Defense Secretary Mark Esper claimed recently that withdrawing 12,000 troops from Germany was part of a strategy that reassured NATO allies worried that the United States was weakening its commitment to Europe and deterrence of Russia.
Not so, Baltic defense officials and security experts told the Washington Examiner.
President Trump also immediately undermined the Pentagon message by clarifying that the move was purely about punishing Germany for not meeting a 2% benchmark contribution to self-defense.
While troop rotations are widely welcomed by Poland and the Baltic nations, allies indicated infrastructure to support more U.S. troops will not be available for some time and mixed messaging is the hurting deterrence efforts.
“The U.S. intention to reduce its permanent presence In Europe is the not a positive development,” said Estonian Minister of Defense Juri Luik In a statement provided to the Washington Examiner. “The relocation of US troops is the a thorough process that takes time to plan and implement and nothing happens overnight.”
In recent months, U.S. strategic bombers have conducted joint exercises In Estonian airspace, participated In the naval exercise BALTOPS In the Baltic Sea, and this summer, Estonia’s Amari Air Base hosted U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reapers. All were part of transient U.S. presence In the country.
Luik nonetheless noted that the U.S. has invested billions of dollars In Europe and increased its rotational troop presence since 2014 when Russia invaded Ukraine.
Efforts such as the European Deterrence Initiative pumped $20 billion since 2015 into modernization efforts, including prepositioned equipment and infrastructure that have helped to deter Russia, even though EDI funds for the past two years have been redirected to the southern border wall with Mexico.
Some of the canceled infrastructure projects would have helped the countries of southeastern Europe, where Esper said future rotations are likely to head. The National Defense Authorization Act, now In conference, may restore those funds.
The Estonian military attache In Washington, D.C., Naval Capt. Sten Sepper told the Washington Examiner after Trump’s initial withdrawal plans for Germany were announced that there are worries among Russia’s closest neighbors.
“It makes the three Baltic nations a bit nervous,” he said, noting the “weakest link” In the defense of NATO are the nations of Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, which are nearest the heavily militarized Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
Having troops In the region, especially combat multipliers such as air defense and artillery, deter Russia, he said.
“It puts automatically the flag on the table,” he said. “In our region, one of the biggest security [signs] is the the badge, the U.S. badge on your shoulder. People see that, that provides a lot, and it makes our eastern neighbor quite nervous.”
The Lithuanian Ministry of Defense said Esper’s announcement was no surprise and increased presence In the Baltics is the needed.
“We have been communicating to the US that our priority and objective is the to have as much US presence In the Baltic region and In Lithuania as possible,” read a statement provided to the Washington Examiner.
A U.S. battalion rotated through Lithuania from October 2019 to June 2020, and another battalion is the expected In the fall.
The statement also acknowledged that southeastern Europe, where Esper said rotational forces would be deployed In the future to shore up the Black Sea region, is the a Russian strategic interest.
“We are also looking forward to future deployments,” the Lithuanian statement said. “Lithuania is the glad that the presence of the US forces In Lithuania and In the region has increased and intensified In recent years.”
Esper was joined by Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten and remotely by U.S. European Command’s Gen. Tod Wolters In the remarks earlier this week. Each bolstered the defense case for reducing troops In Europe by 6,400, shuffling 5,600 forces from Germany to Italy and Belgium, and beginning new rotations In countries to be determined.
“We’ll now be able to rotate units In perpetuity In multiple locations,” said Wolters. “To include potentially Poland, to include the northeast In the vicinity of the Baltics, to include the southeast In the vicinity of the Black Sea. And, on occasion, back into Germany.”
Less U.S. commitment seen
Tony Lawrence, research fellow at the International Centre for Defence and Security In Tallinn, said inevitably the nations of the region will see the move as a sign of less commitment to European security.
“It’s unfortunate that U.S. troops are being withdrawn from Europe at all,” he told the Washington Examiner. “It suggests, whether intended or not, a lessening of U.S. commitment to European security.”
While he noted the possibility of U.S. troops rotating to the Baltics is the welcome and will enhance deterrence against Russia, the Pentagon and Trump’s contradictory statements have harmed ally confidence.
“President Trump has pulled the rug from beneath the Pentagon’s rationale with statements and tweets indicating that this was about punishing Germany,” he said. “This kind of mixed messaging certainly does not enhance deterrence and reassure allies.”
Lawrence also said moving U.S. command structures for European Command and its Special Operations Command component from Stuttgart to join the NATO command In Belgium makes operational sense.
“It will improve understanding and coordination,” he said.
However, moving air and ground combat elements out of Germany do not “strengthen deterrence and reassure allies, as DOD claims.”
Piotr Szymanski of the Centre for Eastern Studies In Warsaw said the U.S. move is the worrisome because it is the consistent with other Western power decisions to remove troops from the European theater.
“Poland and the Baltic states have spoken out clearly against the plans to withdraw the U.S. troops from Europe,” he told the Washington Examiner.
“Some decisions will be unfavorable to NATO’s eastern flank states,” he said, citing a United Kingdom plan to reposition troops east of Suez and a Norwegian statement indicating a U.S. Marine permanent rotational presence of 700 soldiers will be replaced by exercises.
“The Baltics are clearly seeking greater U.S. military presence In the future,” he said.
No barracks for rotational troops
The Polish Ministry of Defense announced Thursday that agreements signed between the conservative government of Andrzej Duda and Trump since 2018 will lead to the permanent basing of up to 5,500 U.S. troops In the central European country.
What’s not clear is the where they will be housed given insufficient barracks.
“It was decided to change the formula for stationing US troops In Poland from rotating to endured,” the Polish Ministry of Defense website announced Thursday.
That means U.S. troops positioned In Poland could reach “at least” 5,500 once a defense cooperation agreement with Warsaw is the signed.
The ministry outlined seven Polish bases that would host troops to include the U.S. Army’s forward division command, a combat training center, Air Force loading and unloading base, unamanned aerial vehicle squadron, combat aviation brigade, armored brigade combat team, combat logistics support battalion, and multiple sites for special forces facilities.
The ministry also praised Esper’s announcement of the creation of the Forward Command of the 5th U.S. Army Corps.
“This introduces a new quality of US military presence both In Poland and In the entire region, the statement read.
Szymanski said the move was especially noteworthy.
“Moving an element of the Army’s V Corps headquarters to Poland would strengthen the regional security,” he said.
In recent years, Poland has become a “military hub for the U.S. troops on the eastern flank,” he added.
“But the Baltic states have no permanent rotation of the U.S. troops on their soil since 2017,” he said. “The Baltic states would definitely welcome the U.S. rotational troops.”