- The American presence in Europe is based on NATO’s archaic assumptions from the Cold War period. Although more than 20 years have passed since the countries of Central Europe (Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic) joined the North Atlantic Alliance, the region has not seen a permanent presence of allied troops, mainly American.
- Although American politicians have repeatedly stressed that the ‘red line’ for the North Atlantic Alliance is its eastern border, they have done little to make these guarantees a reality by increasing the presence of American troops in the CEE region.
- Therefore, it is not surprising that the Polish diplomatic initiative aimed at creating a permanent American base on the territory of the Republic of Poland. The vision expressed by President Andrzej Duda in September 2018 for the settlement of “Fort Trump” (Whitehouse.gov, 2018) in Poland is not currently being realised, while the increase in the rotating presence of American troops in Poland is becoming an increasingly real prospect.
Looking at the deployment of American military bases in Europe, it is hard not to get the impression that the system, which is an important component of NATO’s security in Europe, is archaic today. The geography of American bases is the geography of the Cold War and the strategy of defending Western Europe from the danger to come from the Warsaw Pact. The only exception to this is the American Camp Bondsteel near the city of Uroševac in Kosovo, which is the legacy of the humanitarian crisis which occurred as a result of constant fights between the Kosovo Liberation Army and the military-police units of Serbia and Montenegro in the former Yugoslavia.
Map No 1
Distribution of permanent American bases on the European continent
Source: TodaysMilitary.com, 2020
Moreover, the distribution of American bases is mainly due to a treaty commonly referred as “Two Plus Four Agreement” in 1990, which concerned the issue of German reunification after the Cold War. “Two plus four” of course means East and West Germany plus the occupying countries: France, Great Britain, the USA and the USSR, whose legal heir is the Russian Federation.
It was then decided that no NATO troops would be stationed on the former territory of the German Democratic Republic. Moreover, no rockets or nuclear missiles will be deployed in this area (Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany September 12, 1990).
It will not be long before three decades have passed since this treaty was signed. During this time, the architecture of European security has undergone many transformations, the most important of which seem to be: the extension of the North Atlantic Alliance to include the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia), the countries of Central Europe (Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia) and the Balkan states (Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, South Macedonia), the rotating presence of American troops in Poland and the Polish purchase of Patriot batteries, which will result in the deployment of the American missile defence system east of Germany.
In addition to the treaty mentioned above, concerns (especially from Germany), are raised by the provisions of the agreement concluded between NATO and Russia in 1997 on the wave of post-Cold War thaw in mutual relations. The 1997 Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and Russia obliged the North Atlantic Alliance not to place ‘permanent, significant combat forces’ on the territory of the newly admitted countries. (Henzel, 2014). However, “Significant combat forces” have never been defined, and it is hard to suppose that a possible permanent presence of U.S. troops in Poland could be considered significant, given that the U.S. military personnel in Europe numbers about 320,000.
Since the 1990s there has been no permanent military presence of the alliance in the form of an American base in Central and Eastern Europe. And this despite the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia and the regular war in the east of Ukraine waged by this country from 2014, namely the violation of international law and political agreements within the framework of the 1975 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which created a foundation for rapprochement between East and West during the Cold War.
Nevertheless, there are still voices, such as that of the German Minister of National Defence Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who indicates that any transfer of American troops from Germany to Poland could violate the 1997 Agreement. (Luxner, 2020).
The Polish side has repeatedly stressed that it is not interested in moving American troops from Germany to Poland, but in a general increase of American presence in Poland. The Polish ambassador to NATO, Tomasz Szatkowski, indicated in an interview given to the ‘Channeling Brussels’ podcast: “From the Polish perspective, the most preferred option is to increase the American presence [in Europe] in general “. (Soundcloud.com, 2020).
Although Donald Trump has already confirmed his desire to reduce military personnel in Germany from 34,500 to 25,000 (DW.com, 2020), this movement would still have to be approved by the U.S. Congress, and the reduction in the number of U.S. troops in Germany has been opposed by a wide range of congressmen, both democratic and republican (Starr, 2020). Unofficially, it is indicated that the ‘hard’ reduction of nearly 10,000 troops will be softened by Defence Secretary Mark Esper (Ibid.).
This only confirms that the withdrawal of troops from permanent American bases is not an easy process, both legally and logistically, as understood by the Pentagon, which additionally seems to see security issues in Europe differently than President Donald Trump.
Although the optimal solution for Poland and the Central European region would be a permanent American presence in the form of a military base in Poland, there is a possibility of a compromise solution that may satisfy Poland, Donald Trump, Congress and the Pentagon, and to a lesser extent Germany. This solution is to move part of the American troops from Germany to Poland, but on the basis of their rotating presence on Polish territory.
Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, Chairman of the Senate Committee of the Armed Forces, recently said he was in favor of moving some US troops from Germany to create “more smaller, well-positioned bases that will improve our Reach”. (Shane, 2020). Inhofe added: “From my conversation with Secretary Esper, I can say that our goal is to strengthen our strong position in Europe by deploying American forces on the eastern flank of NATO.
Currently, 4.5 thousand American soldiers are stationed in Poland, and this number is soon to increase by another thousand under the agreement of 2019. (Defense.gov, 2020). The Head of the National Security Bureau Paweł Soloch recently stated that American soldiers could appear in Poland in August, when the Polish Army Day and the 100th anniversary of the victory over the Bolsheviks in the Battle of Warsaw will be celebrated (Wnet.fm, 2020).
