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Eastern Europe: U.S. Plan To Redeploy Bases Stirs Mixed Feelings

Washington has announced plans to realign its military forces in Europe. Reactions have been mixed. U.S. allies in Central and Eastern Europe are hoping to receive the political and economic benefits that would accompany the relocation of U.S. bases to their countries. But Russia has expressed concern about bases moving any closer to its border. Analysts, meanwhile, caution that a redeployment of U.S. forces farther east would be limited in size and bring only modest economic benefits to host countries.

Prague, 12 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Officials from the United States this week embarked on a wide-ranging diplomatic European tour to explain an expected realignment of U.S. troops that is likely to cause friction with Russia.

The changes could mean substantial reductions in forces currently stationed in Western Europe and the opening of bases in Eastern Europe.

The tour, by U.S. Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, includes visits -- either separately or together -- to Belgium, Germany, France, Britain, Turkey, Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Italy, Spain, and Iceland.

Feith said in Bucharest on 10 December that no final decision has yet been made on the troop realignment. But he said Washington's plans to reposition its troops in Europe would envisage small, flexible military bases, different from the large Cold War-era bases.

"What we are interested in doing as we realign our global posture is taking advantage of the opportunity, with a much lighter footprint, to have the kinds of capabilities around the world that will allow us to react quickly, with easily deployed forces, with lighter forces to provide security and shore up our commitments around the world. But we do not need the kind of base structure or heavy footprint that was characteristic of the Cold War," Feith said.

Feith said the discussions were not motivated by current events, but rather by a long-term perspective in the post-Cold War strategic environment.

He added that the new U.S. defense policy would reflect NATO's eastward shift as seven more Eastern European countries join the alliance next year.

Romania and Bulgaria, which are due to join NATO in May next year, have been earmarked along with new NATO member Poland as likely locations for future U.S. bases. Both Romania and Bulgaria offered military bases at the Black Sea and hosted small U.S. contingents during the Iraq war.

Analyst Daniel Keohane, of the London-based Centre for European Reform, says Feith and Grossman's diplomatic tour signals that realignment plans have kicked into top gear. "Obviously, it's an indication that they're taking it very seriously and they are going to make some serious decisions quite soon," he told RFE/RL. "This is part of an ongoing process the Bush administration has been talking about -- changing the U.S. base structure in Europe -- for well over a year now. And I think in this case, they're just trying to find out more details of what prospective host countries can offer -- whether they're looking at this issue strategically or from a cost point of view as well."

The U.S. currently has some 77,000 personnel -- many with families -- at bases in Germany. These pour considerable benefits into the local economies, but cost Washington huge amounts of money.

Moving such bases farther east would give the U.S. -- and, by extension, NATO -- a foothold in the Balkans and strategic scope in Central Asia and the Middle East to take on new threats such as terrorism or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Officials in Bulgaria, Poland, and Romania have welcomed a possible relocation of U.S. forces to their countries, which they hope can bring -- in addition to political stability and security -- much-needed economic benefits.

But analysts warn that the economic impact of such small bases would be limited at best. Daniel Keohane told RFE/RL: "I don't think, say, in Bulgaria, in Romania or in Poland, they can expect the same kind of economic impact that those Cold War bases had on those German towns -- because, of course, these will be smaller bases, with very little personnel. It'll be a case of what they call 'frog pads,' where American troops and transport and so on can pass through. But they won't be core bases, in the way [the huge U.S. base at] Ramstein was. If we look, for example, at the role [those German bases] played during the Iraq war, they were absolutely crucial, so I wouldn't expect the bases in other countries to be as large. They will have an important strategic role, but they'll be very different types of bases from the static, large-scale bases that the U.S. has in Germany."

Further complicating the issue, some Eastern European officials request that such redeployment, if it happens, be implemented under the auspices of NATO rather than the United States alone.

Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov on 10 December said that the establishment of new bases should meet with the agreement of NATO.

NATO expert Ian Kemp, of "Jane's Defense Weekly," explained that NATO bases may also be used by U.S. forces in their capacity as a member of the alliance. But Kemp says the United States can also choose to deploy its forces at its own expense.

"There's a NATO infrastructure fund which allows for the development of assets which are going to be used by all members of the alliance, and that can be such things as the AWACS early-warning aircraft fleet, or bases that would expect to receive NATO forces. This can often mean things which are quite simple or measures which are in place for safety reasons, which the three members who recently joined and the seven new members are going to have to implement anyway as part of their membership in NATO. So all of these bases will then be available for NATO members including the U.S. The second thing is whether the U.S. then chooses to redeploy any of its own forces for its own reasons and, of course, that redeployment would be funded [by] the U.S. itself, as opposed to the NATO infrastructure fund," Kemp said.

Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman offered assurances to Russia on 10 December that it faced no threat if U.S. bases were to be relocated in Eastern Europe. However, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov expressed Moscow's worries. He said that any plans to bring NATO bases closer to Russia "prompts an absolutely understandable, explicable concern."

Russian foreign-policy analyst Fedor Lukianov, editor of the "Russia in Global World" publication, told RFE/RL that Moscow's fears have deep roots in the Russian mentality. "The Russian establishment, a big part of it, is very concerned, because we have still -- despite all the declarations about strategic partnerships with the U.S., the West, with NATO, with the EU and so on -- we have still a very strong feeling of being, if I may say, a besieged fortress," he said. "So this idea that the Western countries have some [ill] intentions toward Russia, they are very [present] still, especially in the army among the Russian generals."

Lukianov says that even hawks in the Russian military understand that the decision to redeploy U.S. forces does not pose a direct military threat to Russia's interests. But he says Moscow remains suspicious that the West could try to establish a foothold in Russia's traditional sphere of influence.

"Politically, they consider it as a symbolic step to demonstrate that NATO and the U.S. consider, for example, the post-Soviet space as a space where, it is assumed, NATO and the U.S. have strategic interests and are going to play. And Russia is still considering this space as a kind of traditional sphere of Russian interest and I think that Russians can see this step not as a necessary measure in the fight against terrorism, but maybe an attempt to build a base for the U.S. just for playing in this post-Soviet space," Lukianov said.

However, analysts agree that with or without Russian opposition, the United States is likely to go ahead with its realignment plans. It remains to be seen whether Washington, in turn, is ready to make any concessions to Russia in order to have its way.