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Poland in the middle: Its push for US troops may alienate Germany and Russia

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Poland finds itself in a bind. For the past two years, Warsaw has lobbied Washington for an increase in American troop presence on its territory. It now appears likely that it will get at least some of what it wants, but that could be at the expense of America’s presence in Germany. Should that happen, Warsaw would find itself at odds with its economically powerful neighbor, a circumstance that — given the tragic history of German-Polish relations — the Polish government wishes to avoid. 

Not surprisingly, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki made clear, “It is not [Poland’s] intention to achieve this goal [of a force increase] at the expense of reducing the American contingent in Germany.”

Poland has been a model NATO ally, meeting President Trump’s demand that member states allocate 2 percent of their budgets to national defense. It is acquiring expensive American weapons systems — another of Trump’s desiderata — notably Patriot missiles and 32 F-35A fighters. And it is currently hosting NATO’s major exercise, Defender-Europe 2020.

Polish efforts to ramp up the American military presence on its territory accelerated in September 2018 when President Andrzej Duda offered $2 billion to help defray the costs of  housing a full U.S. Army division in his country. Duda’s proposal quickly came to be  nicknamed “Fort Trump.” The Polish president is one of Trump’s favorites, perhaps not surprisingly, given Poland’s defense spending; the nickname was certain to further endear Duda to his American counterpart.

It soon became clear, however, that the proposed Polish contribution would fall far short of the actual cost of moving and stationing a division in Poland. Moreover, it was not at all evident where the troops would come from. Needless to say, Moscow’s reaction to the proposal was one of unalloyed fury.

Within a year, Duda’s proposal had been significantly trimmed down. Instead of beefing up its forces in Poland to a full division, Washington agreed to add another 1,000 troops to the 4,500 of the armored brigade combat team that it had been rotating into the country. The additional forces would involve transforming an Army mission-command element in Poznan into a forward deployed division headquarters, as well as pre-positioning equipment for a second armored brigade combat team, and deploying to Poland both a Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle squadron and logistics units.

Warsaw did not give up its effort to station additional American troops on Polish soil, however. It won the support of both Ambassador Georgette Mosbacher and Richard Grenell, while he was serving as ambassador to Germany. Earlier this year, Mosbacher tweeted, “Poland meets its 2% of GDP spending obligation towards NATO. Germany does not. We would welcome American troops to come to Poland.” Grenell offered similar comments from his station in Berlin. 

Poland’s efforts now appear to have succeeded. On June 11,  just as it was being reported that President Trump planned to withdraw troops from Germany, Mosbacher tweeted that the “vision for increased U.S. presence in Poland will be even greater than originally outlined,” and that an announcement of specific details for realizing that “vision” would be “coming soon.”

Trump’s formal announcement that he plans to cap America’s Army presence in Germany at 25,000, thereby releasing 9,500 troops for redeployment elsewhere, coupled with Mosbacher’s tweets, indeed appears to indicate that some or all of those troops will move to Poland. Nevertheless, Warsaw rightly wishes to avoid friction with Germany. Poland’s greatest nightmare is once again to have to confront hostility from its powerful eastern and western neighbors. After all, Germany and Russia carved up Poland three times in the 18th century and then again in 1939. Poland can ill afford to alienate Germany while it faces an ever-increasing threat from Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

There is a strong case to be made for stationing additional American troops in Poland. They should not be redeployed from Germany, however. Given Putin’s hostility toward NATO, now is not the time to reduce America’s presence in that country — and certainly not the time to engender friction between two of NATO’s most important member states and major American allies.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Andrzej Duda Donald Trump Georgette Mosbacher Germany NATO Poland Richard Grenell Russia US armed forces Vladimir Putin

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