David Herszenhorn, Politico, 30.05.2018
Poland's bit to put US boots on ground is the kind of bilateral play that makes Brussels very nervous.
It’s the kind of HUGE deal that Donald Trump promised would be a hallmark of his presidency: Poland wants a U.S. Army armored division permanently stationed on its territory as a deterrent against Russia, and it’s willing to pay up to $2 billion to make it happen. Warsaw’s pitch, in a 17-page proposal obtained by the Polish news portal Onet, even flatters Trump by quoting abundantly from a speech he gave during a visit to Poland in July 2017.
Potentially even more appealing for the American president is the bilateral nature of the deal — an offer directly from Warsaw to Washington that’s outside NATO and the EU, which Trump has derided as cumbersome and providing more benefit to Europe than to the U.S. on everything from security to trade.
But the same aspects of the plan that may prove irresistible to the self-styled dealmaker-in-chief make it fraught for NATO and EU allies. On Russia, they have carefully coordinated policy, including military deployments and economic sanctions, to show a united Western response since Moscow’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014.
More broadly, the prospect of Trump suddenly cutting bilateral military deals threatens to shake a European system that has viewed its multilateral framework as a crucial safeguard since the end of World War II. The push by Poland — one of just five countries (including the U.S.) that meet NATO’s military spending target — also reflects a rise in prominence of the new, eastern members of the alliance, which favor a more aggressive posture toward Russia.
Asked about the possibility of provoking the Kremlin by establishing a permanent base in the former Eastern Bloc, a defense ministry official from a Western European nation expressed alarm. “We try to avoid the question — not even proposing it,” the official said.
The Polish proposal not only breaks that taboo but also disputes the legal basis of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, an agreement intended to ease tensions and bolster cooperation among the former Cold War rivals. Warsaw’s pitch to Trump also calls on the U.S. to consider “moot” a provision that would seem to bar the “permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” in Central and Eastern European countries.
“The Act is not a legally binding document,” the Polish Ministry of National Defense writes in the proposal. “Additionally, by engaging in increasingly aggressive hostilities toward NATO states since the Act’s signing, Moscow has definitively created a new geopolitical status quo that is no longer consistent with the ‘current and foreseeable security environment’ of 1997.”
Warsaw ‘s approach has been savvy. Rather than relying on the White House, Polish officials pitched their idea to a delegation of influential members of Congress who visited Poland last week along with the deputy commander of U.S. Army Europe, Major General Timothy McGuire.
Senator James Inhofe, a senior member of the Senate armed services committee, who led the trip, added a provision to the annual defense authorization legislation that would require the Pentagon to conduct a feasibility study into a permanent base. That provision is supported by the committee chairman, Senator John McCain, the former Republican presidential nominee who is a hawk on Russia policy.
In a statement, Inhofe said, “As Russia’s aggression grows, they are not only a concern to the United States, but also to our allies, including Poland.” He added, “By visiting with our troops and partners in the region, it confirmed the importance of strengthening our diplomatic and military presence in Eastern Europe to counter Russia’s increasing reach and influence. I look forward to working with the Trump administration to advance our ties even further.”
But the issue is potentially so problematic for some allies that NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg seemed to go out of his way to avoid discussing it during a visit to Warsaw on Monday. Neither Stoltenberg nor Polish President Andrzej Duda addressed the issue at a joint news conference.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (left) and Polish President Andrzej Duda attend a meeting in Warsaw on May 28, 2018
A U.S. military official in Europe also declined to comment. “We have nothing to say about this,” the official said. “It’s a political issue.”
Poland already hosts one of four multinational NATO battle groups in Eastern Europe as a temporary, “advanced forward presence” that’s intended as a deterrent against Russia. Altogether, those battle groups involve some 4,500 soldiers.
“Your questions refer to proposals made at the national level in Allied countries,” a NATO official said in response to an inquiry about how the alliance views the Polish plan. “That’s why at this stage we would refer you to the national authorities.”
NATO diplomats said that neither Poland nor the U.S. has yet raised the idea at alliance headquarters in Brussels.
Publicly, diplomats declined to comment on Poland’s idea, but privately some expressed concerns about it as a potential violation of the NATO-Russia Foundation Act, and for setting a precedent for independent action on Russia policy. There is also some annoyance at the way the Poles have played to Trump’s demands for increased military spending.
“It certainly fits with Trump’s philosophy,” a diplomat from one wealthy NATO country said. “If you want more security, you should pay for it.”
A NATO diplomat from a Nordic country said the Polish proposal is not yet a topic of conversation within the alliance. “If and how it will play into the burden-sharing discussion remains to be seen,” the Nordic diplomat said.
The lack of discussion at NATO shows how the alliance acts in concert when it is politically expedient to do so, such as in support of the U.S.-led military mission in Afghanistan, but falls back on the sovereignty of independent allies when that approach is more convenient, such as on decisions of whether to supply weapons to Ukraine.
Poland, which has clashed with Brussels in recent months over rule-of-law concerns, is something of an EU renegade when it comes to relations with the U.S. Warsaw has voiced skepticism about the EU’s push to preserve the Iran nuclear deal, a position that some European officials view more as of an effort to curry favor with Trump than a principled stand against Iran.
Poland’s base proposal has also exposed the split between allies, particularly those in Eastern Europe and the Baltics that perceive the Russian threat most acutely, and those further West, who do not feel as great a direct risk.
In a statement, Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis praised the idea of a larger, permanent U.S. deployment.
“Increased U.S. military presence in our region would substantially enahnce NATO’s deterrence and defence posture and is therefore very much in line with Lithuania’s security interests,” Karoblis said.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, has voiced mild annoyance. “In general, when we consider the gradual expansion of NATO’s military structure towards our borders, the immediate approximation of NATO’s military structure to our borders — this, of course, in no way contributes to the security and stability on the Continent,” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said, according to Russian news services.
Peskov acknowledged Poland’s sovereign right to invite American forces to be stationed on its territory, but he added, “If such decisions are made, the consequences for the overall security atmosphere on the Continent are, of course, obvious.”
Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.