DAVID GREENE, HOST:
During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump questioned the U.S. commitment to NATO. And this came at a moment when the alliance has been increasing its presence in Eastern Europe to counter Russia. The United States has actually been leading that military buildup, and NPR's Lucian Kim spent a day with the 173rd Airborne Brigade on a firing range in Estonia.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: On a ridge overlooking a snowy field, U.S. paratroopers fire heavy machine guns at a make believe enemy bunker on the tree line, providing their comrades below with covering fire. Lieutenant Colonel Mike Kloepper, who's overseeing the exercise, watches as his soldiers prepare to destroy an enemy tank.
MIKE KLOEPPER: So we should be careful. You'll see these guys up here on the left are about to fire a Javelin anti-tank missile, so we'll want to stay away from that thing when it goes off, obviously.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET LAUNCHING)
KIM: The enemy in this exercise is unnamed, but with the Russian border just 70 miles away, it's clear enough what kind of scenario is being played out. Two years ago, Russia annexed Crimea and backed an insurgency in eastern Ukraine. In response, the U.S. started rotating forces through Eastern Europe to reassure new NATO allies that they would be defended.
KLOEPPER: So what you're seeing today is not special or unique, necessarily, in terms of frequency. We're doing something like this here every week.
KIM: The 173rd Airborne is training in all three Baltic nations - Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. Last summer, NATO decided to begin rotating battalions through those countries and Poland. The planned deployment may become the first big foreign policy test for the incoming U.S. president. Kristi Raik of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, just across the Baltic Sea in Helsinki, says everyone in the region will be looking to see whether Trump confirms U.S. commitments to its allies.
KRISTI RAIK: One clear example is, then, whether the agreement that has been made on increased NATO presence in the Baltic states will be maintained and actually implemented.
KIM: The Estonians certainly think so. At the Tapa army base, where the 173rd Airborne is exercising, construction is in full swing to build barracks for British troops due here early next year. Tiny Estonia has only a small military with no tanks and no warplanes of its own. Hannes Hanso was, until recently, Estonia's defense minister.
HANNES HANSO: It's also important to understand that the U.S. troops and soon, you know, coming British battalion, they are not here for Estonia's defense. From here, we defend Copenhagen, Paris, London and Washington because this is where the tensions are right now because of our eastern neighbor, Russia.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
KIM: Back on the range, the soldiers are still pounding the enemy bunker. I'm standing next to Captain Anthony Formica.
So you're expecting to see a white flag pretty soon from that bunker?
ANTHONY FORMICA: Not against the enemies that we're likely to fight, no.
KIM: Minutes later, the forward observer cries out.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We took bunker one. Get them ready.
KIM: The exercise might be ending for these American soldiers, but for Estonia, the real test of its allies is still to come. Lucian Kim, NPR News, at the Tapa military range in Estonia.
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