“Fort Trump” and the Russian Threat in the Central-Eastern Europe

With the September visit of Polish President Andrzej Duda to the US and his meeting with US President Donald Trump, Poland once again raised the question of a stronger American military presence in the country. During the briefing session in the White House, President Duda said that he hopes both countries will jointly build a permanent American military base in Poland, which he referred to as “Fort Trump”.[1]  The Polish government has announced the visit as a diplomatic success. Although Paul Taylor from Politico has noted that President Trump was visibly flattered by the name of the potential base, American presence in the region might be in fact more problematic for Poland’s transatlantic partners – the United States, the European Union and NATO.

The Polish government hopes that a permanent American military presence in the region will be a final security guarantee. The fear of Russian aggression or interference in the country’s’ affairs, as has been the case in the Ukraine, is strong in Poland and its neighbouring Baltic states. Hence, Poland is one of the five NATO member states that meets the by NATO required minimum 2% spending on defence. It has even announced to up this minimum to 2.5% by 2030. Today, due to the bilateral treaties and NATO duties, the number of rotative American soldiers in Poland varies from 3000 to 4000 and are dispersed over various locations across the country.[2]

The Polish government announced it is willing to spend 2 billion US dollars on facilitating the infrastructure required for the planned American base. The Ministry of Defence has issued a statement expresses its hope that America swell its military presence to 15 000 soldiers.  An unofficial statement reads that “a U.S. permanent presence in Poland, a more forward operating location than Stuttgart provides, would greatly alleviate well-founded fears that fellow Eastern European and Baltic governments have that Moscow would be able to overtake defending forces prior to the support of U.S. and NATO forces in Stuttgart could provide to the current rotational forces in the Poland because of longer deployment times.”.[3]

However, there is some debate about the necessity of such a presence. Both financial and political costs may outweigh the gains, and the way of framing the agenda on the international level leaves a lot to be desire: today Poland is turning away from its Western European allies and floating towards unknown and undefined regions of illiberal democracy. Contrary to its Western European neighbours, Poland is putting its trust in precarious Polish-US relations. The Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, during his visit to the US at the beginning of this month, said in an interview with CNN that he feels ‘Poland has to actually bring closer the European Union and the United States again. We are very pro-American and at the same time we are very pro-European. There are not many countries like us and I believe Poland can be a kind of integrator of the Transatlantic community.’ He later added that ‘Poland is very pro-European, but a little bit Brussels-sceptic.’[4]

To spice things up, President Duda shared that in terms of ideology he is more similar to Donald Trump than to Donald Tusk, Poland’s Prime Minister between 2007 and 2014, and current President of the European Council.[5] These kind of statements by important Polish officials are key to understanding the country’s political evolution. Currently, the government’s relationship with the EU is driven by mutual distrust and reluctance, after the ruling party started their unconstitutional reforms of the juridical system. For government’s officials, the French and German military presence is not a sufficient guarantee of security. In fact, some politicians and rightist citizens strongly oppose German presence because of the memory of the German occupation of the country during the Second World WarOne of the strongest opponents of western neighbours’ presence in the country is Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of the ruling Law and Justice party (PIS), who openly said in early 2018 that NATO military presence in Poland is exclusively a matter of discussion between Poland and the US.[6]

Although the idea of “Fort Trump” was perfectly tailored to appeal to Mr Trump, betting everything on the American card might be a risky business. Just a day after Mr Duda’s visit to the White House, US Army Secretary Mark Esper said to AFP that the training grounds do not meet US military requirements. “It was not sufficient in terms of size and what we could do in the manoeuvre space and certainly on the ranges”[7]. There is also a question of congressional approval for the base after American elections. But can Poland afford to trust President Trump, who undermines the role of NATO and its significance and whose ties to Putin are a matter of investigation?

There might be no need for this kind of base, especially because around 30,000 American soldiers are already located in neighbouring Germany. Some NATO allies are also worried about an increased American military presence in the region and the potential violation of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding act. The Chief of the Presidential Chancellery, Krzysztof Szczerski, said that “Fort Trump” could only be a response for a recent Russian activity, stating that “we are not creating a new situation, we are only reacting on what is happening. We are not creating offensive forces, but defensive ones”.[8] This, however, might not be enough to persuade its NATO allies to create a permanent American force in the region. Moreover, Beloruskiye Novosti (БЕЛОРУССКИЕ НОВОСТИ), an independent Belarusian paper, wrote in September that American presence in Poland may lead to further Russian interference in Belarus and worsen the already fragile relationship between Russian President Putin and Belarusian President Lukashenko.[9]

Instead, Poland should more actively support the European idea of further military cooperation. Russia is becoming more aggressive and NATO has to be able to promptly respond to these problems. Even with Trump’s assurance that “[He] loves our [US] friendship with Poland”, his friendship may be not enough to establish a permanent military base that would become a guarantor of security.

The Polish bilateral deal with the US undervalues NATO’s framework for multilateral agreements and dialogue. More emphasis should be placed on securing military cooperation within the EU. This leads to the question of post-Brexit UK. In September the foreign ministers of Poland, Lithuania and Romania signed a letter breaking with the official EU’s policy towards the UK, stating that “close post-Brexit cooperation will be especially vital in the EU’s eastern and southern neighbourhood, in the Western Balkans and in a common policy towards Russia.”[10]

Although the Polish diagnosis of their geostrategic situation is valid, its response is inadequate. US military presence in Poland would be welcomed by Eastern Europe and the Baltic States. However, it seems unrealistic. The offer to build a “Fort Trump” in Poland looks as if it were calculated only to appeal to President Trump, without considering NATO’s unity and the region’s political situation. Hoping that America’s aircraft carriers will appear in the Baltic Sea might be too optimistic. Instead, the Polish government should lobby among NATO allies to put more emphasis on the Russian threat and suggest an increase in NATO military presence on the eastern flank of the EU.

Endnotes

[1]https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-president-duda-republic-poland-bilateral-meeting/

[2]https://www.rp.pl/Spoleczenstwo/310149991-Sondaz-Polacy-nie-chca-bazy-o-nazwie-Fort-Trump.html

[3]https://g8fip1kplyr33r3krz5b97d1-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Proposal-for-a-U.S.-Permanent-Presence-in-Poland-2018.pdf

[4] https://wpolityce.pl/polityka/415307-premier-morawiecki-w-cnn-wywiad

[5]https://www.rp.pl/Polityka/181009719-Duda-Mam-lepsze-relacje-z-Trumpem-niz-z-Tuskiem.html

[6]https://www.newsweek.pl/polska/jaroslaw-kaczynski-niemieckie-wojska-w-polsce-nato-newsweekpl/hnxwwjq

[7]https://www.france24.com/en/20180919-poland-may-not-be-ready-fort-trump-us-army-head

[8]http://www.tvpparlament.pl/aktualnosci/szczerski-o-fort-trump-to-defensywa-nie-ofensywa/39475888

[9]https://wiadomosci.wp.pl/bialoruskie-media-komentuja-baze-fort-trump-jesli-powstanie-to-za-pieniadze-podatnikow-6297661726619265a

[10]https://www.politico.eu/article/brexit-foreign-policy-security-eu-and-uk-need-each-other-on-post-brexit-security/

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