U.S. To Send Heavy Armor To Eastern Europe

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Defense Secretary Ash Carter heads to Europe to unveil plans to deploy tanks and other heavy armor in the Baltic states and Eastern Europe. Russia says the move is provocative and may send more armor to its Western borders.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

U.S. defense secretary, Ash Carter, is sending a message to Russia with a plan he outlined today in next-door Estonia. He announced that the U.S. is deploying heavy armor to Eastern Europe so U.S. troops can more quickly train with their NATO allies.

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ASH CARTER: We will temporarily stage one armored brigade combat team's vehicles and associated equipment in countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

CORNISH: NPR's Tom Bowman begins our coverage on what this could mean for U.S. relations with Russia.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: For weeks now, NATO and U.S. military officials have been talking tough about Russian president, Vladimir Putin's, military moves.

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PHIL BREEDLOVE: This challenge is posed by a resurgent Russia, is global...

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JENS STOLTENBERG: This nuclear saber rattling of Russia is...

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GENERAL BEN HODGES: I am sure that President Putin's No. 1 objective is to split the alliance to put doubt...

BOWMAN: That's NATO commander, General Phil Breedlove, NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg and U.S. Army Lieutenant General Ben Hodges. Their talk is now turning into action. For the first time, the U.S. is deploying armor to Eastern Europe.

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HODGES: That means about 250 tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and armored self-propelled howitzers.

BOWMAN: General Hodges is a top U.S. Army officer in Europe. He brushes aside Russian claims the move is provocative. He says the problem started with Russia. Now NATO countries want help.

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HODGES: We're building up on NATO's border. These are NATO countries. These are allies of ours that were our concern based on what Russia is doing on their border, and they've asked for assurance that their allies are there.

STEPHEN COHEN: If you want to risk war with Russia and wreck American national security and escalate the Ukrainian crisis, it's a terrible and reckless idea.

BOWMAN: That's Stephen Cohen, emeritus professor of Russian studies at Princeton and New York University. He says the U.S. should focus on implementing a cease-fire agreement in Ukraine, not sending more weapons to Europe.

COHEN: The problem here is, among others, is that Russia must react. Putin's under tremendous pressure in Moscow to be much tougher than he's been. So we're getting into a traditional Cold War situation, the tit for the tat.

BOWMAN: It's already started. Russian leaders now say they'll build up their forces on NATO's border, and President Putin says he'll deploy 40 more nuclear missiles. Defense Secretary Carter is toning down the rhetoric. He says he wants to help NATO deter possible Russian aggression or threats in Eastern Europe but also find common ground with Russia on issues like terrorism. That makes sense to Dmitry Gorenburg. He's a Russian analyst at CNA, a federally funded think tank which works for the military.

DMITRY GORENBURG: You know, what we want to do is kind of match what they're doing rather than escalate further. I don't think it's a good idea for the U.S. to provide lethal military assistance to Ukraine, for example.

BOWMAN: Right now, the U.S. are providing non-lethal equipment to Ukraine like trucks and body armor, along with American trainers. The heavy armor heading to Eastern Europe will allow U.S. and NATO troops to increase training. Russia may also step up military exercises and response, says retired admiral James Stavridis, the former top NATO commander. But what concerns him is some kind of miscalculation and not with those new tanks.

JAMES STAVRIDIS: The closest we are coming to returning to the Cold War is in the air where these kind of high-speed jets flying in very provocative profiles. I think that's risky.

BOWMAN: Some U.S. officers in Europe say, for example, Russian bombers are posing a threat to commercial aircraft. The Russian pilots are not filing flight plans, using transponders or communicating with air traffic controllers. Admiral Stavridis says pilots must continue to communicate.

STAVRIDIS: Pilots on both sides are very skilled, and there are procedures in place that ought to prevent this kind of behavior.

BOWMAN: There was greater communication between Russia and NATO back in the late 1990s when both sides signed a European cooperation agreement. Russian officers worked in NATO headquarters. But since the Russian moves in Ukraine, NATO has frozen much of that agreement and sent Russian officers home. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.