Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine and his push to upend the broader security order in Europe may lead to a historic shift in American thinking about defense of the continent. Depending on how far Putin goes, this could mean a buildup of U.S. military power in Europe not seen since the Cold War.
The prospect of a bigger U.S. military footprint in Europe is a remarkable turnaround from just two years ago.
In 2020, President Donald Trump ordered thousands of American troops out of Germany as part of his argument that Europeans were undeserving allies. Just days after taking office, President Joe Biden stopped the withdrawal before it could start, and his administration has stressed NATO’s importance even as Biden identifies China as the main long-term threat to U.S. security.
Then came Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“We are in a new era of sustained confrontation with Russia,” says Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and former deputy secretary-general of NATO. He argues that the United States, in cooperation with NATO allies, will need to establish a more muscular stance to deal with a more threatening Russia. That is especially so in Eastern Europe, where Russia’s proximity poses a problem for the three Baltic nations that are former Soviet states.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was flying to Europe on Tuesday for his second recent round of Ukraine consultations at NATO headquarters in Brussels. He also will travel to two Eastern European NATO countries — Slovakia, which borders Ukraine, and Bulgaria, which does not. After a NATO meeting last month, Austin visited two other allies on the eastern flank — Poland and Lithuania.