The US is planning to pull nearly 12,000 troops out of Germany in a move the Pentagon insisted was about long-term strategy but which Donald Trump said was to punish Berlin for low defence spending.
Of a total of 11,900 personnel that will be leaving Germany under the proposal, 6,400 will be returning to the US, from where they could be used for rotational deployments in eastern Europe and around the world, while 5,600 will be repositioned within other Nato countries, particularly Belgium and Italy.
The defence secretary, Mark Esper, said the move would begin within weeks, but also stressed that planning for the redeployment was in its early stages and it would cost several billion dollars.
He repeatedly denied that the decision was motivated by Trump’s frequently expressed desire to move troops out of Germany to teach Berlin a lesson for not spending enough on defence. The Pentagon put out a statement saying the withdrawal would “strengthen Nato, enhance the deterrence of Russia” and boost the flexibility of the US military.
Minutes later, the president told journalists at the White House he had ordered the troop withdrawal because Berlin was being “delinquent” by not spending enough on defence.
“[US troops] are there to protect Germany, right? And Germany is supposed to pay for it,” Trump said. “Germany’s not paying for it. We don’t want to be the suckers any more. The United States has been taken advantage of for 25 years, both on trade and on the military. So we’re reducing the force because they’re not paying their bills.”
Trump wrongly claimed, as he has many times in the past, that Germany was not paying its “Nato fees”. In fact, the friction between the US and Germany, as well as other European allies, is about national defence spending. The allies agreed in 2014 to spend 2% of their GDP on defence by 2024. Germany is currently on 1.5%, but Belgium, where the US will move some of its European Command (Eucom) headquarters, spends less than 1%, and Italy, to where the US will move an F-16 fighter squadron and two army battalions from Germany, spends 1.2%.
Diplomats and former US