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Allies worry US drawdown could embolden Russian aggression

Todd South

Allies worry US drawdown could embolden Russian aggression
The wrap up of a long-planned series of military exercises in Europe as President Donald Trump threatens to reduce troops in Germany shows the importance of the military partnerships and raises concerns about the ability to counter Russia should U.S. support dwindle.

A former Baltic state defense chief told Military Times that moving U.S. troops out of Europe would be a ‘fatal mistake.'

This month the United States finished the largest multinational military exercise on the continent, called Defender Europe 2020. The umbrella exercise contained a series of smaller, partner and ally exercises to showcase the deployment capabilities of the United States and the niche defense work of European nations, should Russia threaten an advance into NATO territory.

That exercise was more than two years in planning and took a hit on the volume of troops and scale of deployments due to the coronavirus. But threats by Trump to reduce the 35,000 U.S. troop level in Germany by 10,000 troops echoed alongside the work of the actual uniformed personnel.

And where those troops might go is still under question.

A recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Trump National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien seemed to fling the 10,000 across to the INDOPACOM theater, to include Australia, Guam, Japan and home to Alaska or Hawaii.

But, next week Trump is scheduled to meet with Poland’s President Andrezej Duda, the Associated Press reported. Last year, the administrations of the two countries set up a plan to send 1,000 more U.S. troops to Poland.

Defender Europe was expected to see 20,000 U.S. troops move from the homeland to Europe pulling in active duty, Guard and Reserve forces from across the country, according to officials.

The final exercise under the larger program, Baltic Operations, or BALTOPS, concluded June 16. That exercise alone involved 3,000 troops from 17 NATO and two partner nations in a 10-day live training event, according to a EUCOM statement.

Another exercise, within Defender, Allied Spirit, saw nearly 6,000 Polish and U.S. soldiers train over two weeks and included a U.S.-Polish division-size river crossing and a Polish airborne operation.

An estimated 4,000 U.S. cavalry armored and aviation soldiers and nearly 2,000 Polish airborne, armored cavalry and mechanized infantry Soldiers participated.

They include maritime and air situational awareness; naval capabilities; command and control; cyber defense; counter artillery; medical treatment and MEDEVAC; counter Russian propaganda; training and education and “other special capabilities that will save lives of our soldiers,” he said.

Split destinations for the future basing of U.S. troops in Germany raises questions about the future of exercises such as Defender, though some see little change on the horizon, wherever those troops may settle.

European Parliament Member Riho Terras, retired Chief of Defense of Estonia, spoke with Military Times on the nature of the U.S. presence on the continent and the potential for a shift of resources would have for his nation and the wider Baltic region.

Terras, a career military officer, was involved in planning his country’s participation in the Defender exercise two years ago with then-Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark Milley, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

If the Germany-based troops move to other parts of Europe, especially eastern Europe, Terras sees it as a win.

“For me, the best thing would be to station troops in Estonia,” Terras said. “But in Poland they would also be very welcome. We have very comfortable barracks and good Wi-Fi. I would feel much safer myself.”

For the retired defense chief, as long as U.S. troops are in Europe, operationally ready and bringing their key enablers such as airpower, sea power, air defense and long-range missile offensive capabilities, where they are stationed is a more minor concern.

But should they shift out of the region, that could send the wrong signal to an always prodding Russia, he said.

“I think taking troops out of Europe would be a very big, perhaps fatal mistake,” he said.

A think tank in Estonia has similar views.

The Estonian Foreign Policy Institute published a recent paper titled, “Through the Looking Glass: the Nordic-Baltic Region and the Changing Role of the United States.”

The paper was critical of Trump’s “transactional” approach to working with NATO.

Though the author noted that the possibility of armed conflict now is low, shunting U.S. troops, equipment and military aid could change that reality.

A current defense official who works on EUCOM issues has a different take.

It is a gross exaggeration to lay out a claim that a precipitous withdrawal is being contemplated by the national command authorities, the said the official, who declined to be identified because of a lack of authorization to speak to the press on the matter, .

The same official pointed to the new exercise program, running a rapid succession of smaller exercises under the larger umbrella as a more accurate way of gauging the effective “reach back” capabilities of the United States to the U.S. homeland should a conflict with Russia erupt.

Beyond the Baltics, Eastern Europe is experiencing a slow-simmering shooting war in Ukraine between invading Russian forces, the separatists they back and the Ukraine military.

An aid package recently approved by Congress, “tells the Russians that they can’t go to Kyiv and create a vassal state or change the geography of Europe again,” a former U.S. military official with direct knowledge of the situation in Ukraine told Military Times. “It also keeps a fair amount of Russian forces tied down that would otherwise be doing things directly against U.S. interests.”

The package will provide Ukraine forces battling Russian troops in that nation’s eastern region with a wide range of capabilities, Defense Attaché Embassy of Ukraine to the USA, Major General (UKR-Air Force), Borys Kremenetskyi recently told Military Times.

They include maritime and air situational awareness; naval capabilities; command and control; cyber defense; counter artillery; medical treatment and MEDEVAC; counter Russian propaganda; training and education and “other special capabilities that will save lives of our soldiers,” he said.

Despite political rumblings about threats to withdraw troops should Germany or other NATO nations not increase their military spending, the official said that there is full support by the United States to the NATO alliance, especially in regard to countering Russia.

Those leaders, the official said, do regular force posture reviews to understand the openness of sea lanes, air traffic and communications channels and access to friendly leadership.

And though troops are the focus of the recent news, equipment continues to flow to allies and partners.

Supporting EUCOM Baltic allies and partners, the Air Force temporarily relocated MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft, military personnel and support equipment from Miroslawiec Air Base in Poland to Amari Air Base in Estonia.

That, Terras said, gives his nation’s assets it needs to stall a Russian advance, but not forever.

EUCOM officials did not respond to requests for comment from Military Times.

Local training exercises in recent years have shown that the nation of about 1.3 million can raise more than 15,000 troops to fight within 24-48 hours, he said. Similar abilities are true of its Baltic neighbors.

But without U.S. assets, support and enablers, they could not resist the Russian juggernaut for long on the battlefield.


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