United States European Command (EUCOM) quietly announced last week that it was stepping up the U.S. presence in Eastern Europe in the face of an “aggressive Russia.” Starting February 2017, U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR) “will begin receiving continuous troop rotations of U.S.-based armored brigade combat teams.” This might not seem like a big deal. The U.S. has had a continual troop presence in Europe since the end of World War II. But it is a big deal.
For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. is sending thousands of troops and heavy weaponry back to Eastern Europe, reversing the slow draw down that has been occurring since the fall of the the Berlin Wall. These are not soldiers already stationed in Germany being re-stationed further east. These are soldiers who are going to be deployed from bases in the United States for nine-month rotations through NATO member states including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland.
This also includes storing static equipment in Europe for use in contingency operations, according to EUCOM commander General Phil Breedlove. A contingency operation, as defined by the Department of Defense, is a military operation that “(A) is designated by the Secretary of Defense as an operation in which members of the armed forces are or may become involved in military actions, operations, or hostilities against an enemy of the United States or against an opposing military force; or (B) results in the call or order to, or retention on, active duty of members of the uniformed services…during a war or during a national emergency declared by the President or Congress.”
The civilian translation: these weapons are being permanently stored in Europe so that if the United States becomes engaged in a war or any other type military action against an adversary (say…Russia) they have some tools on hand. This includes 250 tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, M109 Howitzers and about 1,700 other vehicles. EUCOM stressed that the weaponry sent over will be the most modern the U.S. Army has to offer and that it will be replacing the dated equipment currently on hand in the European theater.
In a time where the Pentagon has increasingly funneled its considerable resources to the Middle East and Southeast Asia and placed a much greater focus on special operations, a proposal to quadruple the European defense budget and place more emphasis on conventional warfare is a big deal. CENTCOM (U.S. Central Command) and SOCOM (United States Special Operations Command) have become such focal points of U.S. military and foreign policy, it’s actually a little surprising to hear something about EUCOM that isn’t ceremonial.
NATO, not usually a hot topic in US Presidential elections, has been on the chopping block this election cycle since Donald Trump dismissed it as irrelevant and all his opponents (Republican and Democratic) rushed to defend it. While few of the candidates–or any major U.S. politicians–have devoted much time or attention to the threat posed by Russia, none have downplayed it to the level that Trump has. Perhaps it’s because of the amicable relationship between trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Perhaps it’s because Trump is ignorant of foreign policy and the complexity of U.S. military and diplomatic relations. Perhaps it’s because he wants votes, and the existential threat posed by Russia just doesn’t whip up a crowd the same way talking about destroying ISIS does.
What is clear is that the military sees heading off Russia as a priority. In a recent hearing on the hill, Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark A. Milley said: “In my view, Russia is the number 1 threat to the United States. They are the only country on Earth that has the capability to be an existential threat to the United States. In addition to having the capability, they have also demonstrated aggressive intent, at least since 2008, by invading countries and using national power in ways that are not favorable to U.S. interests.”
And while it might be easy to say that NATO is obsolete from far away, I doubt the Estonians feel the same way (and by the way, Mr. Trump, they do meet their required NATO member dues each year).
Again I ask–who benefits from the discord between U.S. military and political priorities? All roads lead back to Putin.