Who are the real winners and losers of the US troop withdrawal from Germany?
Last Wednesday, the US followed through with US President Donald Trump’s threat to withdraw a large chunk of its troops from Germany and redistribute part of them throughout other European countries.
The US announced a long-term plan, according to which almost 12,000 US soldiers will be leaving Germany. Around half will be re-deployed to Belgium, Italy and Poland while several thousand others will start a rotation between the US and European countries.
The US European Command (EUCOM) and Special Operations Command Europe will also be moved from Stuttgart in Germany to Belgium.
Mark Esper, US Secretary of Defence, sold the US decision to the world by saying the move would "in a way strengthen NATO," enhance the deterrent to Russia and reassure allies.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement that "the US has consulted closely with all NATO allies ahead of today’s announcement."
Some countries will benefit more than others from this move — if it happens. Here’s a look at possible losers and winners of the US plans.
Germany — the loser?
Since the end of World War II, Germany has played a vital part in the US’ defence strategy. It was so important, in fact, that the US decided to base its EUCOM headquarters there.
Currently, the US has five garrisons in Germany and a handful of US military communities have developed around a few German towns. In those towns, many jobs are tied to the bases.
The economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic have taken their toll on many of these towns and losing the bases is likely to make it worse.
After Esper made the official announcement, Trump cast away any doubts that this was purely a strategic decision. He made clear that “reducing the force” was necessary “because they’re not paying their bills,” referring to Germany’s underperformance in its NATO promise to spend 2% of its GDP on defence.
In 2014, NATO members agreed at a summit to “aim to move toward” spending 2% of their GDP on defence. With Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, overall defence spending has grown over the years within NATO.
However, Germany’s spending hasn’t reached the 2% mark — its goal was to spend 1.5% by 2024 and reach 2% by 2031.
Trump added that he may rethink the decision to pull out the troops if Germany were to “start paying their bills.”
There is no love lost between Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as German media repeatedly point out, and some consider the US move an act of “vengeance” against Merkel.
According to Heather A. Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), the plan to relocate the troops “does successfully punish Germany, which was its intended objective.”
But Trump’s argument of wanting to punish Germany for its insufficient defence spending loses its power, considering that two of the countries the US wants to redirect its troops to are spending even less of their GDP on defence than Germany — namely Italy and Belgium.
According to World Bank data, Italy is spending 1.3% of its GDP on defence, while Belgium only spends 0.9%.
Elli Kytömäki, an independent defence policy analyst also pointed out that “the decision seems ill-timed given the global pandemic and the perceived need across the world to allocate more resources to health and general economy than increasing military spending.”
Kytömäki told Dailyrater he doubts the US move at this point in time “will make Germany even think of ’paying up’.” Moreover, she notes, spending more on defence would likely do damage to Merkel’s popularity.
NATO — the clear loser
All three analysts Dailyrater spoke to agreed that the US move weakens NATO, instead of strengthening it, as its official purpose states. Kytömäki says the US’ unilateral decision to reposition its troops “challenges the unity of the alliance and could be perceived negatively by other NATO members.”
Nicu Popescu is the director of the Wider Europe Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations and he told Dailyrater he doesn’t “see any real winners here. The US loses not just in influence but in credibility. Europe loses stability.”
Moreover, he says “squabbling allies” within NATO does not indicate that it is gaining in deterrence power. That power “doesn’t only depend on military spending, but above all on cohesion, solidarity and close cooperation.”
Kytömäki agrees with Popescu’s evaluation, adding that “the move is not a significant deterrence of Russia, and if anything, it is only a unilateral move by the alliance’s ’big brother’ to show others that it can punish or reward (even though that is questionable) the other members as it pleases.”
She adds that NATO’s perception of Russia as a threat appears to be relatively low at the moment, as the situation seems stable. “Therefore the move to restructure just now seems a bit unnecessary, especially in terms of NATO-Russia relations.”
