Each announcement of an increase in the presence of US troops in Poland and other countries of NATO’s eastern flank should be at least received with cold enthusiasm. Meanwhile, the expected strengthening of the US presence in Eastern Europe aroused many mixed feelings not only in Poland but also in America itself. All because the circumstances of increasing the number of US troops stationed in there (by the decision of Donald Trump) have put a strain on the pillars that make up the defence potential not only of Poland but also of the entire Alliance. What is the current situation on NATO’s eastern flank?
In the beginning, there was chaos
The US president’s decision to bring back some of US forces from Germany surprised NATO members and aroused much controversy from day one. Chaos should be considered the hallmark of the events in recent months, which not only makes it difficult to assess the situation clearly but also exacerbates the already tense relations between the Alliance members.
When Donald Trump confirmed reports of the withdrawal of nearly one-third of US forces from Germany on 15 June, he caused a commotion even within the Pentagon itself. To date, around 34,500 US soldiers have been stationed at our western neighbour. These forces, although relatively small, were (and still are) crucial to the US’s capability of responding quickly in the event of a crisis or war on the eastern flank.
The force consists of only one combat brigade – the remainder are units responsible primarily for logistics, intelligence and command. Their work, combined with NATO’s extensive logistics and training infrastructure, means that in the event of a conflict, our strongest ally has a greater potential to provide Europe with real and quick support. Therefore, when the US president first announced the withdrawal of 9,500 soldiers – the number eventually grew to 12,000 – it was impossible to avoid the uncomfortable question of whether Donald Trump had deprived NATO of a chance to react quickly on the eastern flank due to his skirmishes with Germany.
As Ben Hodges, former commander of the United States Army in Europe, notes in the interview for the CEPA, a reduction of about a third of the US personnel means that American troops responsible for rapid response in Germany will no longer be able to fulfil the tasks assigned to them.
Considering the enormous advantage of Russia’s military potential over our region, it is very easy to see that it is the quick, leap-like increase in the US army presence that would be decisive in a potential conflict. Without it, it is impossible to imagine an effective defence in the present conditions of, for example, Baltic states against the Russian army. Such a drastic withdrawal of the US army from Germany actually reduces the potential of the entire eastern flank and means that the deterrence doctrine, which has been in development for at least four years, has been weakened even without conciliation movements on the part of the Kremlin.
A contributing factor to the chaos is President Trump’s inconsistent rhetoric. While in June his decision could have been read as a blow to all allies failing to meet their obligations to spend 2% of their GDP on defence, now, after the Pentagon provided more details, it is clear that the blow was directed at Germany only.
One of the beneficiaries of the announced relocation of soldiers, apart from Poland, will be Belgium, which has been spending less than 1% on defence for years. Thus, it is difficult to defend the thesis that the American president’s move is due to the desire to motivate NATO members to increase spending.
Furthermore, the increase in the number of withdrawn soldiers from Germany by around 2,500 since June is also surprising. Such a significant reduction is to be achieved in just a few months. The sudden nature of current activities and the lack of a clear basis for Trump’s policies will create a vacuum that may be difficult to fill.
Where two are fighting, Poland loses
The eastern flank will be weakened despite the fact that Poland is welcoming 1,000 new American troops and will host the Forward Command of the US 5th Corps. There are two reasons.
The first, very practical and tangible, is based on the fact that due to the specific situation of the Baltic Sea, the threat of attacks from Kaliningrad and (so far) the lack of full, sufficient infrastructure in the area of, e.g. Poland, the territory of Germany is the only route the US army can take to reach Poland quickly and in large numbers during a crisis. If it turns out that the personnel left behind in Germany is not able to handle the transfers of US troops, the real quick help from the Americans for the flank would be a huge unknown.
Secondly, one of the pillars of the entire Alliance’s operation is its political dimension, which is of key importance. Already Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949 expressly states that an attack on one NATO member is tantamount to an attack on the entire alliance. However, at the same time, it cautiously indicates that Allies are to provide assistance „forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary”. The foundation of the defence of each Alliance country, therefore, relies on maintaining unity and a common perception of threats in order to receive the expected support if necessary. Unfortunately, cohesion and unity are more and more often beginning to give way to political skirmishes between allies, whose cooperation is necessary for Poland and other countries in our region to be able to count on decisive, fast and adequate help.
Antagonizing Germany by Donald Trump’s unilateral and unexpected decisions could set a dangerous precedent. Piling up problems and escalating disputes will affect, for example, the speed of NATO’s response. Due to distrust and skirmishes, countries may set up formal obstacles in the future or downplay the threat, which is particularly dangerous in today’s reality, where popular Russian tools include disinformation and the use of „green men”.
One can easily imagine a scenario where one of the allies delays the joint response of the entire NATO, wanting to force a partner to make specific political decisions. It should be not overlooked that the relocation of Americans from Germany will make half of these soldiers return home.
But has the eastern flank (including Poland) not managed to win something positive for itself? It seems that again (in our case, too) chaos is the hallmark of recent events. However, one can be tempted to point out some (although slight) advantages.
