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Pentagon mulls specifics of deploying Army battalion to Poland to counter Russia

Soldiers assigned to the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team prepare for a joint live fire exercise at Bucierz Range in Drawsko Promorskie, Poland, on June 16. (Courtesy of Pfc. Casey Dinnison/Army)

WARSAW — President Obama announced Friday that he will send a battalion of about 1,000 Army soldiers to Poland as part of a new NATO mission, an effort to deter any aggression by Moscow at Russia’s borders with Poland and the Baltic countries.

Obama, speaking alongside Polish President Andrzej Duda at a bi-annual NATO summit, said that the United States and Poland have a duty to defend each other as members of NATO. The battalion will be deployed in addition to the headquarters of an Army armored brigade, bolstering security on the alliance’s eastern flank as Russia carries out a series of military exercises just over its border.

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“Poland is going to be seeing an increase in NATO and American personnel and the most modern, capable military equipment,” Obama said. “With the new commitments that I am announcing today, the people of Poland and our allies across the region can remain confident that NATO will stand with you, shoulder-to-shoulder, today and always.”

The announcement was expected, and comes as the United Kingdom, Germany and Canada prepare to establish multinational battalions of a similar size in Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, respectively. Obama’s appearance came as leaders from NATO countries assembled here to grapple with issues ranging from the migrant crisis spawned by the conflicts in Libya, Syria and Iraq to combating the Islamic State.

Senior U.S. defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing planning, said after the president’s announcement that specifics of the coming deployment are still being developed. What’s clear, however, is that the battalion will be mechanized, with armored vehicles and possibly tanks.

Discussions about the four battalions deploying were made public earlier this year. But the United States did not confirm it was sending its unit in the program to Poland until Friday. One senior defense official said the Pentagon is open to altering how it deploys the battalion after the initial assignment this year.

“Things will change,” one senior defense official predicted. “It’s just the nature of military things as you make decisions and you deploy. If you want to do it a different way because it’s more efficient militarily or more cost-effective, you want to make changes and shape things. You’ll see things shifting, probably.”

The official said the United States ended up with the Poland assignment in part because it already had committed to putting the headquarters of the armored combat brigade team here and Poland has the necessary infrastructure.

“You’ve got to have facilities there that can handle a group as big as an armored brigade combat team,” citing tanks and artillery cannons as equipment that could be deployed. “You also want them in a place where they can get around to other places should the situation call for it.”

While U.S. officials said the new battalion in Poland will be composed entirely of American soldiers, the battalions in the three Baltic countries will be multinational. In Lithuania, for example, the German-led battalion will also include troops from the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Norway, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said Friday.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the deployments are the “biggest reinforcement to our collective defense in a generation.” It’s an important step, he added, but part of a bigger effort.

Russian leaders have mounted an angry response to NATO’s plans, saying they will bolster their troop deployments along Russia’s western border with NATO and step up military exercises in response. But Stoltenberg took pains Friday to say that NATO did not seek a fight with the Kremlin.

“We do not want a new Cold War,” Stoltenberg said. ‘We do not want a new arms race and we do not seek confrontation.”

The summit comes two weeks after British voters took a shock decision to break with the European Union, a landmark move that puts Western institutions under unprecedented pressure. It was the first meeting for Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron since the referendum.

The decision will not directly affect Britain’s commitment to NATO, but it has unnerved the most vulnerable allied nations as a warning sign that voters may not be as committed to international alliances as their leaders.

“People do not know what the elite is doing, or if they do know, they are not listening sometimes,” said Linkevicius.

U.S. officials have downplayed the affect of Brexit on NATO and national security issues. Obama said Friday that while the vote has “led some some to suggest that the entire edifice of European security and prosperity is crumbling,” such talk is “hyperbole.”

“European countries are and will remain among our closest allies and friends, and Europe is an indispensable partner around the globe,” Obama said. “Indeed, even as we manage the implications of Brexit, our work today shows that we’re going to continue to be focused on pressing global challenges.”

Michael Birnbaum contributed to this report.