NATO helicopters overfly the Vistula as paratroopers cross it on a pontoon bridge (Photo by Lucian Kim/VICE News)
A column of Strykers, the US Army's eight-wheeled, 20-ton fighting machines, trundled across the narrow pontoon bridge to meet the Russian intruders in central Poland. Less than an hour earlier, a mixed team of German and British engineers had taken to the Vistula River with 30 giant M3 amphibious rigs to build a bridge almost a quarter of a mile long. Now the Strykers from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment were rolling over it to link up with allied paratroopers.
The river crossing was part of Anakonda-16, the largest military exercises hosted by Poland in more than a decade, involving 30,000 soldiers from more than 20 NATO and partner countries. The United States, which slashed its European-based forces after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is contributing almost half the troops. Since Russia's annexation of Crimea, the United States has been scrambling not just to reassure new allies like Poland, but to deter the Kremlin from any more military adventures in Eastern Europe.
Of course Russia isn't the named adversary in the 10-day Anakonda exercises, yet it's the only country in the neighborhood that poses a potential threat. The Kremlin was bitterly opposed to the enlargement of NATO, which has taken in nine former members of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, including Poland. In an effort to thwart any more neighbors from joining the transatlantic alliance, Russia fought a five-day war with Georgia in 2008 and invaded Ukraine six years later."I expected to go to Iraq or Afghanistan; I was looking forward to it. I never thought I'd be in Poland," said Sergeant Malcolm McEwen, 23, who was manning an Avenger anti-aircraft system — a Humvee with mounted Stinger missiles — on the banks of the Vistula. His unit from the Ohio National Guard was brought to Anakonda because the US Army lacks short-range air defense capability in Europe.
"I expected to go to Iraq or Afghanistan … I never thought I'd be in Poland"
Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the commander of the US Army in Europe, has been drawing on the National Guard and NATO allies to plug holes in his arsenal. After the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon cut the number of Army troops in Europe to 29,000, from 213,000 in 1989, and withdrew the last US tank from Germany three years ago.Months later Russia's stealth attack on Ukraine raised alarm bells on both sides of the Atlantic. Next year the Defense Department wants to quadruple military spending in Europe to $3.4 billion and start rotating an armored brigade through Eastern Europe. Separately, NATO is finalizing plans to deploy one multinational battalion to each of the three Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) and Poland.Hodges minced no words about the objectives of the Anakonda exercises: practicing interoperability among allies and projecting power from the United States. To that end, the 82nd Airborne Division flew hundreds of paratroopers straight from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and dropped them outside the town of Torun. There they joined Polish and British paratroopers to secure a bridgehead for the advancing Strykers, which had come more than 500 miles (800 km) from their base in southern Germany to meet the enemy.Eastern Europe is alien territory for the US military. For centuries, Germans, Austrians, and Russians divided the region up among themselves. Poland as a country disappeared from maps for 123 years, and smaller nations such as Estonia only briefly achieved statehood in 1918. In the aftermath of World War II, the Kremlin took control over the eastern half of Europe and didn't let it go until the Soviet Union self-destructed. After 1991, Eastern Europeans were eager to get under the US defensive umbrella as fast as possible, even if that meant joining the "coalition of the willing" in Iraq or sending combat troops to Afghanistan.
Prosecuting, then ending, those two conflicts has been the focus of US foreign policy for the past 15 years. In Washington, NATO membership was considered a just reward for countries that had been abandoned by the West after World War II and made the transition from Communist dictatorship to multi-party democracy.Watch VICE News' The Russians Are Coming: Estonia's National MilitiaBut what many Europeans viewed as an expanding bubble of peace and prosperity on their battle-scarred continent, most Russians saw as an encroachment into their traditional sphere of influence. Russian President Vladimir Putin played on old fears of external enemies to heal his country's wounded pride while tightening his own grip on power. The planned US reinforcements and massive exercises like Anakonda fit that narrative. Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov criticized Anakonda as "not facilitating an atmosphere of trust and security."In the towns where the war games are taking place, locals are reacting with a combination of nonchalance and enthusiasm. A mother pushed a baby carriage past a gun-toting Polish soldier in one village, while a middle-aged man jogged past a checkpoint with his dog. When the column of Strykers finally reached the town of Chelmno, crowds jostled to take photos and wave to the crews.Despite meticulous preparation, not everything went as planned — a realistic simulation of the unpredictable nature of war. In one case, a Polish civilian was killed in a traffic accident involving an American support vehicle on the second day of exercises. Not all of the 82nd Airborne's planes could leave North Carolina because of technical problems, and a Polish paratrooper had to use his reserve chute after his main one didn't open. Generals and other DVs ("distinguished visitors") were furious that they had to wait in the baking sun for the airborne exercise to begin.
With so many nations involved, diverging views are inevitable. As the Strykers rumbled over the Vistula, a German lieutenant observing the crossing muttered something about American "saber rattling." Although Germany is an indispensable NATO ally, a sizable portion of its population believes it's the United States that antagonized Russia. A poll published a year ago found that only 38 percent of Germans said their country should use military force to protect another NATO member from a Russian attack.Hodges, the US Army commander in Europe, rejects the argument that the United States has provoked the Kremlin's belligerence. After Russian special forces infiltrated Ukraine, neutral countries like Finland and Sweden began considering NATO membership. The Swedish military even plans to reestablish a presence on Gotland, an island in the Baltic Sea. "That's not US saber-rattling. That's the land of ABBA," Hodges said in an interview. "Nobody out here wants conflict."As for Anakonda, Hodges said that Russian observers had been invited but declined to attend, preferring instead to invoke an international treaty on inspections. "Everybody has been invited through proper procedures to lower the anxiety level," he said. "They should be here observing. Let them take half the step we routinely take — invite journalists — when they do snap exercises."Some of Russia's largest exercises in recent years have been unannounced and involved tens of thousands of troops. On the eve of Russia's lightning seizure of Crimea, in February 2014, Putin put 150,000 troops on alert for war games, unnerving NATO as to his next move.Before the relationship took a turn for the worse, the Western alliance and Russian military were on almost friendly terms. It may be hard to believe today, but five years ago, Poland hosted the first joint NATO-Russian counter-terrorism exercise, involving fighter planes from both sides. Now NATO and Russian jets intercept each other over international waters — just as they did when the Cold War held the world on edge.