U.S. Troops on Russia’s Borders

Official Washington’s hype about “Russian aggression” has cloaked a U.S. military buildup on Russia’s borders, possibly increasing risks of escalation and even world war, explains ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

U.S. military deployments to Eastern Europe are being ramped up. The latest word as reported by the Wall Street Journal is that regular rotation of brigade-size forces, with the most modern equipment, will bring a de facto continuous U.S. military presence to the areas in question, which include the Baltic republics, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria.

It is easy to see that the immediate motivation behind this measure, as Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work indicated to the Journal, is to calm nervousness among some of those states about what the Russian bear is up to. But there are other implications of any deployment of this nature; if there weren’t, then there would be no reason to expect the deployment to have the desired calming effect.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a state visit to Austria on June 24, 2014. (Official Russian government photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a state visit to Austria on June 24, 2014. (Official Russian government photo)

We are entitled to be told, to a greater extent than we have been told so far, just what the strategy is behind this deployment. What exactly is the threat that we are trying to meet, in more specific terms than just “Russian aggression”? What sort of scenario do we have in mind? What would be the U.S. response to such a scenario, and what role would the newly deployed U.S. troops be playing?

There has been plenty of precedent and practice in thinking about such matters. Throughout the Cold War the conundrum of how to protect Western Europe from the feared scenario of being overrun by a huge Soviet conventional assault was never solved to a high degree of satisfaction, although the stationing of U.S. troops in Europe had a lot to do with trying to solve it. Even when the United States had a couple of hundred thousand troops in West Germany, that still probably would not have been enough to stop a determined assault by the Red Army at its Cold War peak.

Nuclear weapons often figured into the strategic thinking of the time, although again without a high degree of satisfaction. At the level of long-range nuclear weapons there was always the question of whether the United States would be willing to risk New York and Washington to save Frankfurt and Hamburg. At the theater level, saving Western Europe from Soviet occupation would have been at best a pyrrhic victory if it meant turning much of the saved territory into a nuclear wasteland.

In the end the reliance was largely placed on the concept of the trip-wire and on the trip-wire’s hoped-for deterrent effect. U.S. troops were the wire; their forward presence in Europe assured that Americans would be killed, and that the United States would be directly involved, in the earliest hours of any European war. And the added costs and risks of escalation from U.S. involvement would, went the thinking, help deter the Soviets from starting such a war.

Perhaps the concept of the trip-wire is once more at work with these latest announced deployments. But again, it would be good to know more about the envisioned circumstances that would trip the wire. The Russians are not in a position to do anything as big as the feared pouring of Red Army hordes from East Germany through the Fulda gap into West Germany.

While being capable of less, one can imagine Russia trying something less. What about a seizure of the Baltic Republics? For several reasons, that is less likely to happen than what happened with Crimea. But even with that U.S. brigade around, Russia probably could accomplish such a seizure fairly quickly. This raises, in a different version of the old Cold War question about what the United States would be willing to risk to save Frankfurt or Hamburg, the question of what it would be willing to risk to save Vilnius or Riga.

The mere fact of NATO membership of the Baltic Republics and the application of the commitment to them under Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty already raises this issue. Having troops on the ground makes this question more acute.

Of course, we in the public cannot be expected to have every contingent U.S. response spelled out in detail and with certainty. Deterrence often depends on sowing some doubt in an adversary’s mind. But our own unease ought to get at least as much priority as the unease of governments in Eastern Europe.

Understanding and justifying the strategy are all the more important in that there are costs to this deployment beyond the material costs of personnel and equipment. Some of those costs involve relations with Russia.

The Russians have a strong case in complaining that such a deployment violates understandings reached with them as the Cold War was ending and that were directly linked to Moscow’s acquiescence in peaceful reunification of a Germany that everyone realized would have a Western orientation. The understandings were further codified a few years later in a joint statement by NATO and Russia.

The U.S. administration seems to be dancing around the issue of permanent deployments in Eastern Europe by using what technically are temporary rotations of troops, similar to the game it is playing with the U.S. public regarding how many U.S. troops are in Iraq. De facto reneging on previous understandings ought to worry anyone concerned about U.S. credibility. And we should remember how much difference Russian cooperation, or lack of it, can make in dealing with problems such as the war in Syria.