The US — definitely not winning
There are many aspects that have played into the US coming to the conclusion that it should reshuffle its troops in Europe. Strategic arguments, punitive arguments and pre-election noisemaking.
Conley says the announcement was based on a “rushed decision which was described as simply part of a long-term US global force posture review to ensure implementation of the US National Defense Strategy, designed to reassure our allies, better deter Russia and retain operational flexibility.”
“This decision does absolutely none of these things; in fact, it does significant harm to all of the stated objectives in both the National Security and Defense Strategies,” she adds.
Popescu points out that one of the main motivations for the move is the upcoming US presidential election and Trump’s “clear distrust of Germany.” He expects a “real confirmation or backtracking” to happen after the election.
Kytömäki warns that the US “risks worsening relations with an important European ally and upsetting the balance within NATO at a time when no major moves should be necessary.”
For Conley, the US military is one of the clear losers, as it “continues to self-inflict strategic harm by eroding allied trust and confidence and diminishing NATO.”
Poland — a winner?
On the surface, it may seem like Poland is one of the winners of the new strategy. Poland’s President Andrzej Duda has been trying to woo the US into stationing some of its forces there.
At one point, he had even suggested that Poland could contribute over $2 billion (€1.6 billion) to create a permanent US base, which he said could be called “Fort Trump.” Poland spends 2% of its GDP on defence.
Positioning troops in Poland would certainly put them closer to Russia, which is one of the official strategic goals.
However, all the analysts Dailyrater consulted agreed that Poland will be on the losing side if and when NATO is weakened.
In addition, Conley points out that by announcing the relocation of US soldiers to Poland, US senior defence officials “highlighted the fact that Poland has yet to sign a Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) and has not agreed to US burden-sharing demands, which is a prerequisite to receive additional forces (one assumes)."
On a different note, Kytömäki highlights that modernising “Polish military forces to accommodate the new troops would also require additional funds, which would not prove popular, especially in the current time of COVID-19.”
Kytömäki adds that the aspect of popular acceptance may play a role as well. She says “at least in Italy it seems that the appetite to host more NATO resources is limited. There are already concerns about the nuclear weapons stationed there, so the population might not greet the possible extra squadron of NATO fighter jets with much enthusiasm.”
However, generally, it isn’t a bad idea to move NATO troops to the region. Popescu says there is a benefit to increasing NATO’s defence capabilities in the Black Sea region, considering Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula. But this, he says, isn’t dependent on the US withdrawing its troops from Germany.
Conley adds the Black Sea region is “an area of vulnerability that needs to be operationally addressed. However, the announcement did not provide any details about how the US envisions supporting this region militarily in the future.”
Russia — 'this is an American presidential gift that keeps on giving'
One may think Russia would be relatively content about the new developments, considering NATO allies are seemingly not on the same page. However, Popescu says that Russia may also be “worried about the deployment of more US capabilities in NATO’s Eastern states such as Poland, the Baltic states or Romania.”
While it is likely meant to provoke Russia, Kytömäki wonders why the US would “try to provoke Russia now, when they are not acting provocatively towards Europe/NATO?” Instead, she hopes the Kremlin won’t consider the move alarming enough to initiate any countermeasures, such as re-stationing troops closer to its western border, which would destabilise the current security situation.
Conley, however, says that for Russia “this is an American presidential gift that keeps on giving.” “Russia has gained the most” from the US announcement to withdraw and redistribute part of its troops from Germany, she said.
“Understandably, the Russian government welcomed the news that there will be 12,000 fewer US forces in Europe and will amplify allied divisions. They can only exploit the gift that was handed to them yesterday,” Conley says.
In its reaction, Russia focused on the new information that additional US forces will be stationed in Poland, Romania or other newer NATO members, saying this would violate the NATO-Russia Founding Act.
“This isn’t a provocation; this is just one of Russia’s favourite cudgels which they bring out from time to time. Perhaps if Russia would rejoin an Amended Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, their concerns could be better addressed and hopefully mitigated,” Conley notes.