U.S. allies in Europe welcome an increased U.S. troop presence to counter Russian aggression and worry that the incoming Trump administration may choose to pull support for the endeavor, according to former NATO deputy secretary general Alexander Vershbow.

“I’ve been away from Brussels a few weeks, but I think it’s fair to say there is at least some anxiety not only with the new administration but with the new Congress – will the funding be there on a multi-year basis to maintain those commitments?” Vershbow told reporters during a Defense Writers Group breakfast Dec. 20 in Washington, D.C.

President-elect Donald Trump has made friendly overtures toward Russia and its President Vladimir Putin during the U.S. presidential campaign and since his election. Trump also questioned the relevance of NATO and U.S. commitments to its allies in Europe if attacked.

Since the 2014 invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the U.S. military has made bolstering its presence in Europe and the deterrent capabilities of NATO a top priority. Under the so-called European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) the Defense Department quadrupled investment in troops presence and weapon deployments on the continent to $3.4 billion.

The Army will permanently station an armored brigade combat team (ABCT), manned by toe-to-toe rotational deployments, to the continent as part of ERI. The first of 2,000 vehicles and pieces of equipment began loading onto trains in mid-November for shipment to Bremerhaven, Germany, where they eventually will be met by 4,000 soldiers of the 3rd ABCT, who will stay in Europe on a nine-month rotation before being replaced.

Dragoons from Lightning Troop, 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment advance in a Stryker during a joint training exercise with Lithuanian soldiers in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve at Pabrade Training Area, Lithuania, March 2, 2015. Photo: DVIDS
Dragoons from Lightning Troop, 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment advance in a Stryker during a joint training exercise with Lithuanian soldiers in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve at Pabrade Training Area, Lithuania, March 2, 2015. Photo: DVIDS

In return, NATO has committed to deploy four “robust, multinational battalions” to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Further efforts to strengthen the Alliance’s deterrence posture and defense include a tailored presence in the southeast, based on a multinational brigade in Romania and steps to improve cyber-defense, civil preparedness and the ability to defend against ballistic missile attacks.

Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States will lead three of the battalions. Canada will lead the fourth.

“This is a place where the U.S. can be quite pleased by the degree of burden sharing where you have the U.K., Germany and Canada agreeing to be the lead nations for the battalions in the three Baltic States and other nations have pledged units to complement and reinforce these battalions,” Vershbow said. “Others have made pledges to beef up the southern flank.”

Those measures were finalized at the NATO Summit in Warsaw, Poland, earlier this year. The planned “enhanced forward presence” of deployed troops to the alliance’s eastern flank should be in place by summer 2017 and will provide “real muscle,” Vershbow said.

One of Trump’s complaints about NATO is that the U.S. provides most of the cash, weapons and troops while other member states do not shoulder an equivalent burden of collective defense. Vershbow said the ERI and the enhanced forward presence it provides is not such an instance.  

So far, only five NATO member states have met the goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense: The United States, Greece, the United Kingdom, Estonia and Poland. The latter two met the mark in 2015 and are expected to meet it again in 2016, according to figures published July 4 by NATO.

More allies have met the attendant goal of spending 20 percent of their military funding outlays on equipment. Luxembourg, Lithuania, Romania, Poland, Norway, the United States, France, Turkey, the United Kingdom and Italy are all expected to clear that mark in 2016. The Slovak Republic, Canada and Latvia will come close in 2016, according to NATO.

“Allies are doing their part here, so I don’t think there is a legitimate case here to say this is a one-sided U.S. gift,” he added. “But the U.S. is the leader of the alliance. The backbone of our deterrence in the U.S., so maintaining those commitments is not only expected by the allies, but they have good reason to say ‘We’re doing our part and we hope the U.S. will continue doing its part.’”

Now that the machinery is in motion to deploy the armored brigade to Europe and launch the first 4,000 soldiers into rotation there, it will be difficult but by no means impossible to curtail ERI spending or withdraw the troops. Vershbow said there have been no concrete signs that the incoming administration will back away from the current ERI plans. Congress so far has provided funding for the troop increase without fuss.

“It would be more complicated, shall we say, without a strong U.S. element to this,” he said. “Of course the political message to any aggressor is that you attack an ally, even one of the smaller ones, you are attacking the United States, too, that is reinforced by the visible participation of the U.S. in this enhanced forward presence.”

The increase in personnel and materiel are welcomed by NATO allies that find themselves in Russia’s crosshairs, particularly the Baltic nations, Vershbow said.

“In addition to being important for deterrence, it has also been important for steadying the nerves of allies,” Vershbow said. “The ‘R’ for reassurance was as much about us as it was about them, reassuring very nervous governments in Latvia, Lithuanian and Estonia and in other parts of Central and Eastern Europe that the allies were with them, that the U.S. in particular was with them.”

Much of the credit for the move to bolster NATO with increased U.S. troop presence goes to President Obama, as well as former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove and Army Europe Commander Gen. Ben Hodges, he said. Those commanders maximized the forces they were given to provide outsized military presence and training opportunities with NATO allies.

“I think the scale of the activities was smaller than it looked,” Vershbow said. “They were good at projecting an image of strength and power with very small units.”