Explaining the U.S. military presence in Europe as 2,000 more troops deploy
The United States is moving thousands of troops to Eastern Europe as NATO allies step up pressure on Russia to stop its military buildup circling Ukraine.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, accuses the U.S. of "igniting tensions" on the continent with U.S. deployments in Eastern Europe.
The Pentagon says these new U.S. deployments are temporary. But since the end of World War II, the U.S. has maintained a large permanent military presence in Europe.
Where are the U.S. troops now, what are they doing there and where are they headed? Here are some of the keys to understanding the U.S. military presence in Europe.
What's the latest on where troops are going?
On Wednesday, the Pentagon announced the deployment of roughly 2,000 troops from Fort Bragg, N.C., to Europe. This includes some 1,700 troops from an 82nd Airborne Division infantry brigade combat team who are heading to Poland.
Another 1,000 soldiers currently based in Germany will move to Romania. Those troops are part of a Stryker squadron. They join some 900 U.S. troops already stationed in Romania. Both Poland and Romania share a border with western Ukraine.
"These are not permanent moves. They are moves designed to respond to the current security environment. Moreover, these forces are not going to fight in Ukraine. They're going to ensure the robust defense of our NATO allies," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Wednesday.
On Jan. 24, 8,500 other troops in the U.S. were placed on "high alert" to deploy to Europe if needed. They are still in that heightened stage of readiness.
How many U.S. troops are in Europe, and where in Europe are they stationed?
About 70,000 U.S. troops are permanently stationed in Europe.
Germany hosts about half of them, with the U.S. military's unified European Command headquartered in Stuttgart. The Army oversees five garrisons in Germany, and the Air Force's European operations are headquartered at Ramstein Air Base.
In addition to the permanent troops, an additional 7,000 U.S. troops are in Europe on shorter rotational deployments as part of a NATO support mission called Atlantic Resolve. That includes an aviation division with 85 helicopters and an armored division with artillery and tanks. Those troops are headquartered in Poznan, Poland.
The Harry S. Truman carrier strike group has been in the Mediterranean Sea since December. This week, the aircraft carrier was in the Adriatic Sea conducting joint exercises with NATO.
In Ukraine itself, there is minimal U.S. military presence. Permanently deployed troops are limited primarily to the military attaché and Marine guards at the American Embassy in Kyiv. About 150 members of the Florida National Guard are in western Ukraine on a previously scheduled training rotation.
The U.S., of course, is not the only country with troops in Europe. European countries have their own armed forces. Those that are members of NATO are committed to using their own forces for NATO defense purposes — but combat capability varies widely.
Why are there U.S. troops in Europe?
There have been American troops permanently based in Europe since the end of World War II. After the war ended, the Allies occupied West Germany. During those years, the U.S. built and repurposed military bases across the West, mostly in the former American Zone in the south.
During the Cold War, the U.S. stationed troops in Western Europe for the purpose of deterring the Soviet Union. The vast majority were in West Germany. At a peak in the late 1950s, more than 400,000 U.S. troops were deployed in ally countries across the continent.
But once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Cold War came to an end, U.S. leaders no longer saw a need for such a large military presence, says Melanie Sisson, an analyst at the Brookings Institution who researches the use of U.S. military force abroad.
"We retained but decreased that presence considerably and transitioned the mission of the forces that were stationed overseas away from that sort of direct confrontational role that they would have had to play, had the Soviets decided to roll the tanks," she says.
Over the years, U.S. presidents successively drew down the presence in Europe to a low of about 63,000 troops in 2013. The mission shifted to stabilizing the continent and helping allies build their own military capabilities, she says.
But that drawdown paused in 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea.
In the years that followed, U.S. allies in central and Eastern Europe — including Poland and the Baltic states, which border Russia — have asked for more support and offered to host U.S. troops.
As a show of support to NATO, the U.S. began the Atlantic Resolve rotations in April 2014. Those rotations have continued to today. Most recently, an armored division based at Fort Carson in Colorado deployed in the last few weeks.
Why is the U.S. is sending more troops to Europe now?
The U.S. uses troop movements to send signals. In this case, the signals are meant both for its allies in Europe and directed at Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. Since late last year, Russia has massed more than 100,000 troops and military equipment near the Ukrainian border, claiming the buildup is part of exercises.
"Even if we're not fighting a war at the moment, we're not going in to initiate a conflict — we can still let them know that we're invested," Sisson says.
Sisson has researched the use of military force as a coercive tool and says that troop movements, even those that are seemingly small, have historically increased the likelihood of U.S. policy success.
It is a fine line, she says, because sending too many troops can cause a situation to escalate. But 3,000 troops is far short of the number that would be needed for the U.S. to engage militarily in Ukraine.
The message to allies in central and Eastern Europe is also important, says Mark Cancian, a retired U.S. Marine officer and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who spent years in the Pentagon and White House advising officials on force structure. "Although there's no possibility that the Russian forces would move that far west, our eastern allies want assurance that in a crisis, NATO will come to their aid," he says.
There is another subcontext to the current troop movements, says Cancian: The Biden administration is trying to set itself apart from the Trump administration's disparagement of NATO.
"The administration is trying to show that the Biden administration is close to allies, believes in collective security, and is not taking a transactional approach the way Trump did," he says.
Will there be a conflict involving U.S. troops?
That's extremely unlikely, experts agree. Officials from President Biden on down have reiterated their intent that U.S. soldiers will not be used in conflict in Ukraine.
Ukraine is not a member of NATO, and the U.S has no treaty with Ukraine that otherwise creates an obligation to come to its defense.
"It's 100% signaling reassurance to the eastern allies and signaling to Putin. There's no intention of using these forces in a war-fighting mission," Cancian says.
The movement of troops into and around Europe is just one piece of the U.S. response to the tensions. The White House continues to work the diplomatic angle, with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visiting Washington next week. And additional rounds of sanctions remain on the table.
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