Trump’s explanation to reporters announced by Defense Minister Mark Esper on Wednesday morning misinformed how NATO works and contradicted its own military officials, raising questions about which strategy, if any, led decision.
Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah described Trump’s move as a “gift to Russia” and a “slap in the face with a friend and ally.” Romney added that “the consequences will be lasting and detrimental to American interests.”
Rep. Texas-based Mac Thornberry, a senior Republican on the Domestic Armed Forces Committee, said aspects of the move, including the ceiling for US personnel in Germany, were “worrying.”;
Rachel Rizzo, director of programs at the Truman National Security Project, which specializes in European security, said: “It is difficult, if not impossible, to see any benefits.”
A retired former U.S. military commander in Europe, Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, said he was “sick” by the decision and explanation. It is not tied to any strategic advantage and is, in fact, counterproductive to demonstrating strength in Europe. . “
Retired US Naval Officer Jim Stravidis, a former senior military commander in Europe and NATO, said that “the sudden withdrawal of 12,500 troops from Germany (to spend half of them in countries that spend less) for defense makes financial sense of NATO solidarity financially detrimental and it’s a gift [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. ”
The removal of US troops from Germany is pulling them from a central location with a sophisticated transport and logistics network that speeds up the movement of troops and equipment in Europe and beyond, which Russian analysts say allows for a strong counterweight.
Reducing the US footprint in Germany could squander billions spent on recent improvements to US military facilities and require replication of those resources elsewhere to millions. Military analysts argue, among other things, that replacing permanent units with rotational forces can make training in host countries more demanding and moral.
Trump himself seems to have underlined this Wednesday of thinking that the reduction in troops is due to Berlin’s failure to meet defense spending targets and not to the strategic reasons that Esper set when announcing the move, which included fighting Moscow .
The president last spoke to Putin last Friday, the latest in a series of phone calls Marshall Cohen documented to CNN as the most persistent period of contact between the two leaders. In an interview released Wednesday, Trump told Axios that in the conversation he did not pick up US intelligence that Moscow had offered a reward to Taliban fighters to kill US troops in Afghanistan.
It is unclear whether the two leaders discussed Trump’s plan to reduce the US military presence in Germany, which was supposed to be a wall against possible Russian aggression. After Esper announced the withdrawal of troops, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, an evaluation Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said “champagne must flow freely in the Kremlin tonight.”
Esper explained that the current plan is to move about 11,900 military personnel from Germany, reducing the number from about 36,000 to 24,000. Of the soldiers leaving Germany, about 5,400 will “stay in Europe,” the US defense chief said. The remaining 6,400 forces and their families will return to the United States and move to Europe in time.
Although Esper said the move was intended to help deter Russia, US troops did not appear to be permanently relocated to countries closest to NATO’s eastern border with Russia, despite the countries’ long-standing demands for such forces.
Italy and Belgium
The president of one of these countries, Lithuania, posted on Twitter: “We are ready to accept more American soldiers.”
However, the vast majority of troops remaining in Europe will move to Italy or Belgium instead, without being deployed to countries most concerned about the Russian threat.
“There are or may be other opportunities to move more forces to Poland and the Baltics,” Esper said, without offering them much specifics.
Removing US troops from Germany will take them from what Jeff Rathke, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University, calls “the best place to operate. The German logistics network, to which the US has access, is very sophisticated – airports and bases, a rail network that allows the US to move equipment. ‘ ”
Germany is also “the central place from which the United States can move,” Rathke said. Rathke pointed to the connection between the German location and transport and logistics. “It simply came to our notice then. They do not exist in Poland or in the east. ”
Menendez said in a statement that Germany allowed not only “to step up efforts to be present ahead in Eastern Europe to confront Russia”, but also “US security interests in the Middle East and Africa.”
“This platform is not easy to replicate elsewhere,” Menendez said.
There is also the question of how much it will cost American taxpayers at a time of record deficits in the US. The military move will potentially cost “several billion dollars,” Esper said on Wednesday.
The Pentagon would walk away from the billions spent between 2004 and 2011 to modernize to secure and consolidate key U.S. military sites in Germany, Hertling said, only to replicate facilities such as housing, schools, headquarters and barracks in new locations.
Rathke emphasizes that there are also costs to return troops back to the United States. “If you are going to bring people back from Germany, where to place them and you have a budget, whether it is housing or basic infrastructure for those returning from Europe.”
NATO said in a statement that the communication “emphasizes that the United States continues its commitment to NATO and European security.”
However, Hertling said that “what is clear to me – after 12 years in Germany and participation in the last change in force structure in 2004-2011 – is not a” strategic “step.” Instead, he said: “it is destructive and affects preparedness. .. especially if it all happens without a prior plan. “
“The Punishment of Merkel”
In addition, Hertling was among many who claimed that the president’s decision was to “punish Merkel” and “it is a specifically directed personal insult from Trump to our great and very supportive ally Germany.”
Agathe Demarais, director of global forecasting at The Economist Intelligence Unit, said the move was part of a broader story of disintegration in US-German relations, “partly due to mutual hostility between the political leaders of the two countries.” Merkel and Trump “are different characters and have not been able to build any kind of relationship since Trump was formed in 2016.”
The Germans themselves stressed that in the withdrawal of American troops, the Trump administration seems to be working against some of the set goals.
“With the withdrawal of 12,000 troops from Germany, the United States has achieved the exact opposite of what Esper had suggested,” Norbert Roettgen, a reliable ally of Merkel, tweeted on Wednesday, Germany’s Foreign Affairs Committee. “Instead of strengthening # NATO, it will weaken the alliance,” Roettgen said. “US military influence will not increase, but will decrease in relation to Russia and the Middle East.”
In Bavaria, which hosts several U.S. elementary states, the state governor, a member of the Conservative Merkel Group, said: “We very much regret the decision of the US government.”
“Unfortunately, this is seriously damaging German-American relations,” said Markus Soeder. “Military benefits cannot be seen. It weakens NATO and the United States itself. “
Fred Pleitgen at CNN in Berlin contributed to this report.