Poland has officially welcomed a NATO battalion deployed to the Eastern European country to join a multinational force aimed at countering alleged future aggression from Russia.
“I am very pleased to be with you on this historic day for my country,” a clearly fascinated Polish President Andrzej Duda said at the welcoming ceremony in the northeastern town of Orzysz on Thursday.
“Generations of Poles have waited for this moment since the end of World War II, generations that dreamed of being part of the just, united, democratic, and truly free West,” he said.
Duda said the deployment of the battalion, comprising American soldiers, would help prevent what he called foreign invasion on the country.
Earlier, Duda met with General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, who is in charge of the US European Command and is the Supreme Allied Commander Europe. The Polish president awarded him a medal for his efforts at the Western military alliance.
Also speaking at the Thursday ceremony, Scaparrotti called the deployment “a clear demonstration of NATO’s unity and resolve and sends a clear message to any potential aggressor.”
“You now form NATO’s eastern flank,” he told the troops.
The American contingent of 900 troops, which arrived in Poland in March, will serve along with 150 British and 120 Romanian soldiers on a rotational basis.
Their base of operation, Orzysz, lies 60 kilometers from the border with Kaliningrad, a Russian territory on the Baltic Sea separated from the Russian mainland.
The US and its allies have been at odds with Moscow since the strategic Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, then controlled by Ukraine, joined Russia following a referendum in March 2014.
Western countries have said Russia “annexed” Crimea by force and have been fearful of a repeat of that scenario in other countries, stepping up their military presence in Eastern Europe. They have also imposed several rounds of sanctions on Russia.
NATO has suspended all practical cooperation with Moscow and started deploying troops and weaponry to the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia — near Russia — since then.
Moscow has long been critical of any NATO expansion toward its borders, saying the West seeks to encircle Russia.
In response, Moscow has deployed the S-400 air missile defense system together with nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad.
Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced last year that Russia would also deploy two new divisions in the west and one in the south to counterbalance NATO’s increased military presence near Russian borders.