Poland Stages Major Maneuvers amid Russia Tensions
Poland kicks off major military exercises involving eight NATO partners on Wednesday amid the West's worst standoff with Russia since the end of the Cold War sparked by differences over the Ukraine crisis.
Organized every two years since 2006, this year's Anaconda maneuvers involve 12,500 soldiers, with 750 from NATO members the U.S. and Britain among others, the Polish defense ministry said, adding the event "has become a permanent training element of the North Atlantic alliance".
The exercises are designed to coordinate cooperation with NATO's rapid reaction forces, created at the alliance's Cardiff summit earlier this month.
They also come as the U.S. State Department approved this week the possible sale to Poland of air-to-surface missiles as part of plans to equip and upgrade Warsaw's fleet of F-16s.
Poland has earmarked 33.6 billion euros ($43 billion) to upgrade its military equipment over 10 years, including acquiring a missile shield, armored personnel carriers, submarines and drones.
Amid the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski proposed raising defense spending to 2.0 percent of GDP, from the current 1.95 percent.
Poland, a former Soviet satellite state with a population of 38 million, joined NATO in 1999 a decade after shedding communism. It acceded to the European Union in 2004.
Russia's March annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and backing of pro-Russian separatists in that country's east has sparked deep misgivings in Poland and its Baltic NATO partners, also formerly under Moscow's thumb.
U.S. President Barack Obama visited to the region in early September on the eve of a key NATO summit to offer security guarantees and calm nerves.
While the alliance has agreed to create a rapid reaction force, it stopped short of stationing permanent boots on the ground in Poland and the Baltic states, a move demanded by their leaders but frowned upon by Moscow.
Russia has long objected to NATO's expansion in its Soviet-era back yard and in 1997 NATO formally agreed not to install permanent bases in former Warsaw Pact states.
But on Friday, Lithuania's Defense Minister Jonas Vytautas announced NATO will set up regional "command and control" centers in "four or five countries, namely Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland and Romania".
Soldiers from Canada, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania and The Netherlands will also take part in the Poland's Anaconda maneuvers that wind down in northern Poland on October 3.
NATO will hold another set of exercises in Poland in October, also involving U.S. and British troops.