American soldiers from the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division will rotate to locations throughout Poland and the Baltics until at least the end of 2015 to reassure U.S. allies on edge because of recent Russian incursions into Ukraine, according to the top commander of the U.S. Army in Europe.
Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges told reporters at the Pentagon via teleconference that the rotations of about 300 soldiers at a time through Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia could continue into 2016. The troops will be part of a rapid-response force announced by NATO in August to quickly react to possible Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. According to the New York Times, the alliance plans to create a force of some 4,000 troops capable of quickly deploying to Eastern Europe, where armaments and other supplies would be prepositioned.
Hodges’s comments came on the same day that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that his country would hold a referendum at the end of the decade on whether to try to join the alliance. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly warned that NATO membership for Ukraine would be unacceptable to Moscow.
"We have worked out an intense plan for the next six years, so that the country meets the criteria to join the EU and to join NATO," Poroshenko said in Kiev, according to Bloomberg. "And only then the Ukrainian people will decide on joining or not joining, in a referendum."
Hodges’s comments appear to provide concrete new details about how the NATO rapid-response team would operate. Along with the troop rotations, Hodges said he would recommend moving a heavy brigade combat team with its tanks and Bradley vehicles to either Romania, Poland, or another Baltic country.
"There are going to be U.S. Army forces here in Lithuania, as well as Estonia and Latvia and Poland, for as long as it’s required to deter Russian aggression," Hodges said. Although "[t]he footprint in Europe is much smaller than it used to be, we can still provide the needed capabilities."
The general said he was confident that European allies like Britain and France, which have been slashing their defense budgets in recent years, would also make new financial commitments to help pay for the rapid-response force.
"I’ve never seen the NATO alliance more unified than coming out of the [September] summit in Wales," he said.
Hodges’s press conference contained important new details about Operation Atlantic Resolve, NATO’s plan to check Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. Since the NATO summit in September, NATO officials have said little about how they would realize their vision for the response team.
Also on Monday, new NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg called on European nations to increase their financial commitments to their militaries to help create a "Spearhead Force," which he described as "a very high-readiness force able to react quickly."
"All allies are expected to shoulder their fair share of the burden. In terms of spending, in terms of capabilities, and in terms of contributing to our operations," Stoltenberg said Monday at a speech to NATO’s parliamentary assembly in The Hague. "The GDP of the United States and that of Europe is almost exactly the same. Yet the United States spends more than twice as much on defense than all the other allies combined."
In peaceful times, he added, cutting defense spending made sense. "But we do not live in peaceful times," he said.
Stoltenberg’s comments, combined with new details about NATO’s planned rapid-response force and Ukraine’s potential interest in NATO membership, are likely to do little to diffuse tensions between Russia and NATO. In a wide-ranging interview published by Russian state-controlled media Sunday, Putin accused the alliance of undermining Russia’s strength.
"As soon as we rise, some other nations immediately feel the urge to push Russia aside, to put it ‘where it belongs,’ to slow it down," he told Russia’s Tass news agency.