We also need to think, beyond simple reassurance, about possible reactions of the East European governments. For them to be a little nervous about what Russia might do is not necessarily a bad thing. It would not be in our interests or the interests of European stability, for example, for the Latvian government to be too relaxed about Russian reactions when it makes decisions about the treatment of its ethnic Russian minority — a matter with the potential to trigger a crisis-instigating response by Moscow.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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21 comments for “U.S. Troops on Russia’s Borders

  1. dahoit
    March 31, 2016 at 10:03 am

    As Trump correctly says;Let Europe worry about Europe,and we’ll worry about America.Yankee come home.

  2. March 31, 2016 at 10:25 am

    The US Government has been known as a forked tongue liar and war monger for centuries now. This time it has become so entangled in believing its own neocon propaganda that US belligerence inadvertently provoked a pact between China, Iran and Russia.

    If this vision wasn’t so dire it would be funny. Here we see the US in a pirouette to the Pacific as it engages Russia in a ground war war with tactical nukes in Europe. Will US special forces attack through Afghanistan from the south and divide the vast inland empire? Perhaps a line of new bases on a northeasterly arc to Mongolia will do the trick.

    • peremen
      April 1, 2016 at 3:27 pm

      Afghanistan is far 2 000 km from Russia

    • AndJusticeForAll
      April 1, 2016 at 8:02 pm

      Lets assume you are right and US government is totally delusional and lost, and russians are smart. Lets see their accomplishments. For last 7 years main russian economic index RTS is going down hill. Russia annexed Crimea and got slammed by ridiculous sanctions. GDP went down. Investors moved out hundreds of billions of $. No external borrowing, but tickets should be paid. Businesses are happier than ever. Then they introduced their own sanctions on food. Smart move, specially when 70% of food is imported. That drove internal prices up 30% and higher. Ruble devalued more than 2 times with picks even higher. People are happy. Russia claimed that got a contract with China to build a new pipe. Ok. Then it turned out that there is no contract and promised 50 billions are fake. Spending on a pipe construction is on Gazprom and budget is going down, because european sales are going down. Total profit. Then Russia made another smart move and leased to China a territory that is several times bigger than Crimea, but with natural resources that China can develop on its own. Smart move. Total win to China. Chinese quietly deny loans to russians in the best pact traditions. Iran got out from international sanctions and started building up oil supplies ignoring russians. Oil is going down. Russians are at max capacity and announced a deal to freeze production like they can go up easy. All equipment and technology is from the evil west. Another victory. Why would anyone wants to invade Russia when they were doing what was expected from them delivering natural resources.

  3. J'hon Doe II
    March 31, 2016 at 11:38 am

    Bully

    NOUN (plural bullies)

    A person who uses strength or influence to harm or intimidate those who are weaker

    VERB (bullies, bullying, bullied)

    Use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force them to do something

    ::
    Our ‘sole superpower’ status has affected the hearts and minds of our war policy makers into Criminal states of delusion and invincibility. They are possessed of an exalted conceit and a religious belief in the powers of brute force and destruction.

    Our relationship with the Sauds’ is despicably shameful. The despotic slaughter and mayhem carrying out against the People of Yemen can be seen as a campaign of extinction. I mean, when does the bombing of civilians and state institutions cease?
    It’s an all-in-your-face autocratic orgy of destruction. (Capitalism survives through politics of militarism.)

    The Saudi “Holy Barbarians” are our ally.
    We are allied/partnered with them in the mayhem.
    The shared religion is faith in war.

    How long do we keep our heads in the sands of ignorance and denial?

    • J'hon Doe II
      March 31, 2016 at 11:50 am

      Please watch — Saudi Arabia Uncovered:

      http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/saudi-arabia-uncovered/

    • peremen
      April 1, 2016 at 3:32 pm

      Do you know what always makes me smile about Americans ?
      When they are responding for to justify their actions
      “US interest”
      As if this were a guarantee for all humanity

  4. Tom Welsh
    March 31, 2016 at 1:37 pm

    The tripwire, nowadays, is on the Russian side. And it’s a lot more of a hair-trigger. If the USSR had launched an attack on Western Europe, NATO was ready to escalate (in the first place) to tactical nuclear weapons. But the USA, which essentially is NATO, would never have begun a strategic thermonuclear exchange over the fate of Europe. Today, however, NATO (as always, an American glove puppet) is trying to put more and more pressure on Russia. The problem is that, with the Soviet withdrawal from Germany, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, and the subsequenbt dissolution of the USSR itself, NATO can easily get right up close to the borders of Russia. From Narva (Estonia) to St Petersburg is an easy two hour drive. That means NATO forces can be positioned where a mere stumble forward could provoke an immediate nuclear response from Russia. It’s a pity that the USA seems to be ruled by money-grubbing psychopaths who don’t seem to care if they kill everyone in the world rather than blink in their high-stakes game of geopolitical poker.

