The long-awaited announcement about what will happen to the thousands of US troops being transferred from Germany finally came at the end of July. US officials, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper and General Tod Wolters, who heads US European Command, outlined the moves and the strategic reasoning behind them. Their references to Poland, the Baltic states and the Black Sea reflect how the US is using the region to get closer to Russia.
In July, the US Department of Defence announced plans to withdraw around 12,000 US military personnel from Germany, reducing its troop presence there from 36,000 to 24,000. Nearly 5,600 service members will be redeployed to NATO countries, including Poland, with 6,400 to return to the US. The decision followed repeated complaints from President Donald Trump that Berlin wasn’t spending enough on defence or contributing its share to NATO coffers.
While media reports suggest that some will be moved to Belgium and Italy, the US is pushing to transfer many of the military personnel to the east.
“We’re moving forces out of Central Europe, Germany, where they had been since the Cold War,” Esper said. “We’re following, in many ways, the boundary east [to] where our newest allies are, so into the Black Sea region” as well as Poland and the Baltics.
The shift means European Command will “now be able to rotate units in perpetuity in multiple locations,” including the Black Sea, which “dramatically improves our operational capability,” Wolters said.
On Saturday the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sealed an agreement with Poland to boost the number of US troops in the eastern EU member state and right next to the Russian border.
Under the pact, an additional 1,000 US troops will be sent to Poland to accompany the 4,500 soldiers already stationed there. The pact supplements an existing NATO Status of Forces Agreement and allows for the enhancement and modernization of existing capabilities and facilities by allowing U.S. forces to access additional Polish military installations.
The deal sets out a formula for sharing the logistical and infrastructure costs of an expanded US presence in the country, and is also intended to further other aspects of US-Polish cooperation, including investment and trade ties. Presumably the deal will also grant all US military personnel and contractors deployed with them full diplomatic privileges and immunity from Polish laws.
Several military commands will also be moved out of Germany, among them the US Army V Corps overseas headquarters. It will be based in Poland from next year.
Pompeo and Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak signed the deal, known as the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw. The US diplomat is wrapping up a tour of Central Europe, which included visits to the Czech Republic, Austria and Slovenia. LINK
Russia may not be the only objective. On Sunday the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, accused NATO of deploying tanks and planes to Belarus’ western border, a claim the military alliance rejected.
Speaking at a rally of his supporters in central Minsk, the 65-year-old leader dismissed opposition calls for a new election and urged Belarusians to defend their country.
“I called you here not to defend me, but for the first time in a quarter-century, to defend your country and its independence,” he said to a crowd of supporters, as protesters once again mobilized in several cities demanding his ouster.
NATO said it was closely monitoring events in Belarus, but denied a military buildup was underway in eastern Europe.
“NATO’s multinational presence in the eastern part of the Alliance is not a threat to any country. It is strictly defensive, proportionate, and designed to prevent conflict and preserve peace,” a NATO spokeswoman said in a statement.
Lukashenko, who has led the former Soviet state for 26 years, denies election fraud. He says foreign interference is to blame for the unrest.
“If we kowtow to them, we will go into a tailspin,” he told his supporters. “We will perish as a state, as a people, as a nation.”
Earlier on Sunday, Russia said it had offered Belarus military assistance if necessary. Moscow also said external pressure was being applied to the country, but did not say where from.
Lukashenko told state TV he would move an air assault brigade to Belarus’ western border. According to the RIA news agency, the Belarusian army also plans to hold weeklong drills to strengthen the country’s borders with Poland and Lithuania starting on Monday. LINK
At the same time, a report at Business Insider reflects the push within NATO to send more military personnel and hardware to Russia’s borders to the south.
“The Black Sea region is what the Kremlin uses (to) launch its operations in Syria and Libya and the Eastern [Mediterranean],” Ben Hodges, who commanded US Army Europe between 2015 and 2017, told Insider. “It’s how they influence everything that goes on in the Balkans and the Caucuses as well as obviously Ukraine and Moldova.”
Hodges is one of many who criticized the redeployment of European Command forces, arguing it doesn’t improve readiness and that the manner in which it’s being done hurts NATO.
“Having said that, I always welcome any additional focus on the Black Sea region, because I think that … needs to be a much higher priority,” Hodges said, adding that Esper’s suggestion that a Stryker brigade could be deployed to the region was “a very good idea.”
Increasing [NATO] naval presence in the Black Sea region really is even more important,” as the Turkish, Romanian, Bulgarian, and Ukrainian navies are “still not a match for the Russian Black Sea Fleet,” Hodges said.
In June, Adm. James Foggo, outgoing commander of US naval forces in Europe, said eight US ships spent about 120 days patrolling the Black Sea last year and ‘routinely’ conduct ‘complex exercises’ like Sea Breeze with allies and partners.
The US military has increased its presence in the area in recent years, and the 20th iteration of Sea Breeze, a Ukrainian-US exercise with other Black Sea and NATO nations, was the latest example. This year it included more than 40 ships and aircraft from eight countries. The Porter was there on its third Black Sea patrol in five months. The guided missile destroyer “conducted surface action group tactical maneuvering, over-the-horizon surface targeting, air defense, and anti-submarine operations,” Trent said.
The Porter worked with a US P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft “to share a common tactical maritime picture” and with Ukrainian tactical aircraft during the air-defense exercises.
The P-8A worked with ships and aircraft, including Ukrainian Su-27 fighter jets, on undersea warfare and air-intercept training, Cmdr. M. Trever Plageman, head of Patrol Squadron 47, told Insider. Russian planes frequently intercept US aircraft over the Black Sea, including during Sea Breeze.)
During Sea Breeze, US Air Forces Europe led a one-day mission with Navy and Space Command assets “to train US forces to integrate, operate, and communicate while executing all domain operations”.
It included F-16s that “conducted training scenarios” using Joint Air-to-Surface Missile cruise missile tactics. The JASSM is a long-range “precision standoff missile” designed “to destroy high-value, well-defended targets.” US Special Operations Command Europe also sent an MC-130J aircraft “to exercise special operations forces insertion.”
Sea Breeze concluded on July 26, but on August 2, the Navy and Air Force conducted a similar exercise in the area — with live weapons. LINK
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