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Meanwhile, reorienting toward possible future great-power fights has been slow. For instance a 2016 Rand Corporation study, based on war games envisioning a Russian invasion of the Baltic states, laid out the stakes in stark terms: “As currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members.”
Enter Trump, who, even while praising Russia and questioning the NATO alliance, has pushed alliance members to spend more on their own defense, and has overseen a national-security strategy squarely aimed at confronting Russia and China. David Ochmanek, a senior defense researcher at Rand who has conducted war games with the Pentagon, calls the new deployments a step in the right direction. “Any steps NATO takes to improve its military posture on the eastern flank—and that would apply to Poland, it would apply to the Baltics, it would apply to southeastern Europe—we think is warranted,” he told me.
Irrespective of the troop announcement, Trump’s equivocation on whether the United States would honor NATO’s collective-defense commitments has rattled allies in the past. (See his remarks on Montenegro.)
At an impromptu news conference on Wednesday, though, Trump could not resist admonishing another NATO member for failing to contribute enough money to its own defense. He said he was considering moving 2,000 U.S. troops from Germany—like Poland, a member of NATO—to Poland, though he said nothing had been decided yet. (He has consistently criticized Germany over its failure to meet the 2 percent NATO defense-spending target.) He said, though, that the United States would not be sending new troops to Europe, suggesting that he’s only shifting them. The White House press release about the Poland deployment did not specify where the troops would come from.
“We have 52,000 troops in Germany, and Germany is not living up to what they’re supposed to be doing with respect to NATO, and Poland is,” Trump said. “I have to congratulate you. Thank you very much. But Poland is paying the max.”
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Ochmanek noted that the deployment, while modest, would facilitate the quicker movement of ground troops to the front if there is a conflict. “We have for many years had a brigade equipped with a Stryker armored vehicle in Vilseck, Germany,” he said. “That unit could contribute to the defense of the Baltics or to the defense of Poland, but only if it can get there quickly in response to warning.” But bottlenecks—including issues with bridges and railroads—make this difficult. “People who have been in the Army say, ‘If you haven’t moved a division, you don’t know how hard it is’ … Getting several hundred armored vehicles down the road is a more complicated undertaking than many of us would think.” Getting the logistics right, he said, “is absolutely part of the solution.”