GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — The Pentagon is spending more than $100 million to build new military bases in Bulgaria and Romania, even as the Obama administration recently scrapped plans for a missile-defense shield in other parts of Eastern Europe.
Last month, the White House announced it no longer planned to base U.S. missiles and troops in Poland and the Czech Republic. Meanwhile, more than 2,000 U.S. troops — including two squadrons from the Vilseck, Germany-based 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment — were taking part in exercises in nearby Romania and Bulgaria.
The exercises, which began in late June, will run until the end of October.
Col. Gary Russ, commander of Joint Task Force-East, said nobody in Romania or Bulgaria has challenged what the U.S. is doing in those countries since the missile defense plan was scrapped.
"We have made commitments and they have never made any overt conversation along the lines of pulling out of JTF-East," said Russ, who leads the largest U.S. military contingent operating in Eastern Europe. "I think both of these [bases] illustrate great commitment [to Eastern Europe]."
Part of that commitment comes in the form of a $50 million military base in Romania that could house 1,600 U.S. troops, and another $60 million facility for 2,500 troops in Bulgaria. Construction on the Romanian base is expected to be completed in the next two months, while the Bulgarian base is expected to open in 2011 or 2012.
The bases, funded by the U.S. but owned by the Romanian and Bulgarian governments, will be shared between U.S. and host-nation forces, Russ said.
James Robbins, a senior fellow in national security affairs with the Washington-based think tank American Foreign Policy Council, said the U.S. efforts in Romania and Bulgaria are part of a global redeployment strategy started in the early years of the Bush administration to shift U.S. forces out of Germany and move them eastward.
Placing troops in those countries would not only be cheaper, but it would move them closer to the volatile Middle East, he said.
And while scrapping the missile defense plan could have created a sense that America wouldn’t live up to its commitments in the region, Robbins said, any move to pull U.S. conventional forces out of Eastern Europe would be "criminally foolish."
"It would be telling Russia that that U.S. is not interested in Eastern Europe and telling those countries that they are basically on their own," he said.
Steven Pifer, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, said there are also concerns over whether NATO’s post-Cold War transformation could come at the expense of Article V of the treaty — defense of member nations, Pifer said.
Officially, Czech leaders said they understood the reasons for abandoning the shield, and they expressed confidence that the country would remain secure, according to an Associated Press report.
But some were upset by the reversal, AP reported last month.
Former Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek went on Czech radio to vent his frustrations, AP reported.
"The Americans are not interested in this territory as they were before. It’s bad news for the Czech Republic," Topolanek said, according to the wire service.
In Poland, reactions varied. Prime minister Donald Tusk said he hoped his country would play a role in the revamped U.S. defense, according to the Associated Press.
Officials said the U.S. intends to deploy troops to Poland at some point in the near future.
"We will further demonstrate our commitment to Poland by continuing with plans to rotate a U.S. Army Patriot unit to Poland once a bilateral Supplemental Status of Forces Agreement is agreed, ratified and implemented," said Ellen O. Tauscher, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee earlier this month.
On the Russian side, missile defense was perceived as a threat, Pifer said.
"The Russians also didn’t like the idea of American military infrastructure going up in Poland and the Czech Republic. It is closer to Russia and it anchors those countries more firmly in NATO," he said.