What a US military base in Poland may signal for NATO

·6 min read

As part of what’s billed as the biggest overhaul of NATO defenses since the Cold War, the United States is planning a permanent military base in Poland, its first in Eastern Europe.

While the U.S. troops headed to the new base “aren’t massive” in number, their presence “will have a pretty profound impact – an outsized impact – on security in Europe,” says John Deni, research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, the research arm of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

President Joe Biden told U.S. troops temporarily deployed to Poland earlier this year that they were “in the midst of a fight between democracies and oligarchs.”

The war in Ukraine has prompted the U.S. to reevaluate its military footprint in Eastern Europe despite a 1997 agreement, the NATO-Russia Founding Act, that ostensibly prohibits permanent U.S. bases in the region.

NATO officials have said that Moscow nullified the act with its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its invasion of Ukraine this year. For now, an evolving cooperation within NATO – symbolized by the new base – is central to achieving the alliance’s goal of security, analysts say.

But U.S. officials have also been careful to point out the to-the-letter ways in which America has not abandoned the agreement, says Gavin Hall, teaching fellow in Political Science and International Security at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.

It’s an indication, analysts add, that NATO allies haven’t lost hope in a founding act that’s still intact and could prove essential – perhaps when Russian President Vladimir Putin is no longer in power – to one day rebuilding trust and cooperation beyond the alliance, between the two superpowers themselves.

Part of broader U.S. engagement

The permanent U.S. base in Poland was the marquee item in a series of new moves the U.S. will be taking to increase its military presence across Europe.

During a major NATO meeting in Madrid on June 29, President Biden announced that the U.S. will be sending warships to Spain, fighter jet squadrons to Great Britain, troops to Romania and the Baltics, and air defense systems to Germany and Italy.

“In a moment where Putin has shattered peace in Europe and attacked the very, very tenets of the rule-based order, the United States and our allies, we’re stepping up,” Mr. Biden said.

Temporary deployments of thousands of American troops to central and Eastern Europe following the Russian invasion of Ukraine brought the U.S. force levels on the continent to roughly 100,000, up from 80,000 before February.

This is compared with some 370,000 U.S. forces in Europe in the late 1980s, before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the moves demonstrated America’s “decisive leadership” in “the midst of the most serious security crisis we have faced since the Second World War.”

President Biden “is trying to meet the moment by making these announcements and recommitting to Europe,” says Rachel Rizzo, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center. But this comes with a concern, too, that the moves could give some NATO allies “the impression that they can now back off the strides they’ve made over the last few years,” she warns.

These strides include hiking defense spending among NATO allies up to 2% of their gross domestic product, measures called for by the U.S. and designed in part to counter the impression among many that “Europeans don’t view themselves – or each other – as legitimate security actors,” Ms. Rizzo says. “And Putin doesn’t either.”

As a result, there’s a widespread sense that “if Europe is to be defended, it’s the U.S. that has to be present,” she adds.

But while it’s true that the gold standard of deterrence has long been U.S. boots on the ground, Eastern European countries like Poland, in particular, have been bolstering their defense posture in “impressive” ways, says Luke Coffey, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

In fact, the planned U.S. base accentuates what’s already a source of tension for Russia: the way that Poland, historically cast in the role of a buffer zone between Russia and Germany, has shifted since 1989 from being a Soviet ally to a full-fledged member of NATO, starting in 1999.

Poland announced plans last month to increase its defense spending to 5% of its GDP. “They take defense seriously. If anything [the permanent U.S. base in Poland] is a reward for good behavior for countries who’ve shown a genuine commitment to the alliance,” Mr. Coffey says.

Still, history has shown that U.S. troops on the continent lessen the chances of wider war, he argues.

“Obviously, outside areas of NATO responsibility there’s been fighting. But in areas where the U.S. has a military presence there has been relative peace, security, and stability,” he says. “It’s because of the large U.S. military presence in Europe that most of the continent has experienced relative peace for the past seven-and-a-half decades.”

“A big deal” as a precedent

Located at the permanent U.S. base will be the headquarters of the U.S. Army’s V Corps, consisting of some 600 to 800 troops.

These forces will “qualitatively improve” U.S. operations in Europe, the U.S. Army War College’s Dr. Deni says, especially when it comes to so-called command and control capabilities. This includes directing the use of the U.S. military’s resources on the continent, including tanks, cyber teams, logistical operations, and air power.

“U.S. Army headquarters in Europe was frankly really strapped trying to pull off this mission of telling brigades what to do when it came to looking at all the big intelligence picture and signals we get from around the theater,” Dr. Deni says.

Establishing a permanent U.S. military base in Poland is also “significant as the first step towards the possibility of other permanent presence across Eastern Europe,” he adds. “This is precedent, and frankly I kind of hope that Moscow perceives it this way – we want them to perceive this as a big deal.”

At the same time, U.S. officials have also taken care to not abandon the NATO-Russia Founding Act completely. U.S. officials were quick to point out that the V Corps forces are not combat troops, which are prohibited under the parameters of the act.

Keeping some semblance of the act intact is important for future security in Europe, Mr. Hall says.

It is part of a strategy outlined in a pivotal 1967 NATO document called the Harmel Report, which emphasizes the necessity of both deterrence and detente. The ideal, it argues, is to maintain military strength and political solidarity to deter aggression, while simultaneously pursuing, as the report puts it, a “search for progress towards a more stable relationship in which the underlying political issues can be solved.”

NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg “has referred to this repeatedly,” Mr. Hall says. “You present a nice, strong, united front – which arguably this permanent U.S. base is. This enhances NATO’s ability to defend itself. But you also pursue detente to try to influence Russia’s actions.”

Having a founding act “that can at least be reformed and renegotiated with Russia,” he adds, “is signaling some kind of hope that it could be used to rebuild cooperation and trust – someday.”

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