As the world grapples with crafting an effective response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s illegal and immoral invasion of democratic neighbor Ukraine, three key approaches have emerged.
The third central tactic is to give Putin exactly what he doesn’t want: A more united North Atlantic Treaty Organization with far more military power close to Russia’s borders.
What is the U.S. role in catalyzing NATO and especially in stationing U.S. troops forward in Europe? What will the American military footprint in Europe look like as this crisis unfolds?
When I was supreme allied commander of NATO, with my headquarters in Mons, Belgium, I had an additional “hat” in military parlance. That was as the 15th commander of U.S. European Command, the military organization with responsibility to the U.S. president and secretary of defense for all American forces in and around Europe. In that role, my headquarters was in Stuttgart, Germany, and I split time between those two locations.
European Command has nearly 100,000 U.S. military personnel — some stationed permanently, others rotating in and out — spread over 51 countries and 21 million square miles. It includes responsibility for military activity throughout Western Europe and all NATO countries, and also in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, the Caucasus and other hot spots in the Ukrainian war. While still a massive military command today, European Command has shrunk considerably from its Cold War peak of over 400,000 troops, and its geographic footprint has shifted as well.
During my time, we were pulling troops out of Europe, both to support combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and also because we believed Europe was “whole and free.” I had a hard time trying to persuade my colleagues and bosses back in Washington that Russia still posed a significant threat to U.S. interests, and especially to NATO allies and close partners such as Georgia and Ukraine.
Our footprint continued to shrink, despite pleas from NATO partners like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, who were constantly warning me about the threat from Putin’s Russia.
Today, of course, we are in a different world. It is clearly time to move more combat power to the eastern borders of the alliance, out of the comfortable garrisons in Belgium, southwestern Germany, northern Italy and the U.S.
Doing so will militarily discourage any further Russian adventurism, particularly along the borders of NATO; encourage allies and partners in the east, notably the Baltic states and Poland; and send a strong diplomatic and political signal to Putin that his attack on Ukraine will only energize the alliance for more operations.
The best place to move additional U.S. combat power is to Poland. Poland is now a frontline state, with Russian forces conducting harsh combat operations just across the border in Ukraine. The Poles have been asking for permanently stationed U.S. forces going back to my time in Europe, and are willing to provide funding for bases and infrastructure to support our troops and their families (in the European Command, the vast majority of troops are stationed with their families on bases protected both by U.S. forces and by the host nation).
Tactically, the central location of Poland, its size and military capability, and its long and troubled history with Russia make it the obvious choice for a permanent presence to include a three-star lieutenant general commanding a corps headquarters and reporting directly to European Command.
Additional locations for ground forces would be Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on the edge of the Baltic Sea. This would include squadrons of fighter aircraft coupled with Army brigade combat teams, and the Baltic states have all indicated enthusiasm to host such units.
Estonia and Latvia border Russia directly, while Lithuania is adjacent to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad (where the Russians have stationed cruise missiles and nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles to threaten European capitals).
Finally, looking to the southeastern region of the alliance, additional combat power in Romania would be a good choice. A geographically large nation, the Romanians are staunch supporters of NATO, expert intelligence collectors, already host a missile-defense outpost, and possess a fine port in Constanta on the Black Sea. The Marine Corps has rotated forces through Romania for years; it’s time to make that presence permanent. It would also be worth considering basing a fighter squadron or several Arleigh Burke-class destroyers with the Aegis antimissile system.
The Navy already bases four such destroyers in Spain, but that’s a long way from the Russian border and the Black Sea. These highly capable multi-mission ships (with surface-attack cruise missiles) would present significant combat power and flexibility in Russia’s backyard.
In terms of additional rotational forces (as opposed to permanent basing as described above), an interesting possibility would be Finland and/or Sweden. Both are close partners to NATO, and their troops deployed to a variety of missions under my command. In both Helsinki and Stockholm, there are serious discussions underway about joining the alliance, which would welcome them. In the meantime, temporary U.S. troops to train and exercise makes sense.
All these ideas should be explored with America’s NATO partners. The British and French have indicated they are already thinking along such lines.
Putin needs to know that in addition to crushing economic sanctions and a fierce military resistance from the Ukrainians he seeks to subjugate, he will face significantly enhanced U.S. combat power on his border, alongside stronger Western European forces. It is exactly what he doesn’t want.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also chair of the board of the Rockefeller Foundation and vice chairman of Global Affairs at the Carlyle Group. His latest book is “2034: A Novel of the Next World War.”
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