As I previously noted, withdrawing 11,000 U.S. troops from Germany is part of a broader strategy that involves deploying 5,000 of those troops forward to Poland, as well as Italy. Increased rotational deployments of U.S. forces throughout Europe are also a part of this strategic realignment.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper reassured NATO allies that the United States was not weakening its commitment to Europe and remained focused on deterring Russia. This realignment of U.S. forces in Europe is long overdue. The U.S. needs to continue these efforts.
However, President Trump also undermined the Pentagon message by restating his reason for the move was only due to Germany’s years-long “delinquency” in meeting the NATO 2% benchmark for defense spending. While this is one valid reason, along with the time delay in building up infrastructure in Poland, the Baltics and elsewhere, these POTUS statements, and some U.S. withdrawal, do worry some of our more supportive and vulnerable NATO allies.
As The Washington Examiner (TWE) notes, “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 hurting deterrence efforts.” The former Soviet colonies of the Baltics – Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia – are particularly vulnerable and concerned.
They prefer a larger, permanent presence to deter Russia.
While there have been numerous U.S. force deployments to Estonian in recent months, for example – notes TWE, including U.S. strategic bombers conducting joint exercises in Estonian airspace, the Baltic Sea naval exercise BALTOPS this summer, and U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reapers being based there, these were all temporary rotations.
This is why Estonia appears especially concerned. Estonian Minister of Defense Juri Luik said in a statement to TWE, “The U.S. intention to reduce its permanent presence in Europe is not a positive development,” and the Estonian military attaché in Washington, D.C., Naval Capt. Sten Sepper previously also expressed his concerns.
Sepper told the Washington Examiner that, “It makes the three Baltic nations a bit nervous,” noting the “weakest link” in NATO are Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia.
These Baltic countries are directly adjacent to Russia’s heavily militarized enclave of Kaliningrad. Having U.S. troops in the region, especially combat multipliers such as air defense and artillery, deter Russia, he said, adding that permanent U.S. forces:
puts automatically the flag on the table…In our region, one of the biggest security [signs] is 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 to the Washington Examiner, “We have been communicating to the US that our priority and objective is to have as much US presence in the Baltic region and in Lithuania as possible.”
Forward deploying U.S. troops to Poland, Italy, and elsewhere is a welcome development, but the U.S. must not forget the vulnerabilities of our Baltic allies. To truly deter Russia, the U.S. must also reinforce these countries with a more permanent U.S. military presence.