually the stoic warrior, turned sentimental as it suddenly sunk in that his three-year tour in Europe was drawing to an end. "This could be my last trip in a Stryker," he said from the commander's hatch. "It's a little depressing, I'm not gonna lie."
The armored column pulled into the former Soviet air base and lined up on a runway. There the troops were assigned to one of eight long, white tents with 12 cots to a room. They packed up their things, cleaned out their vehicles, and set off through a field to their new quarters.
"Always ready!" shouted a soldier as he walked past and saluted. "Toujours prêt!" Rowe replied.
Follow Lucian Kim on Twitter: @Lucian_Kim