Trump is moving troops out of Germany: a gift for the Kremlin?

  • Tetyana Demyanchuk
  • 25.6.2020 12:33

The US troops stationed in Germany are the legacy of the Second World War and have been a symbol of the US commitment to protecting their European allies and deterring any potential Russian aggression for decades. The implications of the decision to withdraw the troops are largely going to depend on the execution of the still unannounced plan.

On the 5th of June, German and NATO officials were caught off guard by the news of the US reducing the number of service members to 25,000 from around 35,000, cutting the presence almost by a third.  

In the first days, White House and Pentagon officials declined to confirm or deny the announcement. The confirmation came only on the 11th of June with the former ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell in an interview to the German newspaper Bild, who said that Americans are ‘tired of paying too much’ for others’ defence.  

Some have presented it as the latest twist in the ‘complicated’ relations between Berlin and Washington that have been strained during the presidency of Donald J. Trump. Trump has repeatedly complained about NATO allies lack of contribution for European defence and even claiming that Germany owes NATO/US for its defence calling it ‘delinquent’ (which is contrary to how the system works, even though Germany falls short of the NATO’s target in which members are supposed to commit 2% of their annual GDP to military spending).  

Some believe that the decision is a retaliation, as Angela Merkel rejected the invitation to attend a face-to-face meeting of G7’s leaders later this month due to concerns over the pandemic. However, a senior US official said that the move was the result of months of work by the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff of the US General Mark Milley.

 

“The move seems to have more to do with domestic politics and the upcoming elections, as it is in line with President Trump’s America First agenda”

 

The move seems to have more to do with domestic politics and the upcoming elections, as it is in line with President Trump’s America First agenda, which supposes a limited spending for foreign operations and a low interest in upholding the world order. Trump has been promising to bring the troops home since the beginning of his presidency, so fulfilling the promise (or at least appearing to be much closer to doing so), could help him to score with his electorate. It is possible that the redeployment will be blocked domestically, however, if Trump is re-elected for the second term anything can happen.

 

Repercussions: a gift for the Kremlin?

This decision has been called astrategic for the US itself, as Germany hosts the largest number of the American forces in Europe, followed by Italy, the UK and Spain, hence being a crucial military hub. Sizeable presence in Germany allows for using it as an important transit and jumping off point for operations in the Middle East, Africa (with the US Africa Command being located in Stuttgart) and elsewhere, allowing for effective power projection on the other side of Atlantic. 

There has even been a push-back from Republicans, who argued that “the forward stationing of American troops since the end of World War II has helped to prevent another world war and, most importantly, has helped make America safer”, underlining the importance of stationing the personnel for the US itself.

Even though the announcement is in line with the general rhetoric that has been characteristic of Trump's presidency, it is contrary to the actions on the ground – since 2017, the US has increased the number of its troops and training exercises in Europe in reaction to the actions of Russia in Crimea and Donbas. 

 

“Indeed, Russia welcomed the prospect of the reduction of American troops in Germany.”

 

It has been said that this announcement is a gift for which the Kremlin did nothing to deserve it, as there was no change in behaviour along the NATO’s Eastern flank, Ukraine, Georgia, Black Sea or Syria. Russia is still showing that it is willing to use military force to forward its national interests, even though under a thin veil of plausible deniability.

Indeed, Russia welcomed the prospect of the reduction of American troops in Germany. The Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mariya Zakharova said that “[s]uch steps would undoubtedly help reduce confrontational potential and ease military and political tensions in the Euro-Atlantic region” and added that the large U.S. military presence in Germany was a “vestige of the Cold War.”

 

Possible implications for Central and Eastern Europe: special role of Poland

Nonetheless, from the Central and Eastern European perspective, the US remains the source of security guarantees due to the lack of belief that Europe has the ability to coordinate different member states’ interests and mind sets and to achieve strategic autonomy. So, the implications of this decision for CEE are contingent on the US military commitment to the CEE countries themselves. Given the US-NATO exercises in Poland and in the Baltic Sea, some have argued that the US might be shifting interest in Europe eastward rather than losing it at all. In this context the special role of Poland is coming to the foreground.  

Poland has been enjoying close relations with the Trump administration and has been praised for reaching the above-mentioned target of spending 2% of GDP on defence. Some US officials were eyeing Poland as a possible new home for the US nuclear arsenal, when the Party of Social Democrats in Germany opened a discussion on terminating the stationing of the US nuclear weapons on the German territory. 

Poland has been campaigning for a permanent US troop presence since the Russian aggression against Georgia and Ukraine. With the speculation that some of the troops from Germany could be moved elsewhere, the prime minister of Poland Mateusz Morawiecki expressed hope that Poland can host the troops, with the president of Poland Andrzej Duda visiting the US on June 24th to discuss their defence cooperation (four days before Poland’s presidential elections).

 

“The profit from the discord between the allies is to be collected once again by Russia and by China.” 

 

With little preparation for the re-deployment it is likely that there will be certain logistical constraints to both any potential removal of the forces from Europe, and to any potential re-direction of them to Poland, to which the pandemic is only contributing. As Poland is not hosting any permanent presence, it also does not have the needed infrastructure, which are of course issues that can be solved in medium term.  

What will happen for sure is hard to predict. A bad case scenario is the one in which the US executes a full withdrawal in a poorly planned manner without sufficient coordination with its allies. This would send a message to allies and adversaries alike that this move is a gesture showing that the US is no longer committed to European defence. The profit from the discord between the allies is to be collected once again by Russia and by China. A better case scenario is the one in which a coordinated withdrawal is planned and that ensures that the overall American commitment to Europe remains strong, be that by relocation of the troops to Poland or other means that ensure the strength of the Eastern flank.  

About author: Tetyana Demyanchuk

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