VICENZA, Italy -- The U.S. is so far providing more resources to shoring up eastern European allies made nervous by a newly assertive Russia than other NATO members, again testing the alliance that has struggled throughout the war in Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, a company from the Vicenza-based 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team arrived at an air base in northwestern Poland, part of a commitment the U.S. announced Tuesday to send about 600 troops to Poland and the Baltics for training exercises.
As a second company of some 150 U.S. paratroops left Italy Thursday it was clear that the U.S. has committed far more resources to bolstering NATO members in eastern Europe that border Russia than their closer allies in Western Europe.
The paratroop company that flew out on Thursday headed to Latvia, the unit's executive officer Maj. James Downing said, adding that by Monday two more companies will be on the ground in Lithuania and Estonia.
In addition to the troops, which are to train with Polish, Latvian, Estonian and Lithuanian soldiers, the U.S. has also sent a dozen F-16 fighter jets and their crews, roughly 300 people, to Poland; six additional F-15 fighters with about 60 servicemembers and two KC-135 refueling tankers to Lithuania; and the frigate USS Taylor to the Black Sea.
"The U.S. is the only country which is answering the problem," said Witold Waszczykowski, a Polish diplomat and parliamentarian who previously served as the country's foreign minister.
He said the 600 U.S. paratroops sent from Vicenza to Poland and the Baltics was the result of bilateral decisions between the U.S. and those countries.
"It was not a NATO decision," he said. "I would expect NATO would soon explain its position. We hope they join with the U.S."
NATO is currently deploying a flotilla in the Baltic Sea consisting of the Norwegian flagship, the HNoMS Valkyrien, and four minehunters from the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway and Estonia. Its AWACS reconnaissance planes have been flying regular surveillance flights along Ukraine's borders to monitor the crisis in that country.
Meanwhile, several member nations have offered additional aircraft to boost NATO's Baltic air policing mission, in which warplanes from alliance nations take turns patrolling the skies over the three Baltic states that have no fighters of their own.
Polish air force MiG-29s are due to take over from the Americans in June. Plans call for them to be joined by Danish F-16s. This rotation will be followed by Portuguese F-16s in September. Germany and Britain also have proposed sending Eurofighter Typhoon air superiority jets to reinforce the patrols, as has France with its Dassault Rafales.
That the U.S. sent assets into the region ahead of other NATO countries wasn't surprising, said Nick Witney, a former head of the European Defense Agency.
"America always takes the lead in NATO, that's the nature of the beast. The whole psychology of the alliance is to look to the Americans in any crisis like this, and then to fall in behind Washington."
NATO's European members still depend on the U.S. security guarantees, even though Russia is militarily weaker than the Europeans, he said.
"The conventional threat that Russia poses to Europe nowadays isn't particularly alarming,"said Witney, now a senior fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations.
But Russia remains a nuclear threat. "That's America's final guarantee, the nuclear guarantee," he said.
NATO, formed after World War II to contain the Soviet Union and guarantee the security of Western Europe, began expanding into eastern Europe a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, dissolution of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact alliance and the break-up of the USSR. It is supposed to be the primary responder to increased tensions with Russia.
But both the U.S. and Western Europe are wary of confronting Russia militarily or through tough economic sanctions, seeking to avoid an escalation of tensions, and, in Western Europe's case, disrupting significant business and energy ties.
The deployment of military assets along the edges of the alliance as a deterrent to Russia has been hailed by NATO as a demonstration of alliance solidarity.
The offers by the U.S. and others to enhance readiness in eastern European nations "reflects Alliance solidarity and our core task to protect and defend our Allies," said NATO Deputy Spokesperson Carmen Romero in an email. "We are taking legitimate steps to deal with the instability created by Russia's reckless actions."
Troops with the 173rd training in eastern Europe are aware of that role, said Maj. Mike Weisman, a 173rd spokesman.
"We know we're here to bolster our NATO allies," Weisman said, "but for the paratroopers, they're just really excited about doing airborne ops and live-fire exercises with the 6th Polish Airborne Brigade."
Weisman said he expected the company in Poland – Company C, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment -- would be training for about a month with the Polish brigade before another unit rotated in.
The Pentagon announced the 173rd deployment Tuesday, a few days after the unit's soldiers got the word, according to Weisman.
"This came together very fast," he said. "What we're going to do is something that would usually take months to plan. But we are the Army's contingency force. That's kind of what we do."
About 40,000 Russian troops are massed on Ukraine's eastern border, and U.S. officials say Russia has sent special operatives into eastern Ukraine to destabilize the country, which is not a member of NATO. Russian President Vladimir Putin has asserted the right to intervene in Ukraine to protect the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers. His defense minister on Thursday announced new military exercises along the Ukrainian border -- just hours after Ukrainian troops killed at least two pro-Russia insurgents in eastern Ukraine.
"The fundamental understanding of security in Europe has now collapsed," Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves told The New York Times. "Everything that has happened since 1989 has been predicated on the fundamental assumption that you don't change borders by force, and that's now out the window."
"It's an extremely dangerous situation," Waszczykowski agreed.
"NATO is supposed to react to this. If we don't react, this is encouragement to other countries -- Iran, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela. We'll go back to the law of the jungle."
Waszczykowski said that Russia should be isolated, disinvited from all cultural, sporting and educational events and exchanges.
"Russian society supports the imperial designs of Putin," he said, pointing to Putin's 80 percent approval rating.
"They're enjoying this. They think they're coming back to the glorious time of the Soviet Union."
-- Stars and Stripes reporters Slobodan Lekic and Kent Harris contributed to this report.