Former Dean James Stavridis: “Poland Isn’t Getting Its ‘Fort Trump’ – Yet”

After an extremely cordial meeting in the White House, President Donald Trump and Polish President Andrzej Duda on Wednesday announced plans to send 1,000 or more U.S. troops from their current station in Germany to Poland. It was an important signal of U.S. solidarity with Poland – and a direct shot at Russia, which adamantly opposes the current rotational deployments of NATO and U.S. troops on its Western border.

Yet Duda came to Washington hoping for far more. His government had previously promised pay for a permanent home for a much larger U.S. garrison – the name “Fort Trump” has been thrown around. While that may seem theatrical, there is actually an increasingly strong case to be made for giving the Poles their way.

When I was NATO’s supreme allied commander from 2009-2013, I would often go over our defensive war plans (there is no “offensive” NATO planning) to analyze how a Russian incursion into a member nation would play out. The sobering truth is that Russia could likely destabilize the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and even parts of Poland, with the hybrid warfare it used in 2014 on Ukraine – a witches’ brew of Special Forces (often in unmarked uniforms, to create deniability), sophisticated propaganda, expert manipulation of social media, cyberattacks and insurgent techniques such as kidnapping and extortion.

If the alliance dithered – not an entirely unlikely scenario – Vladimir Putin would have the choice to conduct an overt invasion. While over the long term Russia would find itself overmatched by NATO (which outspends Russia on military activity by approximately 10-to-1), the short-term outcome could be a NATO capital or two in Russian hands. At that point, the Russians would likely push for negotiations and wave the threat of nuclear weapons. This would be a nightmare for NATO, because it would strike at the alliance’s Achilles Heel: a lack of political unity, which is only getting worse as Brexit and other forces pull at the European project.

Currently, the U.S. has a small but capable troop and air-defense presence in Poland, which has been growing since the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea by Russia. NATO was surprised by the aggressive Russian behavior in Ukraine – which is a partner to NATO, but not a member – and has now established brigade combat teams of about 2,000 troops each in Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The troops are from across the 29-nation alliance, and each is led by a different major military power: the U.S., U.K., Canada and Germany. At last year’s NATO summit in Brussels, the alliance set a two-year goal of being able to field 30 warships, 30 aircraft squadrons, and 30 battalions of troops within 30 days – known as the “Four Thirties.”

All of this reflects the nervous history of Poland and the Baltics, which have been invaded and subjected to occupation through much of European history. Located on the central plains of Eastern Europe and the edge of the Baltic Sea, and lacking natural barriers, the Poles and their neighbors from the old Hanseatic League have been “in the middle of everything,” as Trump correctly summed it up at his meeting with Duda: “When bad things happen, it seems like Poland is the first one that’s in there.”

NATO is right to increase its readiness in the face of Russian aggression against three of its neighbors – Georgia and Moldova as well as Ukraine – coupled with Putin’s adventurism in the Middle East, where the Syrian civil war has produced waves of refugees roiling the politics of Western Europe. A strong U.S. presence is crucial to alliance cohesion and resilience, and the current policy of permanently stationed troops buttressed by rotational forces is a good one – so far.

At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. had nearly 400,000 troops in Europe on hundreds of bases. Today there are some 60,000 personnel, principally in Germany and Italy on a handful of major installations. During my time as supreme allied commander, we were less concerned about Russia and even brought some of the troops home. Those days are over, and concerns from Eastern Europe are leading to increases in both permanently assigned and rotationally deployed U.S. troops. If Russian behavior doesn’t improve, an actual Fort Trump in Poland is probably not far behind.

This piece was republished from Bloomberg Opinion. 

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