The soldiers of the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division train, eat and sleep on a drab, sprawling post in south-east Romania, a mere seven-minute rocket flight from where Russia has stockpiled munitions in Crimea.
Farther north, in military exercises with Romanian troops just a few miles from the Ukrainian border, US soldiers, also from the 101st division, are firing artillery, launching helicopter assaults and digging trenches similar to those on the front lines in the region near Kherson, the Ukrainian port city from which Russian troops retreated in November.
It is the first time the 101st Airborne Division has been deployed to Europe since World War II, and with their presence in Romania, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), its soldiers are now closer to the war in Ukraine than any other US Army unit.
Its mission is considered a model for an American military that has newly stepped back from two decades of actively fighting wars and into an era of trying to deter adversaries – using a show of force as well as training, weapons shipments and other aid to drive home the point.
“This is a regional conflict, but it has global implications,” the US Army’s chief of staff, General James C. McConville, said at the air base, which shares a runway with an adjoining commercial airport named for the former Romanian prime minister, Mihail Kogalniceanu, near the Black Sea.
The troop deployment in Romania is meant as a warning to Moscow, part of President Joe Biden’s pledge to defend “every single inch” of Nato territory without tempting President Vladimir Putin of Russia into escalating the conflict.
But holding joint exercises is also a way of ensuring that allies in south-east Europe are ready to hold the line.
It is unclear what kind of footprint the US will keep at the base; the Pentagon will soon decide whether to maintain the number of U.S. troops and senior commanders there.
Some in Congress are wary of the cost of meeting Ukraine’s continuing demands for support – with top House Republican Kevin McCarthy, suggesting in October that his party might be unwilling to write a “blank check” to Ukraine.
But supporters of maintaining a strong presence in Eastern Europe pointed to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February as proof that the US and its Nato allies did not do enough to deter Moscow last winter.
“This is one of the most important lessons that we have to take away from Ukraine,” Representative Seth Moulton said after returning from a brief trip to Ukraine in early December.
“When we look at the other scenario that might unfold like Ukraine, in the Pacific with China and Taiwan, we have to ensure that deterrence is successful.”
The division was ordered to deploy about 4,000 soldiers and senior commanders just weeks after Russia invaded. They arrived at the air base, near the Romanian coastal city of Constanta, over the summer.
The mission here is somewhat different from those elsewhere in Europe, where some US troops are training Ukrainian forces on advanced weapons systems that are being shipped to the Ukrainians.
The division’s commander, Major General J.P. McGee, said that training with other Eastern European soldiers had its own value.
“You get a chance to train and operate on the very ground that you might have to defend,” Gen McGee said.
He added: “You have to work with a Nato ally, and it’s almost unimaginable in the future that we would ever go fight without allies.”
SOURCE: NEWS AGENCIES