Last week, there was a lot of attention and press coverage of a phone call between the White House and the Kremlin. President Trump drew criticism for congratulating Vladimir Putin on his recent election victory but what got almost no attention was Mr. Trump's warning about a US-Russia arms race he says is "getting out of control". We recently traveled to Poland to see for ourselves the big military buildup in Europe.
These forests of Poland have been the backdrop for war's worst moments. This grown-over ground was home to prisoner of war camps where thousands of Americans were held. And just down the road, the scene of unsurpassed horror: Auschwitz. In the seven decades since, they've stood silent, serene. That quiet though is being broken. The U.S. First Infantry Division, deployed a century ago to fight in the first world war, is now back in Europe. Here in Poland, standing alongside 28 other nations to defend against the biggest threat in decades: Russia.
Col. David Gardner: You know, just a couple hours down the road is Auschwitz. A lot of my soldiers have been interested in and have visited there, which just shows the absolute cruelty that man can inflict on other men, and that's been a powerful lesson.
Colonel David Gardner commands the First Infantry Division's Dagger Brigade, part of America's renewed commitment to guard Europe's borders.
Col. Gardner: We sit here, where we're sitting right now talking with each other, and this was Germany 80 years ago. And so, if you wonder why the Poles might be somewhat concerned about the security of their borders, I mean I think you see and you feel that history and you see some of the changing landscape that Europe has had over many hundred years. And some of it not that long ago in people's' minds. And so, you're always confronted with the history. Some of it is great history and some of it is horrible history.
Scott Thuman: And that's not a small presence. It doesn't seem to be just a gesture, it's a legitimate movement of people and resources, isn't it?
Col. Gardner: I think moving an armored brigade combat team, moving an aviation brigade as we've done on rotations from the United States, is a significant investment. And I agree with you, I think that shows a tangible commitment.
Scott Thuman: That commitment comes from U.S. And NATO and includes troops, tanks, missile systems and combat aircraft. So your presence alone here sends a statement.
Lt. Col. Curry: Absolutely.
Lieutenant Colonel Jesse Curry, another senior U.S. commander in Poland.
Lt.Col. Curry: Stability in this region is something that everyone is concerned about maintaining, security in this region. And really for us, where the threat comes from, you know, we're here to demonstrate our capability and demonstrate the strength of our partnership, regardless of what the threat is.
Scott Thuman: What we're seeing right now is just a small part of a massive multi-national effort to protect Europe's borders and send a message both with manpower, and of course: firepower.
But a look just one section of the Russia-NATO border shows a clear imbalance of forces. In the Baltic states, there are around 32,000 combat troops for the NATO allies, 78,000 for the Russians. NATO has 129 main battle tanks, Moscow has more than 750.
And in the air, NATO's sophisticated combat aircraft dominate the skies though Russia is building a highly integrated and advanced air defense system. At the independent nonprofit Rand Corporation, analysts have been playing war games to see what would happen if Russia attacked NATO through the Baltic states.
David Shlapak is a senior analyst.
David Shlapak: We war game this out over and over and over again, with players from throughout the U.S. defense establishment, throughout the U.S. intelligence community, throughout NATO. Time and time again, we saw NATO suffering catastrophic defeats in a span of a very few hours. Not days, not weeks, not months but hours.
At the height of the Cold War, there's was a balance between NATO and Soviet forces. But when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed, both sides cashed in the so-called peace dividend, and sent their troops home.
David Shlapak: All of the countries that had contributed to that massive force that NATO had fielded now began to withdraw those forces from Europe, particularly from Germany, draw down their military forces in general, reduce their defense budgets. And so, fairly quickly by the mid-1990s, you had much smaller force postures on the two sides.
Twenty-five years later, some even started to question NATO's place in the world; including then-candidate Trump, who talked to Full Measure in 2016.
Donald Trump: NATO is obsolete, I guess it's about 68 years old, it was designed for a different mission.
Scott: Not only has President Trump changed his mind, he's nudging, even shaming those members who don't pay up. Currently, just five countries are contributing the 2 percent of GDP on defense. But by 2024, according to U.S. officials, 15 nations will meet that guideline. Regardless, back in Poland, these young Americans at the helm of Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles are constantly engaging in live fire exercises, and likely for the long haul. The man who would command them in any war is Curtis Scaparrotti, the top American general in Europe, he was on Capitol Hill this March telling lawmakers he needs a bigger force.
Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti: I do believe we need more forces in Europe. I don't think we're at the posture that I believe is appropriate or required yet. And because of that, I think that there are some permanent forces I would like to have.
Meaning, it could be some time before these woods turn silent again.
Russia has taken the position that the military moves by the U-S and NATO are the -cause- of the problem. Moscow has accused American and European leaders of "whipping up hysteria."