Trump is tougher on Russia than reporting indicates
By F. CHARLES PARKER IV | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: February 15, 2019
President Donald Trump frequently declares that he has been tougher on Russia than other presidents and just as frequently the press derides him for not challenging Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly. If we look at what the administration has been doing rather than the narrative of the day, it looks like the president is correct.
For many years the United States was disengaging from Europe. The downsizing took place over many years. In late 2013, the last American armor left Europe, thereby removing anything that could be considered a serious capability to counter a threat that included major ground conflict.
Putin no doubt took this into account when he launched his early 2014 adventures into Ukraine. Those adventures did compel the United States to return, at least partially, with rotational ground forces that included armor. The name given to this effort was the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) and it cost $3.4 billion in 2017, based on the last Obama administration budget request in 2016.
When Trump took office the general line in the media was that he was down on NATO and frustrated with the low levels of defense spending by allies. Indeed at Trump’s first NATO summit in May 2017 the biggest story line was that he had “failed” to endorse Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. But unseen by almost everyone, the new administration’s 2018 budget request in March 2017 increased funding for ERI from $3.4 billion to $4.8 billion. The request committed to a permanent rotational presence throughout Europe to include “continuous head-to-toe presence of a US Armored Brigade Combat Team” (ABCT). It also deferred previously scheduled force reductions. The request increased ERI funds for the Army from $1.06 billion in the 2017 budget to $1.72 billion in 2018. This included building a division-sized set of prepositioned equipment (that results in a rapid reinforcement capability) that included two modernized ABCTs.
In September 2018 the United States revealed that, in order “to respond to any crisis,” it would send more permanently stationed troops to Germany. By late 2020 there would be a Field Artillery brigade headquarters and two Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) battalions permanently deployed to Grafenwoehr, with a short-range Air Defense battalion going to Ansbach, also permanently. Various support units would go to Hohenfels and Baumholder. Permanent stationing sends a far stronger signal of commitment than rotational.
In May 2018 the Polish government offered to pay up to $2 billion for infrastructure to support a permanent U.S. military presence there, along with the use of state infrastructure by U.S. forces. On Oct. 2, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison responded in a press conference to a question on the Polish offer: “On Poland, that is definitely under consideration, most certainly the Polish people made a strong proposal.”
The Trump administration renamed ERI the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI) and its fiscal year 2019 budget proposal for EDI increased from $4.8 billion to $6.3 billion, and requested an additional $250 million for aid to Ukraine that includes lethal weaponry such as the Javelin anti-tank missile. In December 2017 the Trump administration had reversed the Obama administration’s restriction on providing lethal support to Ukraine by agreeing to the sale of Javelin anti-tank missiles. The FY2019 budget continues and expands that decision over the objections of Moscow. The EDI increases by the Trump administration increased Army prepositioned equipment, included the deployment of rotational forces and deferred earlier planned force reductions — in order to increase U.S. military presence in Europe.
That is two Trump budgets that increased U.S. military presence in Europe, especially ground forces. The administration announced plans for new permanent Army stationing in Germany with serious consideration underway for permanent stationing in Poland and has provided lethal support for Ukraine that the Obama administration would not. I would think that Putin would prefer to be called names than to have the United States follow this firm and consistent strategic path.
F. Charles Parker IV is a retired Army colonel who lives in Belgium. He was the head of Arms Control Coordination on the International Staff at NATO for 16 years and is the author of “Vietnam: Strategy for a Stalemate.”