Trump troop pullout would still leave hefty U.S. footprint in Europe

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s reported plan to remove 9,500 troops from Germany is the latest move to rattle his NATO allies but, even if they are pulled out, America’s military footprint in Europe would still be large enough to deter Russia.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump stands among other leaders at a NATO summit in Watford, near London, Britain, December 4, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Some 50,000 U.S. military personnel backed by billions of dollars of U.S. investment would remain across Europe and, as a senior U.S. official said on Friday, the large contingent in Germany is in any case less critical now thanks to increased military spending by other NATO countries.

While the decision has caused consternation in Germany – one lawmaker there said it would shake “the pillars of the transatlantic relationship” – it will not deflect NATO from its core task of shielding Europe’s eastern flank from Russia.

Experts noted that a troop withdrawal would take time, some may be moved to Poland, in closer proximity to Russia, and the plan could even be reversed if Trump loses his bid for a second term in November’s election.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke to Trump by telephone on Monday, although the alliance chief declined to comment directly on whether he discussed any changes in troop numbers.

“We discussed, as we almost always do, the U.S. presence in Europe,” the chief of the 30-nation defence alliance told Reuters by telephone. “The U.S. presence in Europe has increased over the last years and this is more than Germany,” he said, citing Poland, the Baltics, Spain, Norway and the Black Sea.

NATO allies are now used to Trump’s unpredictability: he has often questioned the value of the alliance and branded as “delinquent” those countries that spend the least on defence.

“It seems to me very hard to see much of this getting done in a hurry,” said Nick Witney, an analyst at the European Council of Foreign Relations think tank, commenting on the plan to withdraw U.S. troops.

“SADDENING”

“I think that’s another reason why the initial reaction in Europe will be ‘yeah, well, it’s Trump’. It’s another dead cat thrown onto the political table to distract,” he said, referring to criticism of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and protests over racial injustice in the United States.

The reported U.S. decision, even if not yet confirmed, shocked policymakers in Berlin. “We’re not yet at divorce. But we’re already at a much lower level of cohabitation than before. It’s saddening because what’s happened is not in the German, European or American interest,” Peter Beyer, the German coordinator for transatlantic ties, told Reuters.

NATO allies worry that Trump’s carping against European allies will erode public support for the alliance founded in 1949 to contain a military threat from the Soviet Union.

“It doesn’t actually change things very much,” said Francois Heisbourg, special adviser at the Paris-based Fondation Pour la Recherche Strategique, of the Trump plan.

“The problem is that many people will see this as a first step out of two or three (and) the political signal it gives to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin…I am sure the Russians are quite happy.”

Despite his criticism of NATO, Trump increased the budget for the U.S. military in Europe to $6.5 billion in fiscal 2019, from $4.7 billion in 2018. He requested $5.9 billion for 2020.

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Washington has sent troops to the Baltics, Poland and the Black Sea, held more exercises and helped modernise NATO’s response force.

“The heartening thing from the NATO perspective is that the U.S. commitment (under Trump) in terms of the nuts and bolts has been remarkably solid,” said Jamie Shea, a former senior NATO official now at the Friends of Europe think-tank. “That’s where the deterrence lies, not in the rhetoric.”

A senior EU diplomat said French President Emmanuel Macron, who called NATO “brain dead” last year, could seize on Trump’s announcement to insist that the 27-nation European Union develop more military capabilities independently of the United States.

“The EU is developing its defence, but it still needs the U.S. militarily. It is very reluctant to deploy alone,” the EU diplomat said.

Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Mark Heinrich