WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is sending about 600 troops to Eastern Europe in response to Russia's incursion into Ukraine, Rear Adm. John Kirby announced Tuesday.
The first contingent of 150 soldiers from the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Italy, will arrive in Poland on Wednesday to conduct infantry exercises. Another 450 soldiers will be deployed to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for similar duty. The American forces will be replaced to ensure a continual presence in the region.
"Russia's aggression in Ukraine has renewed our resolve to strengthening NATO's defense plans and capabilities, and to demonstrate our continued commitment to collective defense in reinforcing our NATO allies in Central and Eastern Europe," Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon.
The move drew measured praise from Rep. Buck McKeon, a California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
"This as a small step in the right direction," McKeon said. "By rearranging U.S. forces already deployed in Europe, the president is doing something, however incremental, to reassure our allies. It might have more deterrent value if he included the Ukrainian military in the exercises. It remains to be seen if this move of 600 troops comes in time to make an impression on the tens of thousands of Russian troops on Ukraine's borders."
Russia annexed Crimea, taking control of key port facilities on the Black Sea, and has been accused by U.S. officials of sending forces elsewhere into eastern Ukraine to destabilize the country.
The token presence of U.S. troops in Poland, a NATO ally bordering Ukraine, and the Baltic nations, also NATO allies, could not repel a Russian invasion or eject them from Ukraine. Russia has massed about 40,000 troops on Ukraine's eastern border.
"What would be very helpful is if they removed their forces off that border and took concrete actions to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine," said Kirby, the Pentagon's press secretary.
The presence of U.S. soldiers raises the stakes for Russia in Poland and the other countries if it moves against them militarily. Wounding or killing an American soldier there could risk a major war.
There are about 67,000 U.S. troops in Europe and 12,000 civilians, according to U.S. European Command. The Cold War peak was 400,000 troops, in 1955 and it dropped to about 100,000 several years ago.