Nato planes buzz overhead as US troops move into Polish conference centre near Ukraine

Remote airport has become a key staging post for Nato's resupply of Ukraine's forces

A C-17 Globemaster cargo plane lands at Rzeszow-Jasionka Airport, in south-eastern Poland, to bolster Nato's presence near Ukraine. AFP

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The glitzy G2A Arena opposite Rzeszow-Jasionka Airport normally plays host to trade shows and business exhibitions in south-east Poland’s largest city.

But in the last month new tenants have moved in, erecting metal sheets a few metres high that make it nearly impossible to peer inside and see what is going on, as military planes buzz overhead.

There is a public entrance and the new tenants, the US military, are on hand discreetly showing their presence. A handful of unarmed American soldiers stand at the gate, after US troops moved into the arena about a month ago amid fears that Russia would invade Ukraine, which borders Nato member-state Poland.

They are just some of the thousands of US troops recently deployed to Poland on Nato’s eastern flank as tensions with Russia surged. Those fears would ultimately be realised last week when Russia invaded Ukraine, a non-Nato member.

Nato insists it will not send troops to Ukraine, although it is arming Kyiv with weapons and has bolstered its presence in eastern Europe.

European arms

Known EU weapons transfers to Ukraine since the war began: Germany 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger surface-to-air missiles. Luxembourg 100 NLAW anti-tank weapons, jeeps and 15 military tents as well as air transport capacity. Belgium 2,000 machine guns, 3,800 tons of fuel. Netherlands 200 Stinger missiles. Poland 100 mortars, 8 drones, Javelin anti-tank weapons, Grot assault rifles, munitions. Slovakia 12,000 pieces of artillery ammunition, 10 million litres of fuel, 2.4 million litres of aviation fuel and 2 Bozena de-mining systems. Estonia Javelin anti-tank weapons. Latvia Stinger surface to air missiles. Czech Republic machine guns, assault rifles, other light weapons and ammunition worth $8.57 million.

The soldiers at the G2A Arena are likely to be elite US paratroopers deployed to Rzeszow, a city better known as a business destination about 80 kms from the Ukrainian border. Asked if he was a member of the North Carolina-based 82nd Airborne Division, which has formed the bulk of the additional US deployment and has based itself at the arena, one soldier at the gate paused and then said he was unable to comment.

The 82nd Airborne Division's commanding general, Maj Gen Chris Donahue, was the last US soldier to leave Afghanistan.

There is a chunk of land adjoining the wider Rzeszow-Jasionka airfield that is normally home to Polish troops. A few can be seen patrolling in a small section of the perimeter fully armed with weapons and protective head gear, but the uptick in Nato activity is new.

On Wednesday, the small civilian airport appeared to be operating as normal, as taxi drivers loitered at a coffee shop inside the departures hall. On Thursday, flights were set to depart to London Luton, Dublin and Warsaw with Ryanair and Poland’s flag carrier LOT Polish Airlines.

But within the airport perimeter giant military cargo planes were also stationed and could be seen arriving and departing. They arrive carrying “defensive” military supplies for the Ukrainian forces, as well as humanitarian aid.

One local resident, viewing the airport on its perimeter from his bike, said the US military had arrived about a month ago. But he said that there had also been an increase in the variety of planes recently, probably from different Nato member states, in a sign of the airport’s wider importance.

Another local agreed that the troop build-up had begun a month ago, saying he could hear the military aircraft moving around at night — even if he could not see them. “I think they will be here for a while,” he said, referring to the US military in Rzeszow.

Most of the international community has lined up against Moscow in the UN to demand it withdraw from Ukraine, as Russian forces renewed their attacks on the country's second-biggest city Kharkhiv and laid siege to its strategic ports. One million refugees have fled Ukraine in the week since Russia's invasion, the UN has said.

Despite the conflict and the Nato troop build-up, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the military alliance was not contemplating enforcing a no fly-zone in Ukraine because that could put Nato in a direct confrontation with Russia.

Last month, but before Russia invaded Ukraine, the US said it was planning to temporarily deploy around 4,700 additional soldiers to member Poland in response to the Russian troop build-up around Ukraine

That arrival brought the US military presence in Poland to around 10,000 troops on rotation.

The cyclist watching the airfield said that, despite the conflict in neighbouring Ukraine and the “unusual” increase in military presence, he was not concerned. “Poland is a member of Nato,” he said.

Updated: March 03, 2022, 3:06 PM
European arms

Known EU weapons transfers to Ukraine since the war began: Germany 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger surface-to-air missiles. Luxembourg 100 NLAW anti-tank weapons, jeeps and 15 military tents as well as air transport capacity. Belgium 2,000 machine guns, 3,800 tons of fuel. Netherlands 200 Stinger missiles. Poland 100 mortars, 8 drones, Javelin anti-tank weapons, Grot assault rifles, munitions. Slovakia 12,000 pieces of artillery ammunition, 10 million litres of fuel, 2.4 million litres of aviation fuel and 2 Bozena de-mining systems. Estonia Javelin anti-tank weapons. Latvia Stinger surface to air missiles. Czech Republic machine guns, assault rifles, other light weapons and ammunition worth $8.57 million.

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