The Obama administration is hearing growing calls to permanently station a substantial number of troops in Eastern Europe as a deterrent to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putting a large number of U.S. or NATO troops in Eastern Europe would violate a 1997 treaty with Russia, but those arguing for the placement say Putin already broke that treaty by backing the takeover by Russian-backed groups of Ukrainian territory.
Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is the first lawmaker to publicly support the idea, but a congressional aide said the lawmaker is working with colleagues to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg advocating for the troops. The aide did not want to delve into further details since the letter is incomplete.
“This action wouldn't violate the NATO-Russia Founding Act because once Russia changed Europe’s 'current and foreseeable security environment,' NATO was released from its pledge not to permanently station substantial additional combat forces,” Engel said in his statement, which was separate from the letter.
Aides for some congressional Republicans said their bosses would likely support the proposition.
Under 1997’s NATO-Russia Founding Act, alliance members promise not to have a “permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” in Eastern Europe. Both NATO and Russia also agreed to respect the “sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence” of any state.
The Pentagon’s former Russian policy expert late last month argued that the United States would be justified in putting troops in Eastern Europe given Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
“Russia’s broken it, but somehow we’ve decided that we and our allies are going to kind of keep up with the letter of it,” Evelyn Farkas, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, said of the 1997 treaty.
Farkas offered the views less than a week after stepping down from her post.
The United States has sent troops to Poland and the Baltic states since Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. But it’s a small number and on rotational deployments.
Stationing a larger force in Poland or the Baltics would be a much more aggressive move.
Even the rotational deployment has chafed the Kremlin, which has called NATO moves in the region “aggressive.”
The three countries that make up the Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — were part of the Soviet Union until 1991, and the Russian prosecutor-general's office examined the legality of their independence this summer.
At the Reagan National Defense Forum last weekend, Gen. Philip Breedlove, the supreme allied commander of NATO, said he’d like to see more forces sent to Europe. But those would also be rotational.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he doesn’t think the United States should honor any agreement with Russia. But he also said he thinks the rotational deployments are sufficient.
“That way you don’t have to pay for all the aspects of a permanent base, and you have all the advantages of having a troop presence there,” he said. “It’s permanent if you keep rotating troops in and out.”
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed by Congress requires the Pentagon to submit a report to Congress “setting forth an assessment of options for expanding the presence of United States ground forces” in Eastern Europe.
Among specifics that should be included the report is “a site or sites for prepositioning of equipment, a rotational presence or permanent presence of troops,” according to the NDAA.
Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said that provision, along with one providing for lethal assistance to Ukraine, are good steps for deterring Russia.
He would not rule out substantial and permanent U.S. forces in Eastern Europe, but said he hasn’t done enough research to take a position on that specific issue.
“I would still be cautious about breaking the NATO framework agreement,” he said, while conceding his belief that Russia has already broken it. “That’s definitely something you want to consult with the Pentagon and think through the policy before making that decision.”
Generally, he said, he agrees with Obama’s approach to Putin.
“It’s very, very difficult because Putin has become much more aggressive, and we need to confront that without starting a war,” Smith said. “It’s a delicate line to walk.”
Several lawmakers didn’t want to weigh in on the specific issue of permanently stationing troops in Eastern Europe, but still expressed concern that more needs to be done.
“We need a comprehensive, long-term approach that reinforces the longstanding U.S. commitment to a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a written statement. “When all NATO members develop and deploy forces capable of countering any form of aggression, the alliance will be stronger and our safety will be more secure.”