The 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, from Fort Carson, Colo., has begun moving into Poland as part of the biggest U.S. military deployment in Europe since the end of the Cold War.
It's part of an Obama administration effort to deter perceived growing Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. The Kremlin isn't happy.
"These actions threaten our interests, our security," President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. "Especially as it concerns a third party building up its military presence near our borders. It's not even a European state."
But for Poles like retired metal worker Andrezej Kozlik, the American presence is something he's come to yearn for since the fall of Communism in 1989. The 62-year-old appeared oblivious to the icy temperatures on Thursday as he patiently waited at a sleepy border crossing 100 miles southeast of Berlin for the U.S. military convoy to arrive.
"We are very happy that the Americans are coming and supporting and protecting us," Kozlik said.
Like many Poles, he's reluctant to name the country he wants protection from.
A former tank man in 1974, in what was then Communist Poland's army, Kozlik said he really wants to see an American tank up close.
But only Humvees and support vehicles were in Thursday's convoy. The brigade's 87 tanks are being moved here gradually on trains and other heavy transport, according to U.S. military spokesmen.
In the nearby town of Zagan — known for notorious POW camps the Nazis set up, including one featured in the 1963 blockbuster The Great Escape – officials and residents waving small American flags celebrated the arrival of what will be a continuous, rotational presence of U.S. and NATO armored brigades in Eastern Europe.
The ramp-up is partly an attempt by President Obama to calm the nerves of NATO's newer members after Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and destabilized that country's eastern flank. More recently, the Kremlin deployed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, a sliver of Russian territory between Poland and Lithuania, and conducted military exercises along its borders with former Soviet satellite countries. Russian officials insist the ramp-up is in response to NATO actions.
Polish Army Maj. Gen. Jaroslaw Mika, whose soldiers will be training with some of the U.S. brigade's 3,500 troops, said he's thrilled they are here. He added it's important to "be together, to build our common relationship and to provide more security" — not only for Europe, he said, but the world.
U.S. Army Col. Christopher Norrie, who led Thursday's convoy, was feted by Polish trumpets. He described the new mission as a "cornerstone" to preserving freedom across Europe.
"To arrive at this point so swiftly is proof that when we work as a team ... no challenge is too large to overcome, no distance is too far to cross, when the need arises," Norrie said in Zagan.
But whether President-elect Donald Trump — who is highly critical of NATO — will withdraw the brigade after taking office is a question mark, said Michael Mazarr, associate director of the RAND Arroyo Center's Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program.
"I wouldn't see that as likely very quickly, particularly given the likely role of general and secretary of defense nominee [James] Mattis in the process," Mazarr said.
It would be better, he said, "to shoot above that target and go to Russia and say: 'Look, we've had a lot of misunderstandings lately, we recognize that some of what the United States and NATO have done may be perceived by you as provocative. Let's find a way to work this out that might lead to some kind of an agreement where in a year, we're pulling some of those troops back, but we're doing it in concert with Russian withdrawals from the western military districts of Russia.'
"That would seem to me to be the more likely and ultimately more productive kind of response of the new administration to this deployment," Mazarr said.
But in Germany, which is home to the U.S. Army in Europe headquarters, a new populist party with growing support from German voters, wants the American troops gone from Poland.
The co-chair of the Alternative for Germany party, Frauke Petry, argued that antagonizing Vladimir Putin hasn't cut down on violence in Ukraine or Syria.
"NATO sort of surrounding Russia is not going to help," she told NPR. "It's going to deepen the conflict. But I'm hopeful that Trump and Putin are going to end the situation."
Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, on the other hand, has said he hopes any effort to reconcile with Russia "does not happen at our expense."
For now, military officials say the Fort Carson brigade will fan out across Poland and send some of its soldiers to the Baltic States, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary to train with local troops there.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
An armored brigade from Colorado has arrived in Poland. It's part of the biggest U.S. military deployment in Europe since the end of the Cold War. The Obama administration says the soldiers and their tanks are a deterrent against Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. The Kremlin calls the American deployment a threat to Russian security. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from western Poland.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Andrezej Kozlik seems oblivious to the cold as he waits at this sleepy Polish border crossing. The retired metal worker is here to welcome a U.S. military convoy that's arriving from a port in Germany.
ANDREZEJ KOZLIK: (Speaking Polish).
NELSON: He says he's happy the Americans will be based here to help deter aggression, although like many Poles, he's reluctant to say who the soldiers will protect his country from. A former tank man during his years in what was then Communist Poland's army, Kozlik says he hopes to see an American tank up close.
But the only vehicles that show up today are Humvees and armored trucks. Officials say the 87 tanks in the brigade will be arriving in the coming weeks on trains and other heavy transport.
(SOUNDBITE OF BAND MUSIC)
NELSON: In the nearby town of Zagan, officials and residents holding small American flags celebrate at what will be a continuous rotational presence of U.S. and NATO armored brigades in Eastern Europe. The ramp-up is partly an attempt by President Obama to calm the nerves of NATO's newer members after Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Polish Major General Jaroslaw Mika, whose soldiers will be training with the Americans, tells me he's thrilled they are here.
JAROSLAW MIKA: Let me say it's very important to be together, to build our common relationship and to provide more security not only for Europe, for Poland, for all of the world countries.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRUMPET MUSIC)
NELSON: U.S. Colonel Christopher Norrie, who was feted by Polish trumpets, called the joint mission a cornerstone to preserving freedom across Europe.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
COLONEL CHRISTOPHER NORRIE: To arrive at this point so swiftly is proof that when we work as a team, no challenge is too large to overcome. No distance is too far to cross when the need arises.
NELSON: RAND senior political scientist Mike Mazarr says it remains to be seen whether President-elect Donald Trump, who is critical of NATO, will order the U.S. troops home.
MIKE MAZARR: Where there is an opportunity to sort of leave that where it's at and go to Russia and say, look; we've had a lot of misunderstandings lately. We recognize that some of what the United States and NATO have done may be perceived by you as provocative. Let's find a way to work this out that might lead to some kind of an agreement where in a year, we're pulling some of those troops back, but we're doing it in concert with Russian withdrawals.
NELSON: It's not just the Russians who are opposed to this deployment. Frauke Petry, a leader of the populous Alternative for Germany party, argues the arrival of the American troops needlessly antagonizes Vladimir Putin.
FRAUKE PETRY: NATO sort of surrounding Russia is not going to help. It's going to deepen the conflict. But I'm hopeful that Trump and Putin are going to end the situation.
NELSON: For now, the U.S. armored brigade will be sending units to the Baltic states - Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary - to train with local troops there. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News in Zagan, Poland.
(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO SONG, "KONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.