Eastern Europe needs permanent Nato troops, say ex-US policymakers

Report by two former policy chiefs urging move to guard against Russian threat could raise tensions with Moscow

Nato troops should be stationed permanently in eastern Europe to guard against potential aggressive moves by Russia, two former US policymakers have said in a report that could raise tensions with Moscow.

Just weeks ahead of a Nato summit in Warsaw, Nicholas Burns, a former US ambassador to the organisation, and Gen James Jones, a former supreme allied commander for Europe, have called for permanent air, sea and ground troops to be based in the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.

Nato countries are already discussing plans to set up rotating forces of up to 4,000 troops in eastern Europe. The UK has promised to lead one of the battalions and will send up to 700 troops to the Baltics and Poland. Germany, Canada and the US will lead the other three battalions, while France is expected to contribute a 250-strong company to the UK-led force.

Defence ministers are expected to sign off the plans at a key Nato summit on 7 July. Moving more troops into eastern Europe goes some way to meeting the longstanding demand of members, such as Poland.

In a report for the Atlantic Council thinktank, the two former senior US policymakers argue for this Nato force to become permanent “as long as Russia maintains its aggressive posture”.

Burns, an adviser to the US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, said a “small but symbolic” permanent troop presence would show the Russian president that Nato is serious about collective defence. “We are not talking about massing troops on the border, but sufficient strength so that [Vladimir] Putin and the Russian leadership will understand we are going to protect the Baltic states and Poland.”

Any such move would be bound to be seen by the Kremlin as a hostile act. Moscow argues that the plan to set up rotating battalions in Poland and the Baltic States would violate a 1997 agreement that Nato would not mass “substantial combat forces” in Europe. The agreement also states that reinforcement “may take place … in the event of defence against a threat of aggression”.

Nato maintains that it respects the 1997 agreement as it does not deploy “substantial” numbers of troops. Successive Polish governments have argued that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and assault on eastern Ukraine changed the strategic situation.

Burns rejected claims that the permanent stationing of troops could be seen as an aggressive step, or substantial combat forces. “We are a collective defence organisation. By putting a small number of troops into Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland we are simply asserting our legal right to protect those countries in a defensive way.”

Nicholas Burns with the Condoleezza Rice in 2006
Nicholas Burns pictured in 2006 with the then US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice in New Delhi. Photograph: Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images

Although Germany has promised to contribute troops to the Nato force, its coalition government has sent mixed signals about how to deal with Russia. |Its foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, accused Nato at the weekend of “warmongering and stomping boots” after large military exercises in Poland last week. The 10-day drill, simulating a Russian attack on Poland, involved 31,000 troops.

Burns said he found Steinmeier’s comments “deeply unwise, objectionable and completely wrong”.

The report was published shortly before EU ambassadors agreed unanimously to prolong economic sanctions against Russia, in a bid to keep up the pressure for peace in the breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine.

Burns also argued that Europeans’ failure to meet defence spending pledges was playing into the hands of the US presidential candidate Donald Trump.

The billionaire has dismissed Nato as “obsolete” and told Europeans they should pay for their own defence. Unusually, his view is not so far from the US foreign policy establishment; Barack Obama has also criticised European “free riders”.

Only five of Nato’s 28 members have fulfilled a pledge to spend at least 2% of economic output on defence.

But Trump is on his own when it comes to Britain’s referendum on the EU. Burns said the US political establishment, Republican and Democrat alike, were united in the view that Britain should stay in the EU: “A diminished Britain out of the European Union ... would be a Britain that would punch not as heavily upon the world stage.

“Britain’s primary security institution is Nato, but Britain’s primary economic, law enforcement and counter-terrorism partner is the European Union,” he said. “I don’t think anybody in the United States wants to go back 50 or 60 years to a time when Britain was not in the European Union.”


Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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