Will Trump follow through on the US promise to deploy troops against Russia?
Donald Trump's actual intentions toward Russia, and whether he prioritizes improving ties with Moscow over supporting America's traditional interests, will become apparent shortly after he takes office in January, when he'll decide how to follow through on his predecessor's promise for military force.
A battalion of U.S. forces, roughly 1,000 troops, is scheduled to deploy to Poland early in 2017 as a part of the European Reassurance Initiative, a broad plan the Obama administration developed to deter Russia. The multi-billion-dollar scheme, coordinated with NATO, also involves Britain, Germany and Canada each sending equal numbers of troops to the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, bolstered by smaller deployments from other member states, like Croatia.
The permanent, rotational forces sent to Russia's doorstep – a first in NATO's post-Cold War history – are meant to serve as an unwavering signal to Moscow that the allies will protect one another from outside threats.
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But officials involved in the deal are increasingly skeptical that Trump will support it.
After inauguration, Trump may back down or question what is supposed to be a unified message to Moscow, endangering frontline partners, they say, upsetting an international order that increasingly pits NATO against a resurgent Russia.
"What is suddenly important is the certainty of the execution of those plans," Polish Undersecretary for National Defence Tomasz Szatkowski told U.S. News on the sidelines of a security conference in Halifax in November. "Any symptom of hesitation with regard to those would invite some unwanted activities on the Russian side. The more solid we are on that, the better it is."
The initiative, now known by some as the European Deterrence Initiative, follows Russia's successful annexation of Crimea in 2014, which the U.S does not acknowledge, and its ongoing support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. Moscow's next target most likely will be the the former Soviet states in the Baltics or Poland, experts and regional officials say, as Putin continues his effort to gain the kind of influence the Soviet Union once touted.
Whether in the form of plain-clothed commandos sowing dissent among minority populations as they did in Ukraine, or the kind of electronic warfare the U.S. intelligence community believes Russia waged against the U.S. electoral process, American defense officials insist this planned deployment is critical to offsetting what they consider Putin's aggression.
"Russia is a country that does understand force," Air Force Secretary Deborah James said Monday while speaking at The Atlantic Council, weeks after returning from a trip through European countries on Russia's western border. "To present a strong front at a time like this, at a time when I believe they are pushing and poking and testing, the alliance needs to demonstrate that resolve and show force."
"If we were to pull back, if we were to do less of [these] types of activities, to me that would be a greater risk," James said when asked about what advice she would give her successor, yet to be named by the Trump transition team.
Delegates to NATO have expressed anxiety about Trump's presidency as well as the new Congress, says Alexander Vershbow, a former American ambassador who until October served as the deputy secretary general of the alliance. New polling suggests Republicans' support for Russia has risen sharply in the last two years, and their unfavorability rating for Obama now exceeds that of Putin. GOP majorities in both the House and Senate now may work against the Obama administration's priority on raising funding for operations in Europe to contain Russia's influence.
"It will be more complicated, shall we say, without a strong U.S. element to this," Vershbow told a group of reporters on Tuesday. "The political message to any aggressor – that if you attack an ally, even one of the smaller ones, you're attacking the U.S., too – that's reinforced by the participation of the U.S. in this enhanced forward presence, and that ultimately makes war less likely."
Trump, particularly, should appreciate the deal NATO countries have arranged, Vershbow says, as it aligns with his stated policy of requiring allies to do more to protect themselves instead of relying on America. Trump has said all NATO allies should contribute 2 percent of their gross domestic products toward defense spending – the standard benchmark for NATO membership – or potentially risk losing U.S. support for the alliance.
"Allies are doing their part here, so I don't think there's a legitimate case to say this is a one-sided U.S. gift," Vershbow said. "They have good reason to say, 'We're doing our part, and we hope the U.S. will continue to do its part.'"
The president-elect continually said on the campaign trail and in debates that he seeks a friendlier relationship with Russia.
"I don't know Putin. He said nice things about me. If we got along well, that would be good. If Russia and the United States got along well and went after [the Islamic State group], that would be good," Trump said Oct. 19 during the third presidential debate, adding that Putin had "outsmarted" Obama and the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, on Syria and "missiles."
On Tuesday, Foreign Policy released a leaked Department of Defense memo that indicates Russia is not a top defense priority for the incoming administration. If true, this would break sharply with the counsel of the Pentagon's top military officers, who uniformly believe Russia is at least a significant danger to the U.S., if not the most significant.
"Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security," Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford said last year during his nomination hearing to become the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Many of the top advisers Trump has chosen, however, appear to feel differently. His National Security Adviser-to-be, Michael Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, has made paid appearances on Russian state television and once sat adjacent to Putin at a gala dinner. Trump's nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has worked closely with members of Putin's inner circle through his top positions at ExxonMobil Corp. and received the Order of Friendship from the Russian president in 2012.
The European Reassurance Initiative quadrupled prior defense spending in support of NATO in Obama's May budget proposal. Congress funded it through a continuing resolution it passed earlier in December.
In remarks on the Senate floor in December, Arizona Republican John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee, called the initiative "essential to deterring Russian aggression in Eastern Europe."
The decision to deploy troops, however, ultimately lies with the president.