When asked about the scale of the undertaking, i.e. how many American soldiers will be relocated to Poland, the head of the National Security Bureau Paweł Soloch said: “A thousand more soldiers are the result of the Duda-Trump declaration signed a year earlier (…) But now there is a question of even more. A significant amount (…)”. When asked what “significant quantity” means, the presidential minister indicated: “(…) it’s certainly not 100, 50 or 200 soldiers.” (Ibid.)
This may mean that on the territory of the Republic of Poland even in 2020, there may be as many as over 6 thousand American soldiers stationed in the rotational presence. This would be the first such significant engagement of NATO forces in Central and Eastern Europe since the enlargement of the alliance in 1999.
However, at the same time, a minimum version should be assumed, i.e. strengthening the American presence in Poland by 1000 soldiers within the framework of a rotating presence. The certainty of the 2019 agreement may be confirmed by the visit of the American Deputy Secretary of Defence Ryan D. McCarthy, who paid his visit to Poland after the presidential elections to discuss the conditions for the feasibility of the Polish-American agreement (Interia, 2020).
However, the condition for moving American troops to the eastern flank of NATO may be that Donald Trump wins the presidential election in November 2020. It is the people around Trump, including the former U.S. ambassador to Berlin Richard Grenell, who would be expected to opt for the option of strengthening the eastern flank at the expense of Germany. If Trump loses the election, the new president and his administration will most likely seek to preserve the status quo, expressed in not withdrawing American troops from Germany.
The American presence on the eastern flank of NATO is crucial not only for the security of Poland but also for the Baltic states. Moreover, there are also several factors for which the American presence on the eastern flank is crucial for the security of the entire North Atlantic Alliance.
Firstly, the Russian Western Military District has the largest military force and the best armaments (Kaminskaya, 2020), posing the greatest threat to the NATO forces. Secondly, the power system in Belarus is decomposing. Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, may soon bid farewell to the office of president (see Budzisz, 2020). This gap will be filled by Russia, whose military system is closely linked to the Belarusian one. And that could mean nothing less than bringing Russia closer to NATO borders by 600 km to the west.
Thirdly, the most important issue from the point of view of Poland’s security (although given the dynamics of the political situation in Belarus, there may be a reshaping of the Polish security priorities), the war in eastern Ukraine and the Russian occupation of Crimea. The unresolved Russian-Ukrainian conflict may escalate. Despite the ceasefire on the territory of Donbass, the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine states directly in its announcement: ‘The analysis of the security environment around Ukraine shows that Russia is deliberately working to increase its combat potential near the borders of our country’. (Ministry of Defence of Ukraine, 2020).
The threat of an escalation of the conflict is even more real in view of the fact that soon there will be exercises “Caucasus 2020”, which are to test the military readiness of the South Russian Military District. The district is the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, including the Crimea and separatist occupied territories of Ukraine. The scale of exercises is significant, because Russia has more than 85,000 soldiers in this area, about 1100 tanks, twice as many armoured vehicles, 300 planes and 230 helicopters (Sabak, 2020).
Map No 2
Deployment of Russian military formations along the border with Ukraine
Source: Ukrinform.net, 2020.
When we add the fact that Russian offensives and warfare, from the war in Georgia in 2008, through the occupation of Crimea to the offensive in eastern Ukraine, preceded the exercises of the Russian armed forces in adjacent areas, we get an additional risk factor of exacerbating the Ukrainian-Russian conflict in autumn 2020.
In view of the growing disintegration of the security structure behind Poland’s eastern border, which is also the eastern border of the North Atlantic Alliance, the efforts of Polish diplomacy, including the President of the Republic of Poland and the government, aimed at establishing a permanent American base on the territory of the Republic of Poland are justified by the real security needs of the country, the CEE region, but also the Alliance as a whole.
The archaic structure of American troops deployment in Europe is seen in the highest circles of administration in Washington. The need to strengthen the eastern flank of NATO is understood by both the US President and the US Congress. The American administration is increasingly bold in admitting that the deployment of smaller troops in a wider geographical base, including the eastern flank of NATO, is needed to ensure the security of the North Atlantic Alliance.
Although there are currently no prospects of a permanent American base in Poland, Polish diplomacy, including the President of the Republic of Poland, should not cease its efforts to increase the presence of allied troops in Poland. Even if the change of the US President takes place in the autumn of 2020, Poland will still be able to count on an increased American presence of about 5,500 soldiers stationed on Polish territory. The continuation of Donald Trump’s rule may mean that Washington will strive to deploy more American troops in Poland, at the expense of Germany. Unless it involves a net decrease in the number of U.S. troops in Europe, this proposal may be welcomed by both the Congress and the Pentagon.
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 A military base under the supervision of the Kosovo Force established in the framework of the United Nations peace support operation Joint Guardian.
 This is a ceasefire in the occupied Ukrainian territories with effect from 27 July 2020, concluded by Ukraine and Russia with OSCE support. However, the Ukrainian authorities have already reported at least two violations of the agreement (see Euronews, 2020).
Graduate of International Relations at the Faculty of Law and Administration of the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University and East European Studies at the University of Warsaw. Author of analyses on Polish foreign policy, issues of security policy in Central and Eastern Europe, and historical policy of the countries of the region. He has published his studies i.a. on the foreign affairs portal PSZ.pl and the Center for International Initiatives’ Bulletin of Analysis. He coordinates the analysis department at the European Center for Non-Governmental Projects.