WARSAW: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will visit a US-led NATO battalion in Poland on Friday amid concern on the alliance's eastern flank over a huge Russian military exercise in neighbouring Belarus next month.
Stoltenberg will hold talks with Polish President Andrzej Duda in Warsaw on Thursday before travelling to the NATO base in the northern village of Orzysz, Tomasz Szatkowski, Poland's deputy defence minister, told local media on Tuesday.
The multinational battalion in Orzysz is one of four deployed by NATO this spring to Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, aimed at reassuring its easternmost allies unsettled by Russia's frequent military exercises near the region in the wake of its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Speaking in Washington this month, Stoltenberg said it was "correct to say that NATO's relationship with Russia is more difficult than it has been any time since the end of the Cold War."
General Ben Hodges, commander of US ground forces in Europe, said last week that "Poland has become for the United States Army the centre of gravity for everything that we're doing in terms of deterrence" regarding Russia.
The Orzysz base lies about 100 kilometres (60 miles) from Russia's Kaliningrad exclave and a stone's throw from the Suwalki Gap, a strategically important land corridor critical to the security of the Baltic states.
The gap, a 65-kilometre stretch of border with Lithuania, is sandwiched between the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and Belarus.
Military strategists say it is the Achilles' heel of NATO's eastern flank since its capture would amputate the alliance's three Baltic members and so shatter its credibility.
Formerly Soviet-ruled Baltic states worry that after Ukraine, they may be next to face pressure from the Kremlin, which is why they are casting a wary eye on September's "Zapad 2017" (West 2017) Russian military drills in Belarus, which borders Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
Lithuania's Defence Minister Raimundas Karoblis warned in June that Moscow might use the manoeuvres as cover for an aggressive troop buildup on NATO's eastern flank.
"Putin would like to test NATO ... and probably the best area for him to test is the Baltics," Karoblis told AFP.
He said his government estimated that 100,000 Russian troops would be involved in the exercises, while official Russian figures quoted in Polish media reports peg the number of troops at 12,700.
Moscow has invited representatives of all three Baltic states to observe the drills.
Michal Dworczyk, a senior Polish defence ministry official, said this week that Poles could feel "absolutely safe" despite "serious doubts" about whether Russia would withdraw all its forces from Belarus after the drills are over.
Stoltenberg said in July that Russian officials had given the alliance troop figures for the Zapad war games but he declined to make them public, saying it was up to Moscow to do so.
He added that the alliance had held "frank" talks with Moscow on how to avoid dangerous misunderstandings over issues such as exercises.
Aside from leading the NATO force in Orzysz, the US Army set up a new European headquarters in Poland in May to command some 6,000 of its troops deployed in NATO and Pentagon operations across the alliance's eastern flank since the beginning of the year.