    • J'hon Doe II
      March 31, 2016 at 1:52 pm

      Game Theory and Geopolitical Poker.
      Both are tied to the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction.

      That’s as if human life itself doesn’t really matter.
      Only domination by force and World Ruler Status.

      • Idiotland
        March 31, 2016 at 2:13 pm

        “That’s as if human life itself doesn’t really matter.
        Only domination by force and World Ruler Status.”

        A perfect example of the Neocon world view.
        Human life doesn’t matter.

    • peremen
      April 1, 2016 at 3:41 pm

      remember !
      Only one nation was able to use atomic over humans
      and not one time but twice !
      And if we consider that they did this for hit civilians
      we can understand with what kind of people we are dealing

  5. David Smith
    March 31, 2016 at 3:28 pm

    DepSecDef Work’s statement is a false cover story and Work cynically knows it, unfortunately Mr. Pillar subliminally links it to the sinister Cold War lie that the ravenous Soviet Bear was eager to unleash it’s “hordes” on Western Europe. I certainly admire the sophisticated Straight Out a Langley wordsmithing about an imaginary Russian Bear “seizure” of Lith/Lat/Estonia that Russia has no intention of, which merely serves to lend credibility to DepSec Work’s lies. Soviet invasions of Baltic States and Finland were from the realistic fear that Germany would use them to invade, and invoking it in the present is intellectually dishonest. Lith/Lat/Eat NATO membership, and US troops there are obvious as a prelude to war. The difference between now and the “HitlerTime” is that The United States has double the population of Russia, and explains the very aggressive attitude and behavior towards Russia.

  6. Realist
    March 31, 2016 at 4:45 pm

    The elephant in the room is still Ukraine. If Russia should need to actually send its own forces across the border to save the Donbass from renewed military aggression by Kiev, the United States and its NATO sock puppets will be quite willing and ready to intervene from their newly created staging areas right on Russia’s border. Don’t kid yourself, this is not just empty posturing by the American crazies it is serious intimidation with intentions to escalate to all out war unless Russia capitulates. They want Putin gone, Russia fragmented and American ownership of all Russia’s resources. That is their end game. They think they are entitled to it all. Does Obama, Biden or Breedlove ever speak about the situation they have created like sane rational human beings? Unending trash talk is not diplomacy, it is intended to be a provocation, justifying taking what they want by force. We’ve seen this before many times.

    • David Smith
      April 1, 2016 at 2:12 pm

      100% correct, Realist. Putin waited till the 2015 summer campaign season, and the threat of a Ukrainian invasion of Donbass, was over to help Syria. He withdrew from Syria to be ready for summer 2016. My hope is that the Ukrainians will display their typical spectacular incompetence.

      • peremen
        April 1, 2016 at 3:46 pm

        Ahahah …. you can always trust on Ukrainians !

  7. J'hon Doe II
    March 31, 2016 at 6:09 pm

    Don’t kid yourself, this is not just empty posturing by the American crazies it is serious intimidation with intentions to escalate to all out war unless Russia capitulates.
    They want Putin gone, Russia fragmented and American ownership of all Russia’s resources.
    That is their end game.
    They think they are entitled to it all.— Realist

    ::

    This is bullyism —
    — not any different than isis takeover of sovereign jurisdictions/tribes that’ve existed peacefully for countless decades

    This is volcanic eruption/disruption of centuries old Recognized Tribal Agreements of Cooperation and Understanding
    USURPED and disrupted/destroyed by US Agency of Intervention —

    Exactly as the French executed in Algeria – documented in the 1966 “The Battle of Algiers” Docu-film/ the precursor of organized resistance.