It seems trivial to say that every additional Alliance soldier on the eastern flank is valuable. Their stationing (even if in a rotational system) on-site means that remote countries, incl. the USA and Great Britain, are able to respond immediately in case of a crisis. Deploying an additional thousand US soldiers in Poland, even under unfavourable conditions in peacetime, during a crisis will be invaluable because even such limited number builds the deterrence potential. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that these US soldiers will find their way to us based on an agreement concluded by Presidents Duda and Trump in Washington in 2019, and not as a result of relocating forces pulled back from Germany.
Another positive signal, though above all symbolic, is the announcement that the forward command of the 5th Corps will be established Poland. This command, reactivated after a 7-year break at Fort Knox (Kentucky) earlier this year, was created with the aim of improving command and control of US troops in Europe.
To sum up, the eastern flank only seemingly benefits from the current plan to relocate US forces in Europe. The fact that the great beneficiaries will be Belgium, but also … Italy, prevents optimism. Although they spent only about 1.2% in 2019, the F-16 squadron and additional battalions of the airborne brigade, which has been stationed in Germany to date, will be hosted on the Apennine Peninsula permanently (and not in rotation).
The eastern flank is not only Poland and the Baltic states
Moreover, while we do not yet know to what extent, at least several thousand US troops will be in rotation in the Black Sea region. This would prove to be a fulfilment of the postulates of many analysts who have long indicated that Russia has gained considerable potential in recent years, which threatens the stability of the region, given the ambiguous attitude of Turkey. Romania and Bulgaria, present in this area, are unable to respond to the growing threats.
Strengthening the US operation in the Black Sea basin shows that the southern section of the flank has finally been noticed. This, in turn, would mean a real increase in the potential to deter Russia and would also contribute to improving security in our country and in the Baltic Sea – the strength of the eastern flank is determined by the strength of its weakest link. If NATO is unable to respond adequately on any part of the flank, it would be naive to expect for Russia not to take advantage of such weakness.
The need to strengthen NATO’s presence with our southern allies is evident. Firstly, Bulgaria and Romania, situated on the Black Sea, do not have strong armies themselves, and more importantly – they lack strong navies, which could serve as a counterweight to the Russian Black Sea Fleet which has been growing for years. The Americans or other allies cannot replace these countries in building, for example, a permanent naval base for their navies due to the Montreux Convention, which prevents countries that do not have territory by the Black Sea from building a permanent presence there. Especially with the growing internal tensions between NATO and Turkey, the defence capabilities of Bulgaria and Romania are becoming increasingly relevant. It should also be added that the war in Ukraine, the Transnistrian issue, and the instability in Moldova give Russia many opportunities to strike the Alliance on the southern section of its eastern flank.
It is in Russia’s interest that the Alliance’s eastern front is disintegrated and weak in as many sections as possible. One that is unable to quickly deploy a significant force anywhere, from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Faced with such an adversary, Russia would need enormous resources, the creation of which is questionable, given the growing demographic and economic problems. That is why Moscow is striving for local conflicts, for example, in Georgia and Ukraine.
Despite the fact that, as Poles, we naturally focus our attention on the Baltic Sea, it is the Black Sea that Russia is most aggressive towards. It is said that the further destabilisation of Ukraine, Moldova and the Caucasus will have an increasingly negative impact on the security of NATO members. Such destructive potential has been noted, for instance, by this year’s Romania security strategy. These concerns are also visible in the media in the face of the „Caucasus 2020” exercises planned by the Southern Military District of the Russian Federation in September.
Action is needed now
The mere assertion that the escalating tensions in transatlantic relations are a threat and only favour Moscow is insufficient. Given that a possible second term for Donald Trump in office as US president may bring further tensions, Poland should consider what attitude to adopt to avoid undermining the Alliance’s defences in Europe. After all, Eastern Europe is not merely at the mercy of Uncle Sam. It has its own tools as well.
As numerous reports indicate – including the one published by the Centre for European Policy Analysis, One Flank, One Threat, One Presence – the defence potential of the eastern flank, apart from the presence of hard military force, is strongly related to the development of infrastructure on the North-South line, political cooperation, active exchange of information through state intelligence services and constant presentation of threats and needs visible from the eastern perspective to other NATO members.
It is thanks to these actions that NATO’s response will be faster and actually disperse Russia’s military potential. Currently, such cooperation is going well within the flank itself, but it is worth increasing its coordination, above all, with the German partner. A method to improve transatlantic relations is outlined in the report presented by the Centre for European Policy Analysis. This is a postulate for NATO to recognise the costs of building roads and infrastructure useful in the defence of Europe as spending under the required 2% of GDP. This way, Germany could increase the percentage of spending faster and thus come closer to Washington’s position in this matter.
Ideas for deepening cooperation within NATO may vary, but their discussion must start today to prevent problems in the future. Tensions between Berlin and Washington are critical both for Poland and for the entire eastern flank. Although the US has the power to repel Russia, Germany has territory through which this aid can move towards Poland. How important this political pillar is for the Alliance is well known to Russia, which has been striving to create political divisions between Europe and the USA in its strategy for years. This must be opposed. Poland has to look for common ground to cooperate, which I wrote about some time ago in the text about the 5G war. However, it must also remember that the US is not everything. There is huge potential in closer cooperation between the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, including those in the South, which are often overlooked. Poland had to use all possible tools to secure a safer tomorrow for itself.
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