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What's Next After NATO Allies' Largest Military Exercise Since The Cold War?


After Russia annexed Crimea three years ago, the U.S. started reversing a military pullout from Eastern Europe. This summer, the biggest contingent of U.S. forces in years is maneuvering with NATO allies along Europe's eastern flank. It's part of a shift that started during the Obama administration from reassuring allies to deterring Russia. NPR's David Welna was in Romania, where the biggest war games since the end of the Cold War are wrapping up. Here's his report.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: In a bucolic valley nestled in Romania's Carpathian Mountains, herds of sheep graze the hillsides. Suddenly, all hell breaks loose.


WELNA: Stryker armored fighting vehicles fire live shells as they converge on a hollow below.

COLONEL JEFF SHOEMAKER: This is the 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division from Fort Carson, Colo. This is the best trained brigade in the United States Army.

WELNA: That's U.S. Army Colonel Jeff Shoemaker. He's responsible for all U.S. training, readiness and exercise programs in Europe. He says this armored combat brigade, which arrived with nearly a hundred Abrams tanks earlier this year, is part of Washington's ramped-up European Deterrence Initiative. They're here doing live fire exercises with troops from Romania and other nations.

SHOEMAKER: My mom and dad in Douglasville, Ga., would probably refer to it as war games. I think a better term is really we're conducting operational maneuvers that would correspond to how we would have to fight and win a battle or a war for our country.

WELNA: But you don't have an enemy here.

SHOEMAKER: So we created a scenario that allows us to depict a fictional invading force and gives us an enemy to fight without being provocative.

WELNA: Perhaps the enemy is fictional, but there clearly is an adversary. For Lieutenant General Ben Hodges - he commands all U.S. Army forces in Europe - Russia is the reason for these maneuvers.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL BEN HODGES: The Black Sea is the border between Romania and the Russian Federation. And of course, with Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea, Russia has moved that area further to the west.

WELNA: Hodges says it's no coincidence that Russia seized Crimea after the U.S. pulled all its tanks and two army divisions out of Europe.

HODGES: What escalates tensions is when we look weak, not connected, not prepared. That's what invites aggression. For 40 years in the Cold War, we had huge militaries facing each other. Forty years of peace.

WELNA: Among the many dignitaries watching the live fire attack Romania's president, Klaus Iohannis.

PRESIDENT KLAUS IOHANNIS: This is living proof of the fact that our soldiers not only talk together. They are able, when it is necessary, to fight together.

WELNA: Could they deter Russia?

IOHANNIS: Of course they could. And I think they do it.

WELNA: But Romania's top military official, General Nicolae Ciuca, is less sanguine.

You are on the shore of the Black Sea. So is Russia. How worried are you about Russia?

NICOLAE CIUCA: I am as worried as the alliance is. We are not apart from the alliance.

WELNA: But is there reason to worry?

CIUCA: Always there's a reason to worry. We are not living in a full peace environment.

WELNA: The next morning, on the banks of the Danube River in eastern Romania, another staged assault is underway.


WELNA: It's an air, land and river attack on a supposed enemy on the other side of the Danube. And it's being narrated by the operation's Romanian commander.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: An enemy airborne battalion was dropped in the early morning into 2nd Infantry area of operation and took the control over Danube River main bridges in support of the offensive operation.

WELNA: Watching this spectacle is U.S. Ambassador to Romania Hans Klemm.

HANS KLEMM: If you look out here on the Danube River you see a lot of Romanian naval capability, riverine capability because they're concerned, worst case scenario, that the Russians would move into the Danube.

WELNA: If it seems like this is all just hypothetical, consider this - the Kremlin is preparing a bigger show of force in neighboring Belarus. Alexander Vershbow is the former U.S. ambassador to Russia and deputy secretary general of NATO.

ALEXANDER VERSHBOW: They're about to have their big annual exercise in September called West or Zapad 2017. And people are expecting anywhere from 150,000 to 200,000 troops in what they pretend is a counterterrorism exercise, but it is basically a rehearsal for a full-scale war with NATO.

WELNA: And that's partly why Commanding General Hodges is pleased Congress is adding a billion dollars more in the coming year to the strengthening of U.S. forces in Europe.

HODGES: That's obviously significant. And it illustrates the continued commitment of the U.S. to security and stability in Europe even with a new administration. I mean, everything that was promised in the last year is happening this year.

WELNA: It's a bulking up of the American presence in Europe that President Trump, despite his overtures to Moscow, has done nothing to stop. David Welna, NPR News, Bucharest, Romania. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.