Opinion | What it’s like at the Ukraine border, delivering Javelins and Stingers

Watching the Javelins move towards the battlefield Friday is the clearest demonstration of the delicate balance that the United States and its allies are trying to strike in the Ukraine war. They are rushing deliveries of weapons to help Ukraine defend itself against Russian attackers. But US and NATO troops are staying safely across the border, determined to avoid a direct military confrontation with Russia that could turn this into a cataclysmic world war.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited this weapons-transfer facility Friday as part of his visit to Europe to bolster American support for Ukraine and NATO. At every stop, he’s walking the same tightrope: Support Ukraine’s war against Russia – but contain that war within Ukraine’s borders.

Milley embraced this second theme of deterring any attack on NATO in a separate visit Friday with soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division, who have been in Poland for the past month to bolster Polish forces and deter any Russian attempt to expand the war into NATO territory.

During a briefing at the division’s operational headquarters in Rzeszow in southeastern Poland, Milley heard a grim update on what might be ahead in Ukraine as Russia accelerates its invasion. One analyst assessed that Kyiv could be isolated in four to six days. The battle for Kyiv would then become a desperate street-to-street battle as Ukrainians fought to save their capital. Polish border police attending the meeting shared their breakdown of border crossings: In the previous 12 hours, 53,000 people had crossed from Ukraine; for days, crossings have been at that surge level, as Ukrainians flee the war.

It’s a measure of the Pentagon’s concern about bolstering Poland that the 82nd Airborne was dispatched there nearly a month ago. The 82nd is the Pentagon’s quickest rapid-deployment force. It was sent to Kabul last August to manage the evacuation from Afghanistan.

To prepare for a possible similar emergency rescue of American citizens leaving Ukraine, the division rented a large indoor arena in Rzeszow that could accommodate 2,500 people. Bunks there are arrayed in neat rows, but they’re nearly all empty. So far, only 29 Americans have used the facility. But shelter is ready if needed for the wider refugee crisis.

Milley flew by Blackhawk helicopter to a Polish base in Nowa Deba, where American troops are helping train Polish forces. As Polish tanks rumbled in the distance, Maj. Gen Christopher T. Donahue, the commander division, explained the mission to me and two other journalists traveling with Milley: “We’re out here to assure and deter,” he said. He stressed the growing ability of Polish and American forces to operate jointly, sharing radar and other data.

Talking with some of the division’s 4,700 soldiers deployed here, you get an immediate, flesh-and-blood sense of NATO’s presence at the eastern flank of NATO. The soldiers talk about mundane concerns such as their dealing with worried families and encountering Polish food, but they know they’re in Poland to embody the United States’ Article 5 commitment to treat an attack on a NATO member as if it were an attack on America.

As Milley was leaving the 82nd Airborne’s headquarters in Rzeszow, he gave a brief gung-ho speech similar to the one he has delivered at most stops on this tour. He talked, as he often does, of the precious value of the rules-based order that was created after the horror of World War II. “Now you have an invasion of one country by another. The Russians just broke the rules in a big way. ”

As he departed, Milley told the American troops, “You are sitting at the forward edge of freedom.” Those sounded like fighting words, but in the next breath, Milley said: “We want to keep the confrontation contained in Ukraine.”

That’s the paradox of America’s commitment to Ukraine: Stop the Russians without fighting them. Check Putin’s aggression, but give him a way out before the situation gets any more dangerous.

A step in the right direction was establishing a “deconfliction” hotline between US and Russian forces. The American connection will be in Stuttgart, Germany, the headquarters of US forces in Europe, which Milley visited Thursday. The line will be tested twice a day, officials say, to make sure it’s working.

Now they need to start talking about ending this conflict. As Milley told the troops in Rzeszow, “Big things are at stake here.”

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