Joint Military Exercises Reinforce American Power In Eastern Europe
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Amid all the headlines and speculation about Russia's role in the presidential election last year in the U.S., we now have today's meeting at the State Department. A senior Russian diplomat is coming - on the agenda, Russia's election meddling, the U.S. sanctions that came in response to that, but also another source of friction right now. In Southeastern Europe, the U.S. is taking part in the biggest joint military exercises since the end of the Cold War.
This is part of a reinforcement of American power in Eastern Europe that began under the Obama administration. NPR's David Welna has been watching this. He's in Bucharest, Romania. And, David, I mean literally watching this. You saw some of these war games happening, right?
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Yes, I did. This is all part of what's been called the European Deterrence Initiative, and it's a reinforcement of U.S. forces that had been depleted in Eastern Europe before Russia annexed Crimea three years ago. And as part of this sort of hardening of the U.S. presence here, there was an armored combat brigade team of about 4,000 Army troops from Fort Carson, Colo., that arrived here in Eastern Europe early this year. And they're here in Romania, and they're taking part in military exercises along with about 20,000 other troops.
On Saturday, I was in the Carpathian Mountains, and I watched a pretty impressive live fire, land and air assault there on an imagined enemy. And then yesterday, along the banks of the Danube River here, there was another assault staged to retake the other side of the river from another imagined enemy.
GREENE: You keep saying imagined enemy. Who is the imagined enemy?
WELNA: Well, no doubt it's Russia. And, you know, while this wasn't really a D-Day invasion along the Danube - there was no fire return from the other side - there was a lot of sound and fury. And here's a bit of what it sounded like.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
GREENE: It certainly sounds like war. What is happening there?
WELNA: Well, that's Romanian army forces firing 20 millimeter rounds from Tracht fighting vehicles and Romanian army troops along the banks firing AK-47s. And they're clearing the way for scores of paratroopers who landed on the other side. A lot of these weapons, like the MIG jet fighters in Romania, are of Soviet vintage. But that's changing.
Romania is set to hit the 2 percent of its GDP on defense spending. That's a goal for all NATO members, and a lot of that new spending is coming from buying American weapons, including F-16 jet fighters. And the State Department just last week approved the sale of a Patriot missile system for Romania, making it the first country along eastern Europe to acquire that missile system.
GREENE: David, I know these are exercises. But they're big ones. I mean, the biggest to be held in Romania since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Is there a fear that this kind of stuff could provoke Russia?
WELNA: Well, there is. You know, Romania is on the Black Sea, right across from Crimea, where there's a big Russian naval base that's been reinforced considerably in the past three years. And there's Russia itself across the water. So, you know, Romania really is the first line of defense for Eastern Europe here. And there is concern about possible Russian action here.
And the other thing is that the Danube that runs through Romania is really kind of a water highway through Eastern Europe, and ships can navigate from the Black Sea all the way to the Baltic if they can seize that river.
GREENE: All right, that is NPR's David Welna, who is speaking to us from Bucharest, Romania. David, thanks a lot.
WELNA: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.