(Corrects to make clear exercises are not organised by NATO)
* U.S. fighter jets due in Poland
* Signal of support after Russia's intervention in Crimea
* U.S. naval destroyer to join Bulgarian, Romanian warships
* Black Sea manoeuvres delayed by 24 hours
By Marcin Goettig
LASK AIR BASE, Poland, March 11 The United
States and Poland began wargames on Tuesday as Washington makes
a gesture of support for its eastern NATO allies after Russia's
intervention in Ukraine, but bad weather delayed naval
manoeuvres with Romania and Bulgaria.
Without naming neighbouring Ukraine, Polish President
Bronislaw Komorowski called on his country's political parties
to safeguard defence spending at a time of budget constraints
due to the "events to the east".
The United States says both the air drills in Poland and its
joint naval exercises in the Black Sea were planned before the
crisis in Ukraine. But they send a message of resolve to NATO
members nervous about Russia's intentions in its former Cold War
backyard, along with separate reconnaissance flights over Poland
and Romania near the Ukrainian border.
At the Lask base in central Poland, Komorowski watched as
four Polish F-16s took to the air. A U.S. Hercules transport
plane landed with support staff and at least 12 U.S. F-16
fighter jets and 300 personnel are due to arrive by Thursday for
the exercises, beefed up at Warsaw's request after Russian
forces seized control in Crimea.
Flanked by a handful of U.S. soldiers, Komorowski stressed
the need to maintain defence spending in Poland, a staunch U.S.
ally still haunted by decades of Russian domination during the
Cold War. "I hope events to the east of the Polish border, which
is also NATO's border, will encourage tough decisions regarding
Polish security," he told reporters.
Military funding in Poland, which marks the 15th anniversary
of its accession to NATO on Wednesday, is under pressure.
Komorowski urged all parties to safeguard annual defence
spending set by Polish law at 1.95 percent of gross domestic
product (GDP). The parties are reluctant to cut back on welfare
as an alternative before municipal and European Parliament
elections this year and Polish parliamentary polls in 2015.
To the south, strong winds and high seas put back the Black
Sea exercises by 24 hours, the Bulgarian defence ministry said.
"The weather is now improving, the sea is not that rough and I
don't expect another postponement," said Lieutenant-Colonel
The USS Truxtun, a guided-missile destroyer with about 300
crew, had been due to join the drill in international waters
southeast of the Romanian port of Constanta, some 350 km (220
miles) from Russian forces in Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.
The exercises underline Washington's lead role in the
international response to Russia's actions in Ukraine, where
political forces determined to take Kiev westwards to Europe
have taken power after the overthrow of President Viktor
The European Union, hampered by the need for consensus among
its 28 members and their economic inter-dependence with Russia,
has been less bold. The Kremlin has said it acted to protect
Russian citizens in Crimea from attack, and denies invading the
In a separate deployment since the Ukraine crisis began,
extra U.S. military aircraft have arrived in Lithuania to take
part in regular NATO air patrols over the Baltic states.
The alliance also said on Monday that it would start
reconnaissance flights over Poland and Romania to monitor the
situation in neighbouring Ukraine.
NATO ambassadors gave the go-ahead to the AWACS flights,
acting on a recommendation by the alliance's top military
commander, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, a NATO
Speaking on Monday at a Polish rocket defence site, not far
from the Russian Baltic Fleet's base at Kaliningrad, Polish
Defence Minister Tomasz Siemoniak said the air exercise was to
have been smaller, involving only transport aircraft.
But Siemoniak said that after the Russian military
intervention in Crimea, Warsaw asked the Pentagon to send
fighter jets instead.
"This was our request," said Siemoniak. "We really
appreciate that the reaction was that quick and significant."
The USS Truxtun, part of the U.S. Sixth Fleet headquartered
in Italy, is due to join the Bulgarian naval frigate Drazki and
three Romanian vessels in the Black Sea drills.
It had been expected to visit the Bulgarian port of Varna
March 12-14, but Titev said he was unable to confirm when it
would arrive after bad weather closed the port on Monday. It was
not expected the exercise would involve any live-firing.
(Additional reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova in Sofia, Radu
Marinas and Matthias Williams in Bucharest, David Mardiste in
Tallinn; Writing by Matt Robinson; editing by David Stamp)