With a president forever battling questions about his ties to Russia, Donald Trump’s administration keeps finding ways to confront Russia. There have been sanctions, diplomat expulsions, and NATO buildups; on Wednesday it was the announcement of a framework for deploying a further 1,000 troops into Poland.
Those troops will reportedly be focused on logistics rather than combat, and they will come with a set of intelligence drones and plans for a U.S. military headquarters in Poland. “This is about creating the infrastructure and the abilities to respond to a variety of security threats that face the NATO alliance,” said Eric Pahon, a Defense Department spokesman, in an interview. “We’ve seen a steady pattern of Russian aggression and destabilizing activities over the past 20 years or more.”
Yet in the face of a possible military menace to the east—one that’s already carved chunks out of neighboring territories such as Georgia and Ukraine—how much can another thousand troops really achieve?
As the United States has attempted to shift its focus toward great-power rivals like China and Russia, some observers have worried it isn’t moving fast enough—or necessarily prioritizing the right threats. Just weeks ago, the Defense Department announced it would add about 900 new troops in the Middle East in the face of what officials characterized as a growing threat from Iran.
Meanwhile, reorienting toward possible future great-power fights has been slow. For instance a 2016 Rand Corporation study, based on war games envisioning a Russian invasion of the Baltics, laid out the stakes in stark terms: “As currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members.”
Enter Trump who, even while praising Russia and questioning the NATO alliance, has pushed alliance members to spend more on their own defense and has overseen a national security strategy squarely aimed at confronting Russia and China. David Ochmanek, a senior defense researcher at Rand who has conducted war games with the Pentagon, calls the new deployments a step in the right direction. “Any steps NATO takes to improve its military posture on the eastern flank—and that would apply to Poland, it would apply to the Baltics, it would apply to southeastern Europe—we think is warranted,” he told The Atlantic.
Irrespective of the troop announcement, Trump’s equivocation on whether the United States would honor NATO’s collective-defense commitments has rattled allies in the past. (See his remarks on Montenegro.)
At an impromptu news conference on Wednesday, though, Trump could not resist admonishing another NATO member for failing to contribute enough money to his own defense. He said he was considering moving 2,000 U.S. troops from Germany, like Poland a member of NATO, into Poland, though he said nothing had been decided yet. (He has consistently criticized Germany over this.) He said, though, that the U.S. would not be sending new troops to Europe, suggesting he’s only shifting them. The White House press release about the Poland deployment did not specify where the troops would come from.
“We have 52,000 troops in Germany, and Germany is not living up to what they’re supposed to be doing with respect to NATO, and Poland is,” Trump said. “I have to congratulate you. Thank you very much. But Poland is paying the max.”
Ochmanek noted that the deployment, while modest, would facilitate the quicker movement of ground troops to the front if there is a conflict. “We have for many years had a brigade equipped with a Stryker armored vehicle in Vilseck, Germany,” he said. “That unit could contribute to the defense of the Baltics or to the defense of Poland, but only if it can get there quickly in response to warning.” But there are bottlenecks—including issues with bridges and railroads—that make this difficult. “People who have been in the Army say, if you haven’t moved a division, you don’t know how hard it is. … Getting several hundred armored vehicles down the road is a more complicated undertaking than many of us would think.” Getting the logistics right, he said, “is absolutely part of the solution.”
That’s not to say the new contingent could repel a Russian invasion. During Russia’s Ukraine incursion, Ochmanek said, Russia had tens of thousands of troops in the field—not all in Ukraine, but supporting the operation. Meanwhile, the U.S. troops in Europe spend much of their time in training and doing exercises with partner forces, though their presence itself acts as a deterrent to Russia.
Rachel Rizzo, a fellow in the trans-Atlantic security program at the Center for a New American Security, is skeptical. “The U.S. currently has about 4,500 troops that rotate in and out of Poland, so what is the benefit of adding another thousand?” she said in an email. “The U.S. has already proven its commitment to Eastern European security, and continuously adding more rotational troops is an overly simplistic way to think about deterrence.”
As for Trump’s apparent dig at Germany, she said it was unhelpful to talk about taking troops out. “But if that’s what he wants to do he should send them back to the U.S., not move them further East.”
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