Five years ago, the US troops stationed in Poland could fit on a bus. That was before shadowy, insignia-less soldiers crossed from Russia into the Ukraine, annexing the Crimean peninsula. Aghast at Moscow’s seizure of sovereign land, the West began a concerted, if cautious, military build-up in Eastern Europe. But now, a more decisive step forward – one thousand extra American soldiers are to be deployed on Polish soil. It’s a modest move, some believe, but one that reflects the mounting anxiety over Russian aggression.
For a year now, Poland has been trying to coax President Trump into upping his military presence. Warsaw’s head man, Andrzej Duda, knows how to entice his US counterpart: money, loyalty, praise. He’s willing to foot the bill for a new base – around $2bn – and has appealed to the President’s swollen ego, offering to name it ‘Fort Trump’. And it seems to have paid off for the Pole – precise details of new US facilities, which, according to Mr Trump, will be “very beautiful”, are now being firmed up.
But the White House’s commitment falls short of Duda’s ultimate goal: a permanent US deployment in Poland. Instead of an embedded division, he’s getting 1,000 extra American troops, who will join the 4,500 already rotating in and out of the country. There will be a squadron of Reaper drones, a helicopter brigade, and a smattering of special forces units also.
Each will serve as a tripwire should Russia mount an invasion – a prospect the Poles are taking seriously. The Kremlin is “definitely very, very aggressive,” says General Rajmund Andrzejczak, Warsaw’s army chief. Unlike their Central European neighbours (and even some of their Eastern ones) Poland shares a land border with Russia. Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave, which sits on the nation’s northeast frontier, and is home to some of Moscow’s most advanced nuclear-capable Iskander missiles.
The arithmetic is less clear for America’s mercurial leader, who seems rather fond of Mr Putin. But having grudgingly endorsed the NATO framework, Trump is keen to cosy up with his European allies – so long as they pay their bills. Alliance members are obliged to meet 2% GDP expenditure on defence, a pledge each renewed in 2014 but only a fraction fulfil. Poland is one of them, having embarked upon an American-built spending spree this summer (rocket launchers, planes, air defence systems). By 2030, the plucky Eastern European state plans to hit 2.5%.
Germany, by contrast, is lagging behind. Come January 2024, forecasts suggest just 1.5% of Berlin’s budget will be arms-related – billions of dollars short of their NATO commitments. Little coincidence then that the US troops destined for Poland will be shifted from German garrisons. Ever the wily businessman, Mr Trump is frustrated with allies not pulling their weight – the US accounts for two-thirds of NATO’s expenditure – and seems happy to punish the most egregious under-spenders.
But not all are convinced. General Ben Hodges, a former US Army commander, believes Germany to be America’s most important European ally, having built up a complex military and bureaucratic framework in the country since 1945. To achieve any semblance of this on Polish soil would take not just time, but stratospheric sums of money.
Indeed, the American contingent presently based in Poland endure a distinctly sub-par infrastructure. About a quarter live in a tent city near the town of Powidz, suffering spotty internet service and dismal water pressure. Duda’s accord with Trump will hope to address these shortcomings, experts say, focusing closely on development and longevity.
“[The agreement] ensures the long-term sustainability and support of American forces in Poland,” says Ray Wojcik, Warsaw Director at the Center for European Policy Analysis. “[It also] emphasizes that more is needed to prepare for the sustained, robust, and enduring presence of US forces in Poland.”
But what Poles deem military peace-of-mind, the Russians interpret as provocation – and not without good reason. In 1997, NATO promised it would not permanently station troops in Eastern Europe, a commitment now hanging by a thread. Senior officials would argue that Russia’s Crimean land grab changed the rules of the game – but Moscow is clear in its belief that America is threatening regional stability.
Regardless of who is at fault, the permanent deployment proposition can’t escape a central fallacy: if the Russians come, a temporary detachment will serve the tripwire purpose just as effectively. Rotational or otherwise, if an American unit is engaged, a response will be forthcoming and matters will escalate. Deterrence is about force, but it can also be an exercise in diminishing returns.
This will mean little to the Poles, who value strength and security above all else. Theirs is blood-soaked history, a country carved up by bigger neighbours time and again. In Trump, they see a man who can offer permanent protection. But the cost could be high. A bump in NATO’s regional presence might be justified by Russian belligerence – but it also invites challenge. One miscalculation, and the consequences could be historic.