The Army began deploying small paratroop units to Poland and the Baltic states Wednesday as Moscow revved up threats against Ukraine and the region.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov charged that the U.S. was manipulating the Kiev government in the unraveling of a tentative peace accord reached last week, and he warned that Moscow would act to protect ethnic Russians and Russian citizens.
"Russian citizens being attacked is an attack against the Russian Federation," Lavrov told the Russia Today news channel. "There is no reason not to believe that the Americans are running the show," Lavrov said.
Lavrov denounced the Ukraine government’s new plan to move against armed pro-Russian groups in eastern Ukraine who have taken over buildings in at least 10 cities in eastern Ukraine.
The Russian foreign minister charged that the plan violated the Geneva accord reached last week with Ukraine, Russia, the U.S. and the European Union. The plan also called for the disbandment of the armed groups in eastern Ukraine with guarantees of amnesty.
"If our interests, our legitimate interests, the interests of Russians have been attacked directly, like they were in South Ossetia for example, I do not see any other way but to respond in accordance with international law," Lavrov said.
In citing South Ossetia, Lavrov was referring to the brief conflict with Georgia in 2008 that resulted in the breakaway of the republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The shift of about 600 troops from 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), based in Vicenza, Italy, to Eastern Europe was a confidence-building measure "aimed at assuring our regional allies of the United States’ unwavering commitment to NATO," the U.S. European Command said in a statement.
The first contingent 150 troops from the 173rd arrived at a military airfield in Poland Wednesday and stood in formation with Polish troops they will join in training exercises that Pentagon officials said would last about a month.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said Tuesday that additional U.S. ground units would follow to provide a "persistent" presence through the end of this year.
At the arrival ceremony, Stephen Mull, the U.S. ambassador to Poland, said that "Poland has been there for the United States," a reference to the service of Polish troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We have a solemn obligation in the framework of NATO to reassure Poland of our security guarantee" to protect Poland’s territorial integrity, Mull said.
Addressing the troops, Army Maj. Gen. Richard C. Longo said that their presence showed that "we have the capacity, we have the commitment, we have the will to fulfill our NATO obligations."
Other 150-troop units from the 173rd were expected to arrive in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia over the weekend to ease the concerns of the Baltic states over the drumbeat of warnings from Moscow of its duty to protect ethnic Russians.
The populations of both Latvia and Estonia are about 25 percent ethnic Russian, while Lithuania has a six percent ethnic Russian population.
The Baltic states and Poland have called for the permanent basing of NATO and U.S. troops in their countries to deter Russia, but the U.S. has only committed thus far to "rotational" troop deployments.
"As far as we understand, they are coming for as permanent a presence as possible," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said Wednesday of the 150-troop contingent headed for his country, the Lithuania Tribune newspaper reported.
"I would like to see more boots on the ground and planes in the sky and I think we will see more," Estonian Defense Minister Sven Mikser said Tuesday in an interview with Reuters.
"With the increase of a NATO deterrent footprint increasing in the Baltic region, I expect a strong rhetorical response from Moscow. They might also show some increased activity," Misker said.
Without giving specifics, Misker said there have been attempts to stir up unrest in the Russian ethnic population of Estonia.
"We see attempts to stir up tensions. It has been going on," Mikser said, but he expressed confidence that the ethnic Russians would rather be living in Estonia than the Russian Federation.
In Kiev, First Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Yarema said that Ukrainian forces would renew an operation to oust armed militants from eastern Ukraine that faltered last week when the Ukrainians surrendered several armored vehicles to the militants.
"The security forces are working on the liquidation of illegal armed groups," in eastern Ukraine, Yarema told reporters. "The corresponding activities will be carried out in the near future, and you will see the results."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com