    The writer Frantz Fanon has documented this era as Hemingway and Orwell documented 1930’s Spanish “civil” War.

  8. Peter Loeb
    April 1, 2016 at 5:46 am

    THE SQUIRMING DEATH OF THE WEST

    In the older “old days” —specifically WWII–
    Stalin was an ally of the US and the UK. The
    West conveniently “forgot” the horrors of
    Stalin’s brutal dictatorship. We called him
    “Uncle Joe”. 22 million Russians died or were
    casualties in support of the West, more than
    4 times the number of all the other nations
    combined. After WW II, the USSR became enemy
    no ONE as an enemy is always needed. This
    was hardly accidental.

    These days Russia is once again enemy number ONE.

    To put the matter more simply, while The USSR was
    trying to recover from its losses in support of the
    West, the West took over managing the world.
    The UN was “our UN” (Truman).

    These days the West is no longer number one alone.
    Both diplomatically and militarily Russia has taken
    over. In negotiations. At the UN. In global
    competition. In stealth, the US sends its Secretary
    of State to confer with Russia’s Putin (last week
    and largely uncovered in the public media in
    the WEst. No major headlines. No reports from
    Kerry’s plane by the media. No soundbites of
    Kerry’s statements. (I read of it in Consortium.)

    As a result, the West and the US in particular must
    concentrate its energies on manipulating public
    fear of the “commies”, and of China. As the West
    strives to stay even, it has lost its supremacy.
    It is writhing as it sinks.

    And it needs an enemy. The American people must
    be manipulated to understand that everything
    is the fault of Russia or of China. They are the “bad
    guys”. (We are the “good guys” as we have always
    been.)

    (We have assured Cuba that they should not worry
    because if they do as we say, the IMF will be there
    to “help” them. Like in Greece???))

    When you are clearly sinking, it always seems to
    make a mysterious sense to blame it all on an
    enemy or two. Never on yourself.

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  9. INOOC YAWEHBIRINA
    April 3, 2016 at 12:31 pm

    Donald Trump is always right. he’s God’s anwnser to our prayers.

  10. INOOC YAWEHBIRINA
    April 3, 2016 at 12:38 pm

    Stay with Donald Trump, europe should take care of itself!

  11. clarioncaller
    April 3, 2016 at 7:34 pm

    If Putin’s Russia is such a threat, then why did America give away 7 islands in the Bering Sea, and why does America continue to hitch a ride into space on Russian vehicles?

  12. Robert
    April 6, 2016 at 6:14 am

    The US/UK military industrial complex via NATO which is out of proper control by the US government are actually seeking to force Russia to react in order to drive arms sales being demanded by the industrialists that now control NATO via corrupt military officers and government officials recruited at the NATO education facility, where corporate executives sought out and groomed selected individuals for corruption and promotion.
    NATO is demanding that 2% of Gross Domestic Product be spent on defence, that might seem like much but consider that is not tax revenue, so you have to adjust that for taxable income rather than total revenue, now add in mass corporate cheating on taxes, which add to GDP but add nothing to taxable revenue and taxable profit is down to something like this list https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_tax_revenue_as_percentage_of_GDP, so that 2% of GDP is actually about five times what it seems. Don’t forget that tax revenue also includes fees and charges, licences, passports et al, as well as all state and local taxes, so it blows out again with regard to what is available by federal government to spend, so 2% becomes 10% becomes 25% or more, serious money and when countries are building debt to fund it, it becomes even more economically destructive.
    Now why that push, NATO also demand that State defence industries be privatised and guess who buys them US/UK corporations and so the bulk of defence spending armaments now goes to the US as a demanded annual tribute payment. They do not even sell new stuff all of the time but second hand stuff gets dumped so the US government can buy more new armaments. NATO is basically the sales arm of the US/UK military industrial establishment and is purposefully pushing war to drive sales, regardless of the lethal consequences. Not just NATO members but also partner states, join and pay tribute or be considered an enemy.
    Now that means you are protected by US nuclear weapons or cough cough those weapons are aimed in a different manner and never to forget, the majority of countries are not allowed nuclear weapons of their own, basically the ultimate extortion. Once in NATO there is no leaving NATO, seriously, forbidden under threat of regime change and the requirement to pay somewhere between 10% to 20% of federal tax revenues as annual tribute payment buying US/UK military junk.

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