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Poland Requests U.S. Base To Guard Against Russian Aggression

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

There are Trump hotels, Trump golf courses. Why not a Trump military base? The government of Poland says if the United States will open a base in their country, they will call it Fort Trump. Polish officials are offering to contribute up to $2 billion to build Fort Trump, saying they need it to keep Russian aggression in check. Here's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Poland's role in protecting NATO's eastern flank has grown since Russia annexed Crimea back in 2014.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Polish).

SARHADDI NELSON: The Polish military posted this video of a NATO exercise there last week called Anokonda, in which more than 12,000 Polish troops took part. Tomasz Szatkowski, who is an undersecretary in the Polish Defense Ministry, says he's proud of such joint efforts.

TOMASZ SZATKOWSKI: Certainly, it has contributed to the deterrence. It sent an important political signal, also a strategic signal.

SARHADDI NELSON: That signal is aimed at Russia, which, from its heavily armed enclave of Kaliningrad, shares a 144-mile-long border with Poland. But Szatkowski believes exercises and rotations of a few thousand U.S. and NATO troops on Polish soil aren't enough to keep Russian forces from launching an attack.

SZATKOWSKI: Numbers are certainly not sufficient to mount a, you know, significant defense. We want to look beyond some temporary measures that were put in place.

SARHADDI NELSON: What he and others in his government want is for the U.S. to formally open a base in Poland, which could house not only a larger number of troops but more American equipment and armored vehicles. Exactly where such a base would be located isn't clear. Although, one likely site is about 80 miles from the Russian border. It's an area where U.S. troops are already training and working with their Polish counterparts. The biggest town here is Orzysz, where several restaurants and the office of Mayor Zbigniew Wlodkowski have U.S. flags on display.

ZBIGNIEW WLODKOWSKI: (Speaking Polish).

SARHADDI NELSON: He says U.S. troops provide an economic boost to his community, as do the tourists who come here to watch military exercises or snap selfies with the foreign soldiers. The mayor adds he would welcome a Fort Trump being built here. He says the town's long history as a Polish military hub means much of the infrastructure and local mindset needed to accommodate an American base is already in place.

But some other town residents NPR interviewed fear that building a U.S. base here would backfire and provoke the Russians. Most said they were too afraid to be recorded or give their names.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Polish).

SARHADDI NELSON: One woman told me, "it will take about an hour for the Russians to come and destroy everything. Poland will be wiped out. Can a few thousand American soldiers defend us from that?"

American officials also appear to have reservations about the proposed base. Before meeting with his Polish counterpart last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters, it is important to figure out what works best for NATO unity and security, not just the U.S.-Polish relationship. Retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges is with the Center for European Policy Analysis and until a year ago, commanded the U.S. Army in Europe. He says there are already 4,000 U.S. troops in Poland on any given day.

BEN HODGES: The strategic effect of U.S. commitment, I think, is already being achieved. And it's there in meaningful ways at a high level of readiness that doesn't give the Russians an excuse to go into Belarus, for example.

SARHADDI NELSON: Officials in Belarus, which is also a Polish neighbor, have suggested they may allow the Russians to establish a base there if the Americans do so in Poland. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.