Interview with John Herbst: Washington Is Not Likely to Press for Permanent US Bases in Eastern Europe

  • Ambassador Tedo Japaridze
  • 29.5.2021 10:00

The new US administration will likely pursue a policy of continuity in Eastern Europe when it comes to counter its old foe Russia, according to Ambassador John Herbst.

Europe is still trying to read signs of continuity and change between the Trump and Biden administrations. East European states hoped for a more assertive military engagement, instead, the balance tilts towards continuity. 

While drastic new measures will be avoided, such as a more permanent base in Poland, there is a distinct possibility that the US will bolster its presence in Eastern Europe with more boots on the ground. However, Washington will be building consensus over the need for Russia’s deterrence rather than use its leverage to impose its strategic standpoint.

But the continuity is perhaps more significant. Democrats and Republicans do not agree on much these days. But the prevailing feeling in Washington is that the Nord Stream II project is dangerous. While that point will be raised in Europe, Washington will not move to sanction Germany if the project moves ahead, as it’s likely to. But it will be harder to ignore the rationale.

These are the authoritative view of Ambassador John Herbst, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, who served as an American diplomat for more than three decades, serving as Ambassador to Ukraine (2003-2006), Uzbekistan (2000-2003), as US consul general in Jerusalem and director of regional affairs in the Near East Bureau at the embassies in Tel Aviv, Moscow, and Saudi Arabia.

Ambassador John Herbst, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. Photo: U.S. Institute of Peace.

Ambassador Tedo Japaridze (TJ). The Nord Stream II project was designed to circumvent both the Baltics and Ukraine to reach Europe’s biggest energy market, Germany. Is there an appetite in Washington for secondary sanctions, of the kind imposed against US allies in the case of Iran?

Ambassador John Herbst (JH). There is a strong belief in Congress, shared by Democrats as well as Republicans, that the NS2 project is a dangerous project that cuts at core American interests. It enhances Russia’s ability to use gas as an instrument of pressure on governments in eastern Europe. It also empowers interests in Germany that lobby against sound policies to counteract Kremlin provocations in Europe. For this reason, Congress will insist that the Biden administration levy the sanctions already passed into law. The Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Act (PEESA) sanctions have been written in such a way as to avoid sanctioning German companies. The real scandal is not that the US might “sanction an ally” — that will not happen. It is that German business interests are pursuing a project that makes it easier for the Kremlin to pursue imperial policies in its neighbourhood.

TJ. Poland has been lobbying for a major NATO base, toying with the idea of Fort Trump, and even aspiring to become America’s main base in Europe, replacing Germany. Is there any indication that a “Fort Biden” could be built or is America thinking of less commitment altogether?  

JH. The Biden Administration is seeking to reinvigorate US leadership of NATO. That starts with restoring good relations with Germany.  

It is unclear what this means for Poland and for the basing of US forces there. Trump’s decision to establish a base in Poland was seen as at least driven by his preference to move troops out of Germany. But it is true that Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine and provocations in the Baltic Sea persuaded NATO during the late Obama Administration to bulk up the NATO presence in the Baltic states and Poland. And last year the US and Poland signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which would increase the rotational presence of US troops in Poland to 5,500, including a command post in Poznan.  

The Biden administration will certainly fulfil the US part of this agreement. But it is premature to draw conclusions about moving from rotational troops in Poland to a permanent basing.

TJ. In 2003, Donald Rumsfeld talked about a division between Old Europe and New Europe, spelling a different attitude towards the Euro-Atlantic partnership. The divisive issue at the time was Iraq. To what extend is that cleavage between NATO member states relevant today?

JH. There are clear differences in NATO regarding the principal danger in Europe today: Moscow’s revisionist policies. As a general matter, the newer members of NATO, based in Eastern Europe, understand the gravity of the Kremlin’s challenge. Some countries in the south and west underestimate the danger. But here too we see variations. For instance, in the first years after Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine, Madrid downplayed the threat it posed; but after Moscow interfered in Catalonia, there was a new appreciation of the danger.   

TJ. Britain is reducing the size of its conventional forces. France and Germany have a different position to the US in a range of strategic issues, including relations with Russia. Given the current state of the Euro-Atlantic partnership, how realistic is it to expect that NATO will continue to add new members?

JH. There has been expansion fatigue in both NATO and the EU in recent years. That is unlikely to change in the near future. But it is premature to say that this reluctance to consider new members will continue indefinitely. And it is well known that the Bucharest NATO Summit in 2008 did not give a Membership Action Plan to either Ukraine or Georgia, but spoke about their future membership in the organisation.

TJ. I mentioned Russia above. What’s Russia’s current strategic gambit? What’s on her strategic agenda and what fate has it in store for countries like Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova.

JH. The Kremlin has been pursuing strategically illiterate policies since at least Putin’s 2007 Munich Security Conference speech, in which he expressed strong opposition to Western policies promoting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations in Europe. The greatest strategic danger for Moscow is a rising, aggressive Beijing, which borders the Russian Far East and Siberia, and which is already challenging Moscow’s leading position in Central Asia. But Moscow behaves as if the greatest danger is the interest of its neighbours in closer relations with the EU and the US. 

Thus, the Kremlin is pursuing an explicitly revisionist policy designed to upend the security order that emerged after the Cold War. This has led to sanctions and isolation from the West, which have cost Russia’s already slow-growing economy 1% or more of GDP growth a year. What’s more, it is precisely the principles that Moscow is seeking to undermine that would offer some protection to Chinese irredentist claims along the long Russian-Chinese border. Sadly, this means more years of Kremlin aggression and pressure on its neighbours in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. But the Biden Administration is mindful of the challenge and will work closely with these countries to thwart Kremlin intentions.

We have seen recently what this means.

Over the past two months, we have witnessed a build-up of Russian forces in northern Crimea and on Ukraine’s eastern border. Moscow did this to pressure Ukrainian President Zelinskyy and to test the new American Administration. To Moscow’s surprise, the response from Ukraine was defiance as Zelinsky very publicly visited the front in Donbas; and the US offered prompt support to Ukraine, as did other NATO partners. Washington sent a clear message to Moscow that an escalation of its current aggression in Ukraine would lead to a number of American steps – such as sanctions and increased military support to Ukraine. This prompted Moscow to retreat, reducing its forces in both locations. This episode makes clear the dilemma facing the Kremlin. So long as the West is vigilant, Moscow’s aggressive designs in its neighbourhood have little chance of success; and to repeat, distract its attention from the strategic threat to Russia’s east. 

The original version of this article was published in Brussels Morning.

About author: Ambassador Tedo Japaridze

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