The future of America’s long-term troop presence in Europe came into focus Wednesday as President Biden announced plans to permanently place fresh U.S. personnel in Poland and air defense batteries in Italy and Germany, and take a host of other steps as NATO reinforces its front line while relations with Russia deteriorate in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
The deployments, announced during this week’s high-stakes NATO summit in Madrid, provide some answers to lingering questions about the Pentagon’s plans in Europe during the Russia-Ukraine war, which appears destined to drag on for months or perhaps years.
The number of U.S. forces in Europe has ballooned from about 65,000 to more than 100,000 in the four months since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his attack on Ukraine. Military officials have been dogged by questions about how long those forces will remain on the continent and what metrics the Pentagon might use to determine when some could redeploy to other theaters or return home.
The announcement Wednesday makes clear that the U.S. is prepared to enhance its presence in Europe for the foreseeable future. The move is sure to anger the Kremlin and ratchet up tensions between Russia and the West.
“The United States and our allies, we are going to step up — we are stepping up. We’re proving that NATO is more needed now than it ever has been and is as important as it ever has been,” Mr. Biden said.
The move complicates American hopes to broaden NATO’s focus and prepare for conflicts beyond the traditional mission of defending Europe against a Russian invasion. In their updated strategic doctrine in Madrid, the NATO countries singled out a rising China as a “source of systemic competition” to the alliance and its values — largely overlooked during the focus on Ukraine, Russia and Eastern Europe. It was the first time in NATO’s 75-year history that the China challenge had even been mentioned.
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The most notable move from the summit will be in Poland, where the Pentagon will establish permanent headquarters for the 5th Army Corps. The U.S. also will ramp up its rotational troop deployments and command-and-control capabilities inside Poland, which would help coordinate Western defenses in the event of a Russian attack on any Eastern European nation, officials said.
Poland has a close view of the fighting across the border and has taken in millions of Ukrainian civilians. It has been among the most vocal NATO states arguing for a tougher stance against Russian aggression.
The idea of substantial increases in the U.S. military footprint in Poland has been discussed for years. Under President Trump, Polish officials promised a permanent base dubbed “Fort Trump,” constructed and funded by the Polish government and staffed by U.S. personnel.
Despite early momentum, that idea never got off the ground. Critics said it was just another example of Mr. Trump seeking to promote his name and brand.
The Biden administration made clear Wednesday that it views Poland as a vital piece of NATO defenses and an ideal candidate to host more U.S. troops.
“Poland is a strong NATO ally. It has made its own decisions on increasing defense spending, on increasing its own combat capability, on modernizing its defense forces. And so the bilateral partnership that the United States has and the enhanced presence we will now have in Poland supports the broader NATO capabilities,” Celeste Wallander, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, told reporters.
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Indeed, the country has proved to be an irreplaceable part of NATO security and Western military assistance to Ukrainian forces on the front lines of battle. Western weapons, vehicles and equipment routinely flow through the country en route to Ukraine.
Public support in Poland for pursuing the complete defeat of the Russian invaders remains much higher than in many other European countries, polling shows.
The U.S. announced a host of other military moves Wednesday. Pentagon officials said they will position a fresh rotational brigade combat team in Romania with the ability to “deploy subordinate elements across the eastern flank” of NATO. Officials said the U.S. also will enhance its rotational troop deployments in the Baltic states.
Rotational forces typically remain in a particular country for less than a year and are replaced by other troops. Permanent deployments last for several years, and the service members’ families often move to Europe with them.
Defense officials said the U.S. will increase from four to six the number of Navy destroyers stationed at Naval Station Rota off the southern coast of Spain. The Pentagon will establish an air defense artillery brigade headquarters in Germany, along with a short-range air defense battalion and other assets. About 625 fresh troops will be stationed in the country, officials said.
Another 65 personnel will be sent to Italy as part of a short-range air defense battery, officials said.
U.S. and NATO officials say the deployments are meant to serve as a deterrent against Russia and a line of defense in the event of a conflict. Although the Biden administration has sought to avoid a direct clash with Moscow, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who addressed the NATO summit by video from Kyiv on Wednesday, said Russian assaults beyond Ukraine are a matter of when, not if, for Western nations.
“The question is, who’s next? Moldova? Or the Baltics? Or Poland? The answer is: all of them,” he said. “We are deterring Russia to prevent it from destroying us and from destroying you.”
Some analysts say the U.S. might need to increase its European defense posture further. When Finland and Sweden join the ranks of NATO, which looks all but certain after Turkey dropped its objections to the move this week, the U.S. could be expected to help guard Finland’s massive border with Russia.
“Those discussions should be had now — to include the true costs of planning for deployment and sustainment — before Finland is accepted into the alliance,” said Mike Sweeney, a fellow with the think tank Defense Priorities, which advocates a more restrained American military role abroad.
“Simply put, U.S. forces cannot be everywhere at once. At some point, choices need to be made,” he wrote in an analysis posted on the organization’s website Wednesday.
After dramatic early losses for invading Russian forces, the struggle in Ukraine has devolved into a grinding ground war centered in the eastern Donbas region. Russian and pro-Moscow separatist troops are making slow but steady progress against determined Ukrainian resistance.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Russian forces were battling to surround the Ukrainian military’s last stronghold in a long-contested eastern province. Ukrainian troops were falling back to prevent being surrounded. Russian troops and their separatist allies control 95% of Luhansk and about half of Donetsk, the two provinces that make up the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.