U.S. Army paratroopers landed in Poland Wednesday, at the start of military maneuvers aimed at easing anxieties in allied eastern European countries alarmed at Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.
The Pentagon said the exercises, slated to last about a month, initially involve about 600 troops, including 150 members of an airborne combat team based in Italy. Additional units are set for deployment in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
The troop landing comes one day after Ukraine scrapped a truce and resumed its push against armed pro-Russian separatists occupying buildings in several Ukrainian cities near the Russian border. Moscow responded to the move with a warning that it will retaliate, if the interests of Russian-speaking citizens in the region come under attack.
Ukraine's decision to resume what it calls "anti-terrorist" operations came after the discovery of two bodies near the rebel-controlled city of Slovyansk.
One of the victims was identified Tuesday as a local member of acting Ukraine President Oleksandr Turchynov's political party whose body was said to show signs of torture.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told state television that Russia's response to perceived threats to Russian-speaking Ukrainians would be the same as it was in South Ossetia in 2008, when Russian forces swept into neighboring Georgia and engaged overmatched Georgian forces for several days.
The U.S. State Department, responding to the Lavrov interview, called Russian claims of threats against ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine "ludicrous" and "not based on facts of what is happening on the ground." Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Ukraine has shown "remarkable restraint," and she called Lavrov's claims to the contrary "inflammatory."
In a related development Wednesday, Dutch, Danish and British fighter planes scrambled to intercept two Russian bombers that approached NATO airspace over the North Sea.
Dutch defense officials said the Russian aircraft were escorted until they departed the protected airspace.
A Dutch statement said these incidents have occurred before, including one such overflight last month and another in September 2013.
Ukraine's military failed last week to drive the separatists from government buildings they have seized in about a dozen cities.
Pro-Russian gunmen are demanding the right to hold referendums on splitting with Ukraine and joining Russia. A vote last month in Crimea led to the Russian annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula.