A US tank brigade has arrived in Poland overnight, ahead of fears Moscow may be about to attempt another land grab.
The M1 Abrams main battle tanks and supporting armoured vehicles of the 2nd Armoured Brigade Combat Team docked in northern Poland overnight to swell NATO's presence among its East European member states.
The 1000 pieces of US military equipment are part of the largest reinforcement of Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War.
Behind it all is Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, and its ongoing 'shadow war' supporting pro-Moscow separatists in Ukraine.
And the tanks' arrival - while in the works for many months - comes just days ahead of controversial Zapad 2017 Russian war games with its ally and neighbour Belarus.
These are due to kick off tonight, Australian time.
Poland has expressed fears the manouveres are practice for a future invasion, intended to expand the Russian Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad. It has also highlighted how regions of Belarus with large populations of Poles have been designated 'terrorist insurgents' as part of the games' imaginary scenario.
Others have expressed fears any attempt to conceal the true size of forces taking part in the Belarus manoeuvres may indicate a massive - and permanent - repositioning of Russian troops, and possibly even disguise a takeover of the pro-Moscow ally itself.
Moscow, however, insists the military manoeuvres are small and of no threat to anyone.
FIRST LINE OF DEFENCE
The US tanks are joining four multinational battalions recently deployed to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia among a resurgence of Cold War style armed posturing.
They're there to emphasise NATO's determination to defend its allies - and Russia's closest Western neighbours.
The newly arrived 2nd Armoured Brigade Combat Team will be based in Gdansk. It will join the 3rd Brigade Combat Team in touring nations ranging from Bulgaria and Estonia
"This will be the first time two armoured brigades transition within the European theatre sending a full complement of soldiers and equipment into Germany and Poland in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve," European operations spokesman Master Sergeant Brent Williams told the Pentagon's Stars and Stripes news service.
It further reinforces the defence forces of Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, along with 4000 forward-deployed NATO troops from Britain, Canada, Germany and the US.
The arrival comes as relations between the West and Russia reach a new low since the end of the Cold War. A 'tit for tat' expulsion of diplomatic staff between Washington and Moscow continues to escalate. New sanctions have also recently been imposed by US Congress. And allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election campaign continue to grow.
WHAT THEY DO, NOT WHAT THEY SAY
While claiming the military manoeuvres will involve just 12,700 troops - just under the 13,000 figure that triggers treaty agreements for international observers - Germany and France have come out claiming the real figure is much closer to 100,000.
Moscow is attempting to explain-away the presence of extra troops and equipment by saying these belong to separate, although simultaneous, "snap drills".
It's becoming a common - and concerning - ploy.
Russia used a similar convergence of military "snap drills" above-and-beyond disclosed figures around its Kavkaz 2008 exercise to disguise the start of its brief war with Georgia.
Belarus and Russian defence officials say the Zapad drill will involve troops from the Kola Peninsula, near Finland, and range down to Kaliningrad - between Poland and Lithuania.
The Kaliningrad enclave has been heavily fortified in recent years, including the deployment of medium range missiles capable of carrying either conventional or nuclear warheads.
Also taking part in Zapad 2017 will be the Baltic and Northern Fleets, along with the Russian 1st Guards Tank Army. In total, US officials have told the Wall Street Journal they believe this amounts to between 70,000 and 100,000 troops.
Poland, the Baltic States, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria have expressed concerns Moscow may not withdraw all of its forces once the week-long Zapad exercises conclude.
Analysts put forward another possibility behind the concealed scale of Moscow's war games: regime change.
President Vladimir Putin has in recent years expressed growing irritation with Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko.
Belarus, one of Moscow's few remaining allies in Eastern Europe, has recently been attempting to chart its own course in foreign diplomacy.
This has included better relations and ties with the European Union.
Analysts have been expressing fears Moscow may be seeking to topple President Lukashenko in order to bring Belarus back to the fold.
It certainly does not want to see in Belarus a pro-West revolution similar to what happened in Ukraine in 2014, or similar pro-Western sentiments as those expressed by Georgia in 2008.
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