The American government's plan to station heavy weaponry in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states is "not out of the ordinary" or "provocative," said NATO's Supreme Allied Commander, General Philip Breedlove, in an interview with VICE News.
"We have had heavy equipment in Europe for a long time. We just recently removed some of the last heavy equipment. The fact that we would bring some back to exercise and train with is not out of the ordinary."
The statement concerns a new Pentagon proposal, outlined this week in the New York Times, for America to move reams of heavy equipment to NATO's eastern flank for the first time since the Cold War.
If the plan is approved by the White House and the US Defense Secretary, a brigade's worth of weaponry — enough to equip up to 5,000 American soldiers — could be moved to warehouses in several NATO member states.
Asked if he thinks the move might be considered provocative by Moscow, Breedlove responded, "I don't."
In fact, a day after this report was released, a Russian defense official warned that if the American plan goes forward, Moscow could hasten its deployment of nuclear-capable missiles to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which borders Lithuania and Poland. "Russia will have no option but to build up its forces and resources on the Western strategic front," the official told Interfax. Russia, indeed, seems to have been provoked.
In a separate interview with VICE News, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance would discuss the question of "prepositioning" weapons next week, at a NATO ministerial meeting.
Stoltenberg also stressed — three times over the course of our interview — that NATO was in the process of "the biggest reinforcement of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War."
Watch the VICE News documentary, The Russians are Coming: Lithuania's Operation Lightning Strike.
VICE News spoke to the NATO officials at a military base in Zagan, near Poland's western border, shortly after they arrived to greet troops participating in Exercise NOBLE JUMP.
NOBLE JUMP marked the first test of NATO's new rapid reaction spearhead force — formally, the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force — which was formed in September 2014, just months after Russian troops invaded and seized Crimea. The 5,000-strong unit will be capable of deploying within 48 hours of receiving a NATO alert.
Also last September, at NATO's summit in Wales, member states agreed to expand the alliance's Response Force and to increase air patrols and training exercises.
The exercise arrived at an exceptionally tense moment in Europe. Last month, NATO and Russia carried out rival, chest-thumping military drills: the Russians reportedly with 12,000 troops and 250 combat planes in the Ural Mountains and Siberia and NATO with 4,000 troops in the Arctic. The Russian drill was unannounced. "Tanks don't need visas," Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin joked, on national television.
In recent months, Russian planes have appeared with increasing frequency in or near European air space: forcing European jets to scramble and escort the Russian planes away. Often, Russian pilots have turned off their transponders, in order to fly without detection.
NOBLE JUMP was premised on an imaginary scenario: essentially, that Poland and the Baltic states were under threat from the fictional nation of "Bothnia," a former democratic republic that is "keen to use all instruments of power, from the hybrid model to the conventional military confrontation, to gain a dominant position in the region," according to a pamphlet submitted to some participating troops. Upon signs of "possible destabilization and military activity," NATO decided to deploy its spearhead force to Poland, to conduct a "demonstration of force."
When asked for more information about Bothnia, several NATO officials turned cagey and changed the subject — after first insisting that Bothnia was wholly fictional and certainly not a euphemism for Russia.
Once in Poland, the nine NATO states participating in NOBLE JUMP carried out a "dynamic display," a live-fire catwalk of the alliance's most impressive kit — like Norwegian Leopard 2 tanks and US Blackhawk helicopters.
Special operations forces stormed a purpose-built house that Bothnian-backed forces had occupied. Helicopters extracted two snipers from a high-risk operation, and then flew them — harnessed to a rope, dangling from a helicopter — across a barren field.
And all before a large crowd of spectators.
On Wednesday, several hundred uniformed soldiers watched the demonstration from a makeshift stadium on a small hill, where large screens had been set up to broadcast live NATO TV footage. This arrangement — as well as the fact that NOBLE JUMP was carried out on a big sandy field, rather than the kind of urban setting that typifies real-world conflict in places like eastern Ukraine — made the exercise feel more like a glittery military parade than a bona fide test of Allied capability.
The drill was called off early because a nearby forest caught on fire.
That NOBLE JUMP was carried out in Poland will not escape the attention of regional leaders. Since Russia's seizure of Crimea, states along NATO's eastern frontier — former Warsaw Pact countries and Soviet republics — have been agitating for NATO to deploy permanent troops in the region. Back in March 2014, Poland and the Baltic countries invoked Article 4 of the NATO Treaty, calling for an emergency alliance "consultation" about their territorial integrity.
Russia, in turn, has cautioned against the stationing of permanent NATO troops — arguing that it would violate a 1997 agreement, in which NATO promised that "in the current and foreseeable security environment," it would not pursue the "additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces" near Russian territory.
Today, the alliance walks a kind of middle ground: using back-to-back rotations of non-permanent troops from different member-states. In January, NATO announced that it would build six new command and control centers in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria.
Kaliningrad, bordered by Poland and Lithuania, is a former Prussian capital, which Soviet forces seized from Germany after World War II. The territory is administered by the Russian Federation and in the last year has been flooded with weaponry and soldiers.
Related: Russia's Ghost Army in Ukraine
In our interview, I presented Stoltenberg with an invented scenario: "Little green men" — the sort of Russian soldiers who wear green army uniforms without insignia and who are currently orchestrating a Moscow-backed separatist movement in eastern Ukraine — have crossed over the border into Poland.
What does NATO do? And when?
Herein lies the rub. For if the situation were anything like Ukraine, it would be muddled. Russia would deny involvement. And it would — in the early hours, at least — be difficult to say just who was backing the insurgent forces. Without a formal declaration of war, or a line of Russian tanks snaking towards Warsaw, would NATO's Article 5 clause be triggered, requiring the alliance to mobilize? If the situation remained confused, where would NATO draw its red line?
Stoltenberg insisted that NATO would "defend and protect" its ally promptly, but acknowledged the alliance must improve its intelligence capabilities, in order to pre-empt a Ukraine-like scenario in a NATO member-state.
"We are doing more when it comes to intelligence, surveillance, situational awareness, to be able to understand the situation and to be able to react fast enough if we have something like Ukraine taking place in another country… We are aware also of the threat of some little green men."
Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart