Number of American troops in Baltics is not everything – US expert - BNS INTERVIEW

  • 2020-01-20
  • BNS/TBT Staff

VILNIUS – US expert Roger Zakheim has called on Lithuania not to limit itself to requests to increase the number of American troops in the region as that alone does not constitute proper anti-Russia deterrence.

Capabilities with specific tasks are much more important when looking into modern threats, the director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute says.

"New capabilities may not be in the form of a 100 thousand troops on the ground, but it can be far more impactful, just distributed differently and giving new capabilities and forms of weapon platforms," the security expert said in an interview with BNS in Vilnius.

"Garrisons in Germany is obviously not having a deterrent effect you might have in divisional headquarters in Poland or cyber warriors in the Baltics," he said.

"If you look at US presence in Europe, it’s far larger than we have in Afghanistan or Iraq, as the matter from purely boots on the ground. The question isn’t in the number, the question is what we do with the number, how we apply," Zakheim added.

In his words, as Washington's political attention is leaning towards China or the Middle East, the US in any case wants to have possibilities to continue ensuring Europe's security from Russia.

Zakheim expressed doubt in Europe's possibilities to create its own forces.

He also added that after the US-Russia Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty collapsed, a new arms control treaty could be possible only if Washington approaches "it from the position of strength".

– HOW DO YOU SEE THE CURRENT US ADMINISTRATION'S APPROACH TO THE BALTIC STATES?

– I actually see the Donald Trump administration's approach to the Baltic states with a certain level of continuity with the previous administration. (...)  You have a European security initiative which was the focus of the US Congress and the previous administration to really bulk up our defenses, the NATO defenses, in part with an eye towards the Baltics. And that has only increased.

And I think with the National Defense Strategy, which came in the Trump administration by Defense Secretary Mattis and was highly supported by Secretary Esper, continue to understand the great power competition is real. Russia is an actor that is able to destabilize Europe, NATO countries. And that’s why we need to revisit our force presence and posture, how we operate, and all of that is for the good of the US, for the good of NATO and for the good of the Baltic states.

– WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY REVISITING?

– Well, looking at our plans, our capabilities, our investments. It’s saying: hey this isn’t the 1990's. And my own view, I had an opportunity to work in the Department of Defense during the Bush 43rd administration, towards the end, and I was there when South Ossetia and Abkhazia were occupied essentially and the Russians invaded Georgia. The US response was one of a surprise and shock, but we didn’t learn our lesson after that in terms of changing our approach towards Europe and perspective of President Putin. The Obama administration came in and they tried to reset the relations and what they get from the reset? Ukraine.

So there, by the end the Obama administration recognized that we really needed to shift our thinking and invest in different capabilities and increase resources in the defense of Europe, NATO, sovereignty, democracy, free market. All of that is something we can’t take for granted.

– WE HAVE SEEN CONCRETE MEASURES BEING IMPLEMENTED IN THE BALTIC STATES AND LITHUANIA SINCE 2014 WHEN CRIMEA WAS ANNEXED. THERE WERE COMPANIES OF US TROOPS STATIONED IN EACH COUNTRY. LATER THEY WERE WITHDRAWN, WHEN THE EFP BATTLE GROUPS STARTED THEIR WORK. BUT THE US STATIONED THEIR ROTATIONAL BRIGADE IN POLAND AND THEY LEAD THE EFP BATTALION THERE. SO WHEN YOU SPEAK ABOUT CONTINUITY, I GUESS YOU MEAN FURTHER IMPLEMENTATION OF THESE DECISIONS. BUT WHEN YOU SAY REVISITING, WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT?

– I'm looking at the National Defense Strategy, which was revisiting the doctrine, an outlook of our forces. Or asking how we deal with hybrid warfare, right, in this recognition that we are in great power competition. That means we have to have different co-operational concepts on how we think about what competition in conflict would look like on the continent and recognition that NATO has grown substantially and the boarders of NATO extend up until in the Baltics.

And the National Defense Strategy in particular talks about distributing forces, emphasizes the nuclear posture, recognizes that it has increased importance. And we have to make sure that balancing our interests in the Pacific, for instance, in Europe and at least it doesn’t mean we have to compromise our interests. New capabilities may not be in the form of a 100 thousand troops on the ground, but it can be far more impactful, just distributed differently and giving new capabilities and forms of weapon platforms.

– SO IS THERE A NEED FOR MORE US SOLDIERS IN THIS REGION?

– I think that generally US force presence in this region is an important message for Russia. And American people actually support that. The Reagan Institute conducts annually something they call "The Reagan National Defense Survey", I suggest you take a look at it. (...) American people support US presence in Europe. Not to engage in conflict, they support guaranteeing peace.

And so, to me the question isn’t more forces – it’s a smart application of forces. Garrisons in Germany is obviously not having a deterrent effect you might have in divisional headquarters in Poland or cyber warriors in the Baltics. If you look at US presence in Europe, it’s far larger than we have in Afghanistan or Iraq, as the matter from purely boots on the ground. The question isn’t in the number, the question is what we do with the number, how we apply. (...) American people are willing to invest in peace and they understand that our military is going to ensure that.

– WITH US POLITICAL ATTENTION SHIFTING TO THE MIDDLE EAST AND CHINA, WHAT SHORT-TERM AND LONG-TERM CONSEQUENCES COULD IT HAVE FOR THE BALTIC SEA REGION?

– Recent history will tell us the risk of shifting attention. We were focused on Iraq, focused on Afghanistan, as I mentioned before, then South Ossetia and Abkhazia happened, and so do Crimea. We need to learn, (...) although I do agree that China is the greatest challenge we face. It may not be the most urgent challenge we face, but there is no question it is the greatest challenge. We have to be able to do not just two things at once, but three, four or five things at once. The American people deserve that and we should be able to do that. We spend nearly 700 billion dollars on our military, our economic interest and our freedom and the ability to keep the world stable. From the security standpoint, that is what guarantees it.

So we have to be able to do Europe, NATO at the same time, increase our emphasis and focus in China, while at the same time managing our interests in the Middle East. This is the debate right now in the US. The debate among security experts is what it means to do all three, how do you balance it, what choices do you make.

– IN THE CONTEXT OF THIS POLITICAL ATTENTION SHIFTING, HOW DO YOU VIEW THE EUROPEAN INITIATIVES TO BOLSTER SECURITY THEMSELVES BY MEANS OF ALL THESE COOPERATION FORMS LIKE PESCO OR "A EUROPEAN ARMY"?

– Of course, US will continue to be engaged in the Middle East. Interests there are strong, threat is consequential. (...) I do believe though that we can do that while being in Europe and dealing with China. That is consistent with the US policy since World War II.

Regarding Europe, I will go back to the "Reagan National Defense Survey". We poll people with two questions that relate to your question. One is: do you support NATO? Americans overwhelmingly say "yes". The second question is: do you think our NATO allies should do more on the security front? Again, Americans overwhelmingly say "yes". That is the mindset of American people. They are concerned of the free-riding problem.

I am sitting here, in the Baltics, Lithuania, its capital Vilnius and there is great support and strong investment in the defense budget. But it is not the case for the rest of continental Europe and it has rightfully been the priority of not just this administration, but the previous administration as well. President Trump is on the headlines because he certainly has a unique style when talking about allies and what he demands from them. But Secretary Gates, the Obama administration absolutely would do the same thing when they go to Brussels.

So this is a constant problem. A separate force to me is not compelling because there is a final set of resources and you have to make a strong argument to me that resources being distributed to a European force would not take away from the NATO mission capabilities. Until you can make that argument, I think this is not the smartest allocation of resources for European security.

– WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST SECURITY GAPS IN THE BALTIC SEA REGION?

– I think it is pretty consistent with what you see across the West. Air defense, missile defense is crucially important, as well as cyber capabilities and space capabilities. If you think about the future of warfare, it is going to be about software, space and cyber. That is where the Alliance should go.

– LAST YEAR, WE SAW THE COLLAPSE OF THE INF TREATY, WHICH PROHIBITED INTERMEDIATE RANGE LAND-BASED BALLISTIC MISSILES, CRUISE MISSILES, AND MISSILE LAUNCHERS. DO YOU SEE ANY POSSIBILITY TO SET UP A NEW SIMILAR AGREEMENT ON ARMS CONTROL BETWEEN US AND RUSSIA, OR EVEN MAYBE CHINA?

– I think the first piece with the INF was is that the treaty was between two countries when only one country was complying. So because Russia was not in compliance with the treaty, ultimately the US felt it was not useful and it had outlived its useful purpose.

I am the director of the Reagan Institute. The INF was a major accomplishment of President Ronald Reagan's time in office. But how did he get there? What drove the Soviets during that time to this agreement? President Reagan deployed the missiles on the continent. So, in order to get honest arms control, verifiable arms control, what President Reagan called "trust, but verify", something needs to change dramatically.

I think the American interest in having arms control remains the same. The variables need to change to make sure that the full sweep of capabilities that Russians have developed, which, according to Russians, were outside the INF Treat, is ensured. So, we need a 21st century construct for arms control. I am not optimistic, we'll see it in the near future. I think for Russians to take arms control seriously, the US needs to approach it from the position of strength. Adversaries need to understand that we are not self imposing limitations (...) and not limiting our ability to defend our interests and our allies.

– HOW SHOULD CHINA FIT IN ALL OF THIS?

– I am sympathetic to the view that arms control done bilaterally by the US and Russia isn't adequate. The capabilities that China is developing are really changing the landscape. So, I think meaningful arms control for the 21st century should ultimately include China. China, of course, doesn't want to hear of it, but we need to expose their capabilities and that is where the US and Russia can actually cooperate.

– THANK YOU FOR THE INTERVIEW.