Biden, Trump, NATO and Ukraine

Putin's coming moves toward Ukraine will depend on his risk/reward calculation. That calculation will greatly depend on his evaluation of the resolve of the United States under the Biden administration.

The Obama administration withdrew the last of U.S. armor from Europe in October of 2013. NATO works when the U.S. leads, and the absence of U.S. Armor meant that no meaningful NATO ground response to the early 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and subsequent Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine was possible. A feasible option should have been a large NATO tank exercise in Poland. Of course, the Russians would consider such a move provocative --that is why it would be done. Whether this would have been the best option is not the issue. The issue is that it was not an option, and Putin knew this. NATO allies would not participate in such a provocative exercise without U.S. participation.

The Obama administration scrambled to develop some reaction to Russian aggression and began with a $1 billion one-year program to deploy a rotational armored brigade to Europe. This led to a large NATO exercise in Poland in 2016, two years too late. The administration followed with a $3.4 billion fiscal 2017 budget request for what it titled the European Reassurance Initiative focused on continuing a rotational armored presence in Europe. In the spring of 2016, the administration probably anticipated the program would be implemented by a Hillary Clinton administration.

Given the image of Trump's aversion to international organizations, the continuation of the initiative was in question. However, the Trump administration immediately accelerated and changed the nature of the program from “reassurance” to “deterrence.” The administration began with a $4.8 billion fiscal 2018 request (and changed the name to European Deterrence Initiative) and a $6.3 billion fiscal 2019 request. The fiscal 2020 budget request for EDI was $5.9 billion. While slightly less than the 2019 request, it reflected a move from building capacity to increased training activity. Acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan explained that nonrecurring costs were complete and now the program was sustaining the level of effort, conducting more exercises, and actually deploying more troops. Given the 2013 total withdrawal of U.S. armor, the Army was the focus of the funding — with the Army funding in each of the three years at $3.24 billion, $4.56 billion, and $3.98 billion, respectively. Trump also reversed an Obama-era policy and authorized lethal aid for Ukraine.

The amount dedicated specifically to “increased presence” increased in the 2020 budget from $1.87 billion in 2019 to $2.05 billion. The amount dedicated to exercises and training more than doubled from 2019 to 2020 by going from $291 million to $609 million. The budget also included the replacement of any weapons already provided for Ukraine. The “increased presence” funds sustained an increased number of rotational forces and deferred previously planned force reductions. That ensured a U.S. presence across eastern Europe to include the Baltic states, Bulgaria, and Romania.

As a result of the Trump administration's investment in EDI, the U.S. has a continuous rotational armored brigade combat team in Poland. In addition, the U.S. has prepositioned equipment for a second armored brigade combat team in Poland. This equipment is maintained and exactly duplicates the equipment of stateside units so that troops can be flown in, draw the equipment and immediately be ready. Even before the completion of prepositioning the United States demonstrated the effectiveness of prepositioning with a no-notice exercise in March 2019. 1500 troops in Fort Bliss, Texas were alerted and flown to Poland. A week after notification the soldiers were training with their equipment in the Drawsko Pomorskie training area in Poland.

A permanently stationed Division headquarters has been established in Poland that could command and control the two armored brigade combat teams. In early 2020 NATO began the largest training exercise since the Cold War REFORGER exercises. Two armored divisions were to deploy to Europe from the United States and British armor actually crossed the English Channel. Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic cut the exercise short. But the reinvigoration of NATO with reinvigorated U.S. commitment and leadership was clear.

The final Trump budget request for EDI was $4.5 billion for 2021. The first Biden budget request was $3.7 billion. The Biden administration stated a continuing commitment to EDI. But in the wake of Afghanistan, it remains to be seen if Putin believes that the United States commitment is real. Biden and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg have reiterated support for Ukraine and have suggested there would be costs for Russian aggression, but the nature of those costs remains unclear. The threat of economic sanctions has not appeared to be reassuring to Ukraine.

The Trump years resulted in a demonstrable U.S. recommitment to NATO, and a strengthened Alliance. NATO capabilities that were not available in 2014 are there. A NATO led by the United States has more options than in 2014. But Putin is testing the viability of that commitment now that Biden is in power.

F. Charles Parker IV is a retired U.S. Army Colonel, who worked on the International Staff at NATO for 16 years, has a PhD in History from Georgetown University and wrote a book titled Vietnam: Strategy for a Stalemate, Paragon House 1989.

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