For many European states, the presence of the US forces on the Old Continent is a guarantee of security.
Mark Esper, the US Secretary of Defense, at the end of July 2020 confirmed the plan of reducing the strength of the US forces in Europe. There will be less units in Germany, and almost 12,000 US soldiers will change their location. Another 6,400 soldiers will come back home, and 5,600 will be deployed in other NATO states, such as Belgium or Italy. More US forces will go to the Black Sea region. The formerly declared dislocation of air units from Great Britain to Germany was cancelled.
Change of Strategy
American military presence in Europe is one of the consequences of the Second World War. It is not coincidental that the largest permanent military contingent on the Old Continent for decades was located in Germany, a country which had unleashed that conflict. The July decision on cutting down the US forces in Europe is not the first one, but likely not the last one. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, in Germany itself the number of American soldiers reached almost quarter of a million. Twenty years later, during the presidency of Barack Obama, the US forces on the Old Continent were reduced to about 60,000 soldiers. At that time, about 35,000 of them were left in Germany . In Europe, the Americans are also stationed, i.a., in Italy (12,000), Great Britain (9,300), Spain (3,200) and Turkey (1,600).
Decisions taken by the US administration stem from the ongoing changes on the global political scene. They were one of the reasons for shifting points of focus, such as for example the turn towards Asia during Obama’s presidency. According to Małgorzata Zachara-Szymańska, PhD of the Institute of American and Polish Studies at the Jagiellonian University, this year’s decision on the reduction of American forces in Europe is falls within that general strategic frame, but the moment it was taken indicates rather that the reasoning behind it was related to the internal situation: “Donald Trump wants to convince Americans that the time when the USA played the role of a global policeman is already over. This is the motif behind renegotiating the conditions of the US forces’ presence in the Philippines, South Korea, or the escalation of conflict with China.”
When in 2014 Russia annexed Crimea and started hybrid activities in Donbass, the governments of many European states faced new challenges. One of the concepts of the new European security architecture, established at the NATO Summit in Newport (2014) and in Warsaw (2016), became the enhancement of the eastern flank of the North-Atlantic Alliance and adopting deterrence policy. The United States proved to be a guarantor of security for many states of the region, therefore NATO’s eastern flank states sign bilateral military agreements with the USA. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia signed them in 2019.
Close cooperation with the USA is also assumed by the remaining countries in this part of Europe. The adopted in June 2020 new defense doctrine of Romania for 2020-2024 clearly states that the strategic partnership with the United States – next to the EU and NATO membership – is the fundament of the state’s defense policy. “Bulgaria is also very important,” emphasizes Grzegorz Kostrzewa-Zorbas, PhD, Faculty of Security, Logistics and Management at the Military University of Technology (WAT). “In that country the first permanent NATO bases were established on the territory of its eastern flank and with American combat forces actually stationing there.”
Less Doesn’t Mean Worse
Due to the plans of reducing the US forces in Europe, it is thought that in consequence, the deterrence potential and the NATO’s eastern flank will weaken. However, opinions on the subject vary. According to Mark Esper, an updated plan on the dislocation of troops as well as adoption of new detailed solutions, such as bilateral agreements – including the one signed in Warsaw on August 15, 2020 by Poland and the USA on enhanced defense cooperation – increase deterrence of Russia, and by the same token enhance NATO’s eastern flank. General Tod D. Wolters, Chief of the United States European Command (US EUCOM), thinks that changes in the structure and localization of the US troops in Europe will improve cooperation between allies and increase the strategic flexibility of the Alliance, all of which, if the need arises, will allow for quick strengthening or reduction of the US forces.
Polish experts are a little more careful in their opinions. “The plan of partial withdrawal of American forces from Europe has a negative impact on the security of the entire continent. That’s because the less operational troops from the USA are deployed in Europe, the longer is the reaction time to potential threat scenarios,” says Wojciech Lorenz, PhD, an analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM). Grzegorz Kostrzewa-Zorbas, PhD, is of similar opinion: “The best scenario for the security of NATO’s eastern flank would be if the withdrawn troops stayed in Germany, the country neighboring this flank, or were replaced by new ones – in Germany or in other states of the flank, such as Poland. The presence of American forces, as well as of multinational NATO forces in this region, surely serves the security of NATO’s eastern states.” The expert also draws attention to the fact that some solutions suggested by the Americans are beneficial. One of them is establishing the headquarters for the US forces deployed in Europe in Mons, Belgium, instead of Stuttgard, Germany, where it has been so far. “This relocation means that the NATO operational command and the US headquarters in Europe will have the same location. Both these structures are commanded by the same general or admiral. Locating them both in one place can increase the efficiency of their activity,” estimates Grzegorz Kostrzewa-Zorbas.
To the East of the Eastern Flank
In our part of the continent, the US forces are not only seen on NATO members’ territories. After the events in Crimea and in Donbass, the Ukrainian government decided to start close military cooperation with the NATO states, particularly with the United States. The consequence were deliveries of American weapon and military equipment, but also joint military exercises, such as Exercise Sea Breeze or Rapid Trident. The Kiev authorities are also working towards being granted by the USA the status of the main non-NATO partner, which would allow for close military partnership on preferential terms. Such form of relationship exists between the US and Australia, Egypt, Israel or Japan, but also Afghanistan and Tunisia. The governments of Moldavia and Georgia are also interested in close military cooperation with the USA. The engagement of the United States in helping Ukraine and its visible interest in the Black Sea region does not however mean that the Trump administration will focus its attention on it. Such thesis is turned down by Wojciech Lorenz, PhD: “If we look closer at how, since the annexation of Crimea, the capabilities for defense and deterrence have been enhanced, both within NATO and in the form of bilateral Polish-American cooperation, we will see that the attention of NATO and the USA was focused on the Baltic Sea region, and it was where the main deterrence element was established, i.e. enhanced forward presence, NATO’s battalion battlegroups.” He also points to the fact that several years after the Crimea annexation, the Alliance is coming to the conclusion that holistic enhancement of the eastern flank and balancing its various elements is necessary: “It will probably be rather hard to work out a consensus on further strengthening deterrence in the Black Sea region, also due to the Turkish policy, so Americans will probably be the ones to level some of these disproportions.” Perhaps the task will be carried out by the rotational units announced by Mark Esper, some of which will probably start their service based on bilateral agreements. The increasing activity of Americans in the Black Sea region stems from two things: “Russia and its conflict with Ukraine is of undeniable significance here, but there is one more reason – the Middle East, West Asia and Central Asia,” explains Grzegorz Kostrzewa-Zorbas. “The distance to all of these regions is much shorter from there, than, for example, from Poland.” It’s probably not the end of distributing the US forces around Europe, in particular due to the specific situation that can be observed in the southern flank of NATO: there is regular friction between Turkey and Greece, nominally two NATO allies. Also, the differences between Ankara and Washington are deepening with divergent interests of both.
autor zdjęć: Michał Niwicz, US Army