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US pledges 1,000 troops as NATO shores up defences

Janek Skarzynski, AFP | The first American troops arrive at the airport in Swidwin, Poland on April 23, 2014, after Washington said it was sending a force of 600 to the Baltic states as the crisis over Ukraine deepens

The United States will deploy 1,000 troops and a separate brigade headquarters to Poland, President Barack Obama announced Friday, as the NATO alliance shores up its defences in eastern Europe.

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The US troops in Poland are part of a larger NATO effort which will see three other battalions led by Canada, Germany and Britain deployed to the three Baltic states to reassure the alliance's eastern allies in the face of a more aggressive Russia.

"As the Alliance prepares to enhance our forward presence in eastern Europe, I can announce that the United States will be the lead nation for the NATO presence here in Poland," Obama told reporters as Poland's President Andrzej Duda welcomed him to the NATO summit in Warsaw.

"And that means the United States will deploy a battalion, roughly 1,000 American soldiers here in Poland on a rotational basis to serve shoulder to shoulder with Polish soldiers," he said.

"In addition, when a new US armoured brigade begins rotating through Europe next year, its headquarters will be here in Poland. In other words Poland will be seeing an increase in NATO and American personnel and in the most modern military equipment."

Divisions

Obama's announcement came as the Atlantic alliance began a two-day summit in the Polish capital, against a backdrop of Russia's intervention in Ukraine and billed as one of the most important such gatherings since the end of the Cold War.

“The emphasis here is more on relations with Russia – and there are some differences within NATO about what stand to take”, said FRANCE 24’s special correspondent in Warsaw, Gulliver Cragg.

“We have the Poles being very much in favour of a harsh stance against Russia, they want more defence, more protection. They are joined in that attitude by the Baltic states and, to a certain extent, by the rest of Eastern Europe (…) But as you move further west and south in Europe, in countries like France, and even more so in Italy and Spain, there is more willingness to try to negotiate with Russia, to not take such a hard stance”, explains Cragg. “There is a fear of provoking Russia too much by putting too many NATO forces in Eastern Europe”.

Dialogue from a "position of strength"

In Warsaw, NATO heads of state and government will also formally order deployment of multinational units on the alliance's eastern borders. The action, telegraphed in advance like most items on the summit programme following months of deliberations by NATO member governments, is vigorously opposed by the Kremlin. But German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen on Friday called it an appropriate measure to counter what she called a "completely unpredictable and aggressive Russia."

Along with the US commitment announced by Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron was expected to tell the summit Britain will dispatch a 500-strong battalion to Estonia and an additional company of 150 troops to Poland. Canada and Germany have committed to furnishing core units for Latvia and Lithuania.

Von der Leyen said Poland and the Baltic states want greater protection because Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine shows Moscow "doesn't respect borders." The minister told German broadcaster ARD that NATO must maintain a dialogue with Russia, but from a "position of strength."

"It's important that NATO deploys with such strength that it's clear nobody can see an advantage in attacking this military alliance," she said.

Russia ‘open for dialogue’

As Obama and the other alliance heads of state and government were gathering in the Polish capital, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow is willing to cooperate with NATO, even though he said it acts toward Russia like an enemy.

Russia "has always been open for dialogue" with NATO, especially to fight what it sees as a "genuine threat" - terrorism, Dmitry Peskov said.
Warsaw may become the most highly secured city in the world during the summit, which takes place after a string of recent extremist attacks across the globe.

Helicopters hovered Friday above the National Stadium, the meeting's venue, while 6,000 police officers, backed up by soldiers, gendarmes, firefighters and other security officials, were out on Warsaw's streets.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP)
 

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