Russian President Vladimir Putin’s conflict in Ukraine and efforts to destabilize Europe’s larger security order may result in a dramatic shift in American thinking about the continent’s defense. Depending on how far Putin goes, a buildup of US military might in Europe not seen since the Cold War could result.
The likelihood of a larger US military presence in Europe is a significant shift from just two years ago.
As part of his argument that Europeans were unworthy friends, President Donald Trump ordered tens of thousands of American soldiers out of Germany in 2020. President Joe Biden halted the pullout within days after entering office, and his government has emphasized NATO’s relevance, despite Biden’s identification of China as the greatest long-term danger to US security.
After that, Russia invaded Ukraine.
“We are in a new period of prolonged struggle with Russia,” according to Alexander Vershbow, a former US ambassador to Russia and former NATO deputy secretary-general. He claims that the US, in collaboration with NATO members, will need to take a more assertive position against a more dangerous Russia. This is particularly true in Eastern Europe, where Russia’s closeness provides a dilemma for the three former Soviet Baltic republics.
On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was scheduled to go to Europe for his second round of Ukraine talks at NATO headquarters in Brussels. He’ll also visit two NATO nations in Eastern Europe: Slovakia, which shares a border with Ukraine, and Bulgaria, which does not. Austin visited two additional NATO partners on the eastern border, Poland and Lithuania, after attending a NATO gathering last month.
In only two months, the United States’ soldier presence in Europe has increased from from 80,000 to almost 100,000, virtually matching the number present in 1997, when the US and its NATO partners launched an expansion of the alliance that Putin claims threatens Russia and must be reversed. According to Pentagon figures, the US had 305,000 troops in Europe in 1991, the year the Soviet Union was disbanded, including 224,000 in Germany alone. After thereafter, the number rapidly decreased, reaching 101,000 in 2005 and around 64,000 in 2020.
The US soldier additions this year are said to be temporary, but no one knows how long they’ll be there. They include an armored brigade of the 1st Infantry Division, which will deploy to Germany, and an infantry brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, which will deploy to Poland. Army headquarters units have also been dispatched to Poland and Germany. Austin also dispatched F-35A fighter fighters to NATO’s eastern frontier, as well as Apache assault helicopters to the Baltic republics.
According to a recent Pentagon study of its global military posture, force levels and deployments in Europe were roughly appropriate. Mara Karlin, a senior Pentagon officer who supervised the 2021 study, testified before a House committee three days after Putin invaded Ukraine, saying the decision would have to be reviewed.
She stated March 1 that the Pentagon must “guarantee that we have deterrence of Russia and that we can absolutely 150 percent affirm that NATO is safe and secure,” not just in response to Russia’s invasion but in the long run.
Putin’s campaign in Ukraine has caused several European allies, like Germany, to reconsider regional security needs, breaking with a long-standing policy of not exporting weapons to conflict zones by deploying anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine last month. Germany has also committed to a significantly increased defense spending.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz proclaimed, “A new reality.”
Putin has demanded that Ukraine not only abandon its ambition to join NATO, but also that the alliance withdraw its forces from the alliance’s eastern flank — demands that the US and NATO reject as incompatible with nations’ fundamental rights to determine their own foreign policy and NATO’s basic commitment to provide security to all members equally.
Russia would be on the border of more NATO nations, including Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary, if it took control of all of Ukraine. The Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, which serves as the headquarters of the Russian Navy’s Baltic Fleet, already shares a land border with Poland and Lithuania. There is danger that Putin may decide to make a move for control of the Suwalki Gap, a 60-mile-long land passage between Kaliningrad and Belarus.
Vershbow, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former deputy NATO secretary-general, suggests that the US and NATO shift away from their existing dependence on small, battalion-size combat groups in Eastern Europe and instead deploy heavier, bigger, and permanent forces.
A transformation like this on NATO’s eastern flank is exactly the kind of thing Putin claims is a threat to Russia and that he would not accept. He has called for a restoration to the conditions in place when the NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed in 1997.
Moscow recognized in that text that NATO will proceed with plans to ask Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to join the alliance. Notably, the letter said that NATO would forego “further permanent stationing of major combat forces on the territory of new members” “given the anticipated security situation.”
Does this rule out the possibility of an American force surge in Eastern Europe? According to a recent analysis from the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, the answer is no. It claims that the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act’s constraints on NATO’s military posture in Eastern Europe are meaningless in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“We are in new, perilous ground,” according to the research, “a time of continuous tensions, military advances and countermoves, and big periodic military crises in the Euro-Atlantic area that will ebb and flow for at least the rest of the 2020s, if not longer.”