‘Fort Trump’ for Poland? Not Quite.
Trump will send 1,000 noncombat troops to Eastern Europe amid signs of a Russian buildup.
The Trump administration has been mainly focused on the strategic threat from China in recent months, but U.S. President Donald Trump is signaling that he is keeping at least one eye on Russia, the only other nation the Pentagon believes could pose an existential threat to the United States.
After months of focusing on the trade war and military competition with Beijing, Trump this week moved to step up the U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe to deter Russian aggression. Trump announced plans to send an additional 1,000 troops to Poland during a joint press conference in Washington on Wednesday with Polish President Andrzej Duda.
Some experts said the troop increase is less about responding to any new Russian threat and more about rewarding Poland for its commitment to security. Poland is one of just eight NATO member countries that meets the alliance commitment of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, a key sore spot in U.S.-NATO relations under Trump. Ever since his presidential campaign, Trump has harshly criticized members for not spending enough on security, particularly Germany.
The president’s announcement sends a clear political message to other NATO members who aren’t as aligned with the administration, for instance Berlin, said Jeffrey Mankoff, the deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“This whole fight over 2 percent spending is central to the way that Trump looks at NATO, and because the Poles have been on the right side of that debate, this is also about rewarding them politically and making the case to others that there are benefits if you get onboard,” said Mankoff. He noted that in addition to signaling political support, an increased U.S. presence in Poland will come with an economic investment in the Eastern European nation.
“Trump is trying to basically reward the Poles, punish the Germans, and the Russians are in some ways almost incidental,” he said.
In any case, the additional troop presence is a far cry from establishing a permanent U.S. military base in Poland, a proposal nicknamed “Fort Trump” that was floated last year. The proposal seems to have quietly died after critics claimed it would needlessly provoke Russia.
The “noncombat” troops will be mostly focused on logistics and support, the official said, stressing that their presence will not violate a 1997 security agreement that prohibits the permanent basing of NATO troops in former Warsaw Pact countries.
However, it is still a clear signal that Washington is committed to keeping Moscow in check, as Russia continues to build up forces on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
“This is an effective use of U.S. resources and good for deterrence. We need the capability addition these guys provide and we’ve known that,” said Jim Townsend, a former senior Pentagon official. “It’s much better than ‘Fort Trump.’”
The move also underscores an apparent contrast within the Trump administration’s approach to Europe over the past two years: The president himself has railed against European allies and made warm overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin. But his administration has taken a hard-line stance against Moscow with a raft of defense initiatives, sanctions, and diplomatic maneuvering that seem at odds with the president’s personal views on NATO.
While the Pentagon has identified China as the greatest threat to the United States and its allies, Russia is a key immediate problem, said Elbridge Colby, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development until 2018.
“The Russian threat, while definitely more limited and more circumscribed, is more pointed right now primarily because it’s a land border, there’s no natural topographical division between Russia and NATO territory,” said Colby, who is now at the Center for a New American Security. By contrast: “The Chinese have to launch an amphibious invasion to get after American forces or Taiwan.”
Colby said the increased rotational presence may be a better fit than a large, fixed base for the threat from Russia as it appears more “combat credible.”
In addition to the additional troops, the United States will establish a forward-deployed division headquarters and a combat training center, to be jointly used by Polish and U.S. forces in Drawsko Pomorskie, Poland, and eventually other locations, according to the joint resolution Trump and Duda signed on Wednesday. The United States will also stand up a U.S. Air Force surveillance squadron of MQ-9 Reaper drones and a U.S. special operations forces capability in Poland. In addition, the United States will build infrastructure to support the presence of an armored brigade combat team, a combat aviation brigade, and a combat sustainment support battalion.
“The United States and Poland believe that the presence of U.S. military personnel in Poland strengthens NATO’s deterrence efforts, and the defense of the United States, Poland, and the Alliance,” the joint document states.
Trump stressed during the press conference that Poland will pay for the additional U.S. presence.
Citing concerns about Russia’s aggression, Poland in recent months has been pushing for an increased U.S. presence, which currently numbers around 4,500 troops deployed on a rotational basis.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine and illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, NATO has increased its activities in Eastern Europe with rotating forces and military exercises in the aim of deterring Russia. Despite Trump’s misgivings about NATO—since his presidential campaign he has questioned whether the trans-Atlantic alliance is relevant or necessary—his administration has poured billions of dollars into increasing the U.S. military footprint in Europe through a multiyear program started under the Obama administration called the European Deterrence Initiative. The Pentagon requested $5.9 billion for the initiative in fiscal year 2020.
Some doubted the impact extra troops would have on the stable—if tense—security situation on NATO’s eastern flank. “I don’t see the added deterrent effect of sending an extra 1,000 troops,” said Rachel Rizzo, a scholar on trans-Atlantic relations with the Center for a New American Security. “The U.S. already has rotational forces in Eastern Europe that have proven to be effective in deterring Russia.”
Mankoff acknowledged that “if World War III starts in Europe,” the additional 1,000 troops “are going to be a rounding error.” However, Russia is likely concerned about the precedent set by the presence of the higher troop numbers.
Trump is set to meet Putin at the G-20 meeting later this month.
“It’s 1,000 today, it’s another 1,000 tomorrow, and at some point down the road we have Fort Trump,” Mankoff said.
Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer