By Stephane Nitschke
BREMERHAVEN, Germany (Reuters) - Hundreds of U.S. tanks, trucks and other military equipment arrived by ship in Germany on Friday to be transported by rail and road to eastern Europe as part of a NATO buildup that has drawn Russia's ire.
Two shiploads arrived in the northern port of Bremerhaven and a third was due in a few days, bringing the fleets of tracked and wheeled vehicles for use by around 4,000 U.S. troops being deployed for exercises in NATO states near Russia.
U.S. and Polish forces will participate in a large "massing" exercise in Poland at the end of January as part of a series of measures aimed at reassuring U.S. allies in Europe after Russia's 2014 annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine.
"The best way to maintain the peace is through preparation," Major General Timothy McGuire told reporters when asked if the large deployment was meant to send a message to Russia.
"This is just showing the strength and cohesion of the alliance and the U.S. commitment to maintain the peace on the continent," he said.
NATO countries say their planned deployments to eastern NATO countries are purely defensive, but Russia has rebuked what it sees as an aggressive western buildup in eastern Europe.
In addition to U.S. troops going to Poland, NATO members Germany, Canada and Britain are also sending battalions of up to 1,000 troops each to the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
They say the four battalions, backed by additional U.S. forces on rotation, are justified by Moscow's annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. Those actions alarmed the Baltic states, which worry they could be the next targets of Russian pressure.
Among their equipment will be 87 Abrams M1A1 tanks, 20 Paladin artillery vehicles and 136 Bradley fighting vehicles.
The equipment will be used by the U.S. Army's 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, arriving this month from Fort Carson, Colorado for the first of what Washington promises will be back-to-back nine-month rotations in the "foreseeable future."
Beginning in February, U.S. military units will spread out across Poland, the Baltic states, Bulgaria, Romania and Germany for training, exercises and maintenance.
The Army is also sending its 10th Combat Aviation Brigade with about 50 Black Hawk and 10 CH-47 Chinook helicopters and 1,800 personnel, as well as a separate aviation battalion with 400 troops and 24 Apache helicopters.
Germany's Left party, which has called for closer ties with Russia, said Berlin had a historic obligation to work for peace and disarmament, and it would protest against the deployment.
"Tanks never create peace anywhere," said Christian Goerke, who heads the party in Brandenburg state. "Quite the contrary, a troop deployment of such a scale is part of always increasing buildup and provocation."
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal and Reuters TV; Editing by Tom Heneghan)