U.S. Troop Reduction in Europe Has NATO Commander Calling for ‘Pause’

By Patrick Goodenough | April 17, 2014 | 5:43 AM EDT

Supreme Allied Commander Europe, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove. (AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere, File)

(CNSNews.com) – NATO announced Wednesday that it is enhancing its military footprint on its eastern flank, and the alliance’s top military commander in Europe hinted that in light of Russia’s recent aggression, it is “important that we take a pause and determine what is appropriate for [the size of] U.S. forces in Europe.”

The number of U.S. troops in Europe has dropped dramatically since the Soviet Union collapsed. More recently, the Obama administration has touted its “pivot” to Asia.

Supreme Allied Commander Europe Gen. Philip Breedlove, a U.S. Air Force general, was asked if the number of U.S. forces stationed in Europe should remain at current levels, or whether it would be a mistake to draw down substantially.

“I’ve said before that I think that what has changed now, in relation to this new paradigm that we have seen in the activity of the Russian forces, it’s important that we now take a pause and determine what is appropriate for U.S. forces in Europe, and I’m having those conversations with my capital,” he replied.

“We have seen a Russia force that exercised, brought itself to high readiness, positioned itself on a border, and then came across an international border, imposed its will on a sovereign nation, and now has annexed a portion of that sovereign nation,” Breedlove said. “That changes things. We need to now take measures to assure our allies of our complete commitment to our article five collective defense, and that’s what these measures today are about.”

At of the end of 2013 the U.S. had just under 67,000 military personnel stationed in Europe, down from some 350,000 stationed there in the last decade. Most of those American troops were in Germany (40,300), Italy (almost 11,000), and Britain (9,500).

Under article five of the North Atlantic Treaty, an attack on any member is considered an attack on all. Ukraine is not a member of the alliance, but a number of countries formerly in the Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact have joined since 1999.

Breedlove said a number of member-states have offered assets for the newly-announced reinforcement move.

“I’m very pleased from the offers from the nations; we’ve had offers even today for land components, sea components and air components. They are all important. I think it’s very important to show how broadly this is being supported.”

NATO sending a message

On the eve of crucial talks in Geneva Thursday on the Ukraine crisis, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen outlined a decision by alliance members, designed to send a message that NATO “will protect every ally and defend against any threat against our fundamental security.”

“We will have more planes in the air, more ships on the water, and more readiness on the land,” he said in Brussels. “For example, air policing aircraft will fly more sorties over the Baltic region. Allied ships will deploy to the Baltic Sea, the eastern Mediterranean and elsewhere, as required.”

Rasmussen said NATO would begin to implement the steps immediately, and that further measures would follow, if necessary, in the weeks and months ahead.

Breedlove, speaking to reporters separately about the plans, was asked whether Russia may see the measures as a provocation.

He conceded that “in any case it’s always a chance that you run that something might be misinterpreted, but we specifically designed these measures to assure our allies only, and to be clearly seen as defensive in nature.”

Geneva talks

Secretary of State John Kerry was due to meet in Geneva Thursday with his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts and European Union foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton to seek a path ahead in a situation which Rasmussen last month described as “the gravest threat to European security and stability since the end of the Cold War.”

The U.S. wants Russia to withdraw an estimated 40,000 troops deployed near Ukraine’s border and to stop what it says is Moscow’s active destabilization of eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian groups have seized government facilities.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to advance President Vladimir Putin’s position that Ukraine is on the verge of civil war, precipitated by the ousting of the pro-Russian former president, Viktor Yanukovich, in February.

The fact that the Kremlin has agreed to a meeting that also involves a representative of the interim Ukrainian government – Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia – is in itself seen as a good sign, since it has characterized the Kiev administration as an illegitimate group working in cahoots with ultra-rightwing thugs.

Asked whether making the announcement of stepped-up armed presence on the eve of the Geneva meeting would risk provoking Russia, Rasmussen replied that the alliance members “have now taken steps, military steps that we think at this stage are necessary to ensure effective collective defense and deterrence. But having said that, we do hope that the Geneva talks will pave the way for a peaceful and political solution to the crisis.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow