Washington’s relations with Russia have been deteriorating for years, but new U.S. actions could make matters considerably worse. One major source of irritation for the Kremlin has been NATO’s military exercises in countries on Russia’s border. Those war games have proliferated since the onset of the Ukraine crisis in 2014, when the United States and European Union countries helped demonstrators oust Ukraine’s elected, pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and Russia responded by annexing Crimea.
Russian anger also has been directed at “rotational” U.S. military deployments in NATO’s easternmost members. Those supposedly temporary assignments of American units have become nearly continuous. Now there are indications that the Trump administration may dispense entirely with the diplomatic fiction that sequential rotational deployments do not constitute a permanent U.S. military presence.
During a state visit to Washington in mid-September, Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, promised to provide $2 billion toward construction costs if the United States built a military base in his country. In a transparent appeal to the U.S. president’s notorious vanity, Duda even offered to name the base “Fort Trump.” Poland “is willing to make a very major contribution to the United States to come in and have a presence in Poland,” Trump said in the Oval Office. “If they’re willing to do that, it’s something we will certainly talk about.” He added that the United States would take Duda’s proposal “very seriously.”
American Conservative columnist Daniel Larison warned that putting a U.S. base in Poland “would further antagonize Russia, and it would create one more overseas military installation that the U.S. doesn’t need to have. Trump is often accused of wanting to ‘retreat’ from the world, but his willingness to entertain this proposal shows that he doesn’t care about stationing U.S. forces abroad so long as someone else is footing most of the bill.” The cost issue would be the least of the problems created by establishing a permanent U.S. military presence in a country bordering on Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave. The rotational deployments are bad enough, but ostentatiously building a major base would escalate that provocation.
As I discuss in a recent article in the American Conservative, Washington’s growing military ties with Ukraine, a country that is an even more central security concern for Moscow, constitute an especially provocative move. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has acknowledged that U.S. instructors are training Ukrainian military units at a base in western Ukraine. Washington also approved two important arms sales to Kiev’s ground forces in just the past 9 months. The more recent deal included the extremely lethal Javelin antitank missiles—the kind of weapons that Barack Obama’s administration had prudently declined to send to Kiev.
Potentially even more worrisome, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker disclosed during a September first interview with the Guardian that Washington’s future military sales to Kiev would likely involve weapons for Ukraine’s air force and navy as well as the army. “The Javelins are mainly symbolic and it’s not clear if they would ever be used,” Aric Toler, a research scholar at the staunchly pro-NATO and anti-Russia Atlantic Council, asserted. One could well dispute his sanguine conclusion, but even Toler conceded: “Support for the Ukrainian navy and air defence would be a big deal. That would be far more significant.”
Relations with Russia already are bad enough without pouring gasoline on the fire. Unfortunately, the Trump administration is doing exactly that. Perhaps the president is embracing these provocative initiatives to rebut hysterical critics who charge that he is “soft” on Russia—or even worse, is a Russian agent. Whatever the motive, Washington’s recent actions are reckless and need to be abandoned.