More than a week after President Joe Biden ordered some 3,000 troops to bolster NATO's eastern flank, those soldiers are trickling in.
Earlier this week, the first wave of troops with the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, a Stryker squadron based out of Vilseck, Germany, arrived in Romania. Some 1,000 service members are expected to arrive there in the coming days, where they will train with European troops. Yet the bulk of U.S. troops in Europe will remain at their normal bases, with stateside bases handling most of the new mission to deter Russian designs on invading Ukraine.
In all, 1,700 paratroopers are eventually expected to deploy to Germany and Poland from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, but the timeline is unclear.
On Feb. 3, the first wave of troops deployed from Bragg. But instead of ground combat troops with the 82nd Airborne Division, the plane was filled primarily with administrative personnel from the XVIII Airborne Corps. Most combat troops had yet to arrive in Poland as of Thursday, a source with direct knowledge on the mission told Military.com on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss mission details with the media.
The U.S. has some 80,000 troops in Europe, including those who are permanently stationed on the continent, such as the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vicenza, Italy. Meanwhile, other soldiers are among pre-planned rotations, including troops with the Oregon National Guard's 1st Squadron, 82nd Cavalry Regiment, who recently deployed to Poland along with Guardsmen from Washington state and California.
"This is a very small number of troops," Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters Wednesday. "They are but a small fraction of the total number of troops that we have in Europe and have been there, again, as part of our NATO commitments for a long time."
About 160 soldiers with the Florida National Guard are some of the only U.S. service members who have been in Ukraine itself since November, but they are training with Ukrainian troops far from the front lines. Because Ukraine is not a member of NATO, Biden has pledged that American troops will not fight if Russian forces blitz the country.
Meanwhile, other European powers -- including France and the United Kingdom -- are mobilizing troops to the eastern bloc as well.
Biden has signed off on a plan using U.S. troops to evacuate Americans who may flee to Poland from Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion, according to reporting from The Wall Street Journal. Some 30,000 Americans are in Ukraine. They, along with many Ukrainian citizens, would likely flee if war broke out, possibly leading to another massive refugee crisis in Europe.
Some of the same military leaders in charge during the chaotic last days of America's withdrawal from Afghanistan -- including Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division -- are overseeing the mission in Poland.
The Biden administration is coming off the heels of what was largely considered a botched withdrawal from Afghanistan. It extracted combat troops from the country, only to immediately redeploy them to secure the airport in Kabul as the nation crumbled into Taliban rule. The ad hoc evacuation mission led to the deaths of 13 service members and scores of Afghan civilians in one of the bloodiest days of the war -- which the U.S. has little to show for after two decades.
"There are no active efforts in play to militarily evacuate American citizens from Ukraine," Kirby said. "And the State Department has been exceedingly consistent and clear about warning Americans from traveling to Ukraine, and the president himself just the other day advised Americans to leave Ukraine, given the contentions. So there's been plenty of time and opportunity, and it's not a war zone."
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.