Poland and its NATO partners have kicked off their largest-ever joint military exercises aimed at shoring up security on the alliance's eastern flank amid the West's worst standoff with Russia since the end of the Cold War.
The two-week long Anaconda manoeuvres are aimed at "checking the alliance's ability to defend its eastern flank," Polish Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz said yesterday at formal opening ceremonies in Warsaw before troops hit the ground today.
More than 31,000 soldiers from 24 NATO and former-Soviet "Partnership for Peace" states including Ukraine are taking part in the manoeuvres, held biannually across Poland since 2006.
Some 14,000 US troops will join 12,000 Polish soldiers and around 1,000 from Britain for the exercises involving some 3,000 vehicles, 105 planes and 12 naval vessels.
US Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley said the American presence "demonstrates that we are shoulder to shoulder with the Polish people" and that the exercises would "improve our collective readiness."
They come a month ahead of a "landmark" NATO summit in Warsaw set to seal its largest revamp since the Cold War by deploying more troop rotations in eastern European members spooked by Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Russia is fiercely opposed to the move, billed by NATO as its "deter and dialogue" strategy.
While NATO cut all practical cooperation with Moscow following Russia's Ukraine intervention, the US-led alliance has said it will hold formal talks with the Russians before the July 8-9 summit.
But just last month Moscow and Washington accused each other of mounting an aggressive military presence in northern Europe as the United States broke ground on a missile shield in NATO allies Poland and Romania.
Russia has vowed to "end threats" posed by the system, despite US assurances that it is intended to ward of potential attacks by so-called "rogue states" in the Middle East.
The Kremlin said it would set up three new divisions in the west and south of the country by the end of the year to counter NATO forces close to its border.
Macierewicz said yesterday that Polish paramilitary forces will take part in the Anaconda exercises for the first time, part of Warsaw's strategy to counter "hybrid warfare".
That tactic is based on deception rather than a formal declaration of war, NATO strategists say and suggest Russia used it to annex Crimea by covertly deploying unidentified troops.