WARSAW, Poland, April 18 (UPI) -- The commander of the U.S. Army in Europe on Saturday warned that the continent must make every effort to stand united in the face of Russian aggression -- which he called a "real threat" -- as Washington moves live missiles to the former Eastern Bloc region.
Lt. Gen. Frederick "Ben" Hodges made the remarks in an interview with Britain's The Telegraph, as he participated in military exercises to move 750 Patriot missiles to the outskirts of Warsaw, Poland.
"It's not an assumption. There is a Russian threat," he told the Telegraph. "When you look at the unsafe way Russian aircraft are flying without transponders in proximity to civilian aircraft, that's not professional conduct."
One example of Moscow's aggression, Lt. Gen. Hodges said, occurred last month when Russia's Danish ambassador warned Copenhagen against joining the U.S.-led NATO missile defense shield.
"I don't think that Danes fully understand the consequence if Denmark joins the American-led missile defence shield. If they do, then Danish warships will be targets for Russian nuclear missiles," ambassador Mikhail Vanin said March 21.
The deployment of the Patriot missiles in Poland last month made headlines and intrigued citizens who saw the military convoys roll across the German border. It's a sight that many haven't seen since the Cold War -- and for younger people, ever.
The Pentagon moved in the missiles as part of a joint military exercise, and intended as diplomatic security reassurance toward Polish interests in the face of ongoing hostilities in neighboring Ukraine.
"That's exactly what it was about, reassuring our allies," Lt. Gen. Hodges said, who noted recent Russian military activity in the region. Since seizing Crimea last year, Moscow has sent troops to Ukraine and deployed missiles of their own to a part of the country bordering Poland and Lithuania. It has also sent long-range nuclear-capable bombers to Crimea.
Lt. Gen. Hodges said Washington takes Russia's movements very seriously, and believes a united NATO is key to resisting Moscow.
"The best insurance we have against a showdown is that NATO stands together," he said, while stating that military intervention is not inevitable.
"You have to be militarily ready in order to enable effective diplomacy."
Lt. Gen. Hodges has been the Army's primary commander in Europe since last year, and is working to hold up the United States' pledge to Eastern European nations that they won't have to face Russia alone.
Last year, the Pentagon withdrew its military equipment from the area, but again redeployed tanks and fighting vehicles there -- and it's up to Lt. Gen. Hodges to determine where to put them.
"We are not interested in a fair fight with anyone," he said. "We want to have overmatch in all systems. I don't think that we have fallen behind, but Russia has closed the gap in certain capabilities. We don't want them to close that gap."
With NATO firmly united, Lt. Gen. Hodges' believes, Russia is far less likely to launch invasions in areas it's interested in.
"They don't want a military confrontation with NATO," he said. "Our alliance is the most successful alliance in history and it has a lot of capability.
"If President Putin's objective is to fracture the alliance, then he's going about it the wrong way."