ZAGAN: Polish leaders welcomed US troops to their country on Saturday, with the defense minister expressing gratitude for their arrival and calling it the fulfillment of a dream Poles have had for decades.
The ceremony in the western Polish town of Zagan comes some 23 years after the last Soviet troops left Poland. It marks a new historic moment — the first time Western forces are being deployed on a continuous basis to NATO’s eastern flank. The move has infuriated Moscow.
“Welcome to Poland,” Prime Minister Beata Szydlo told US troops in Zagan, the Polish town on the German border where the brigade will be headquartered, adding “we hope you feel at home.”
“The presence of American soldiers in Poland is another step in our strategy to ensure safety and security for Poland and the region,” she added.
“We have waited for you for a very long time,” Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz told the troops as snow fell. “We waited for decades, sometimes feeling we had been left alone, sometimes almost losing hope, sometimes feeling that we were the only one who protected civilization from aggression that came from the east.”
Hailing from Fort Carson, Colorado, the so-called “Iron Brigade” comprising some 3,500 soldiers and heavy equipment will also be deployed in NATO partners Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary on a rotational basis.
It is part of the Pentagon’s “Atlantic Resolve” operation aimed at countering security concerns triggered on NATO’s eastern flank by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
“This is America’s most capable fighting force: A combat-ready, highly trained US armored brigade, with our most advanced equipment and weaponry,” US Ambassador to Poland Paul James said at the ceremonies, also attended by hundreds of Zagan residents.
“This force embodies America’s iron-clad commitment to honor our NATO treaty obligation to defend our NATO allies.”
The US troops and tanks began streaming into Poland Thursday as part of one of the largest deployments of US forces in Europe since the Cold War, an operation that Russia angrily branded a security “threat.”
The brigade’s deployment, ordered by the outgoing Obama administration, comes a week ahead of the inauguration of US President-elect Donald Trump, who has suggested his Republican administration will seek to ease tensions with the Kremlin.
Poland on Friday told Trump that any improvement in Washington’s ties with Moscow cannot come at the cost of harming Warsaw.
According to the defense minister, a total of 7,000 US and NATO troops will be stationed in his country in the coming years.
The Defense Ministry held “Safe Poland” picnics on Saturday in cities across the country, allowing average Poles to meet with Polish and newly deployed US troops, view military hardware and chow down typical Polish army grub including pea soup with ham.
Hundreds of residents attended the official welcome ceremonies in Zagan.
“The deployment is necessary and it’s great that they’re here. We can feel the support of our allies,” a Zagan resident who identified himself only as Pawel told AFP.