National Security & Defense

Trump’s Polish Defense Deal

Polish and U.S. troops check weapons before an exercise at the Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area in Drawsko Pomorskie, Poland, April 1, 2019. (Staff Sergeant Michael Eaddy/US Army)
It won’t be Fort Trump, but it’s still a good beginning.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have dedicated a settlement “Trump Heights” in honor of the U.S. president, but pipe dreams of a Fort Trump in Poland have effectively been quashed — by Trump himself, no less.

The idea was first floated last year by controversial Polish president Andrzej Duda. During a visit from Duda last week, Trump announced a new agreement for U.S. military involvement in Poland. The plan’s central point is the addition of a thousand U.S. troops to the roughly 4,500 already rotating through Poland. While the compromise was touted as a success by both the Polish and the U.S. administrations, the U.S.–Poland deal falls short of Duda’s dream of a Fort Trump, due to both practical and doctrinal obstacles. But ultimately, the compromise strikes the right balance.

What would the case for such a base have been? Poland would likely be a major avenue for any Russian incursion into Europe. The small Russian exclave of Kaliningrad borders directly on Poland, and it houses thousands of ground troops, not to mention anti-aircraft weaponry as well as air and naval forces. For years, the U.S. has expressed disapproval of the strong and growing Russian military presence in Kaliningrad, but Russia doesn’t seem to be backing down. The military threat in Kaliningrad should not be underestimated, and Kaliningrad’s obvious strategic importance is as a gate to Poland, and thus to Europe and NATO.

Nevertheless, Kaliningrad is small, and any massive land incursion — i.e., any incursion large enough to be successful in a conflict with NATO — would likely have to come from the main body of Russia and so would have to cross through the small NATO states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania before marching into Poland. It is highly doubtful that any of those nations would be able to support the kind of large-scale, permanent base that Duda had proposed, so Poland would still seem the obvious location for a physical deterrent to Russian aggression. But it turns out that Poland couldn’t support Fort Trump, either.

Army Secretary Mark Esper concluded as much after considering the Polish proposal. The space the Polish government was prepared to provide was nowhere near sufficient for a full-scale base, and while the financial commitment of the Polish government was sizable ($2 billion), there is no guarantee that this would cover the costs of such a massive project. A permanent project would almost certainly require significant financial contributions from the U.S., sooner or later.

Beyond the logistical difficulties, there’s a problem of NATO policy and norms here. The Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation, and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation (1997) states, “In the current and foreseeable security environment, NATO plans to carry out its collective defence and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces. Accordingly, the Alliance will have to rely on adequate infrastructure to allow for reinforcement if necessary.” This doctrine has guided the American practice of cycling troops through Poland on a constant (but rotational and thus technically “impermanent”) basis, while maintaining longstanding posts in Germany as the base of U.S. forces in Europe. Poland has clearly determined that this guideline is no longer binding, either because we have moved beyond “the current and foreseeable security environment” of 1997 or because of some general perception of relaxed standards for meeting NATO commitments.

Hence the more limited deal struck between Duda and Trump. Yet even that agreement has drawn criticism from two opposing sides. One camp argues that it increases the already outsized American role in the defense of NATO’s European frontier; another that it fails to adequately protect that frontier against possible attack. Neither objection ultimately withstands scrutiny.

In an analysis at The Hill, Daniel DePetris argues that the U.S. should not provide any further military support to NATO until other member states start paying their fair share. The U.S. is one of only five member states out of 28 that actually meet the minimum defense-spending threshold of 2 percent of GDP. In fact, at 3.6 percent of its own GDP and 71.7 percent of NATO’s total defense spending, the U.S. is paying well above its fair share. But DePetris quickly glances over the fact that one of the other four non-delinquent countries is . . . you guessed it, Poland. More than just meeting its NATO obligation, Poland has actually spent billions of dollars in recent years to augment its own national-defense systems with American technology. Rather than focusing on these facts, and the inclination they should inspire in us to work with Poland especially, DePetris uses the recent agreement as a jumping-off point to discuss the delinquency of one of NATO’s most negligent members: Germany. He justifies his imprecision with a shockingly blatant dismissal: “The details are less important than the general picture.”

Actually, the details are pretty important. For one thing, the additional troops being sent to Poland will be drawn from the many thousands currently stationed in Germany. Beside the obvious strategic advantages of a strong presence in Poland, the removal of a thousand troops in favor of a more cooperative and supportive ally should send a clear message to German leaders. Given how important and established our German bases are, and considering the various other limitations on American action here, such a relatively small, symbolic action is probably all we can afford at the moment. But it could be enough to light a fire under some rear ends in Berlin.

The opposite objection — that the escalation doesn’t go far enough — has a kernel of legitimacy, too. If Russia ever does invade Poland, a thousand extra U.S. soldiers probably won’t tip the scales in Poland’s favor. But, just as the move sends a message to apathetic allies, it sends another to our more ambitious rivals: If we can place these troops here, we can place more, and we won’t be afraid to do it if the need arises. It is more a deterrent than an actual defense plan in the event of an invasion.

The kind of large-scale operation that Duda requested would be plausible only in such an event. In the meantime, a show of strength to Russia and of friendship to Poland is a step in the right direction. We need to be ready for major military action in defense of Poland and to make our readiness known. An invasion is unlikely, certainly, but Russian military activity in Kaliningrad suggests that we can’t afford to be naïve about the possibility. They may not be planning an invasion, but they have certainly prepared for one. We would be foolish not to do the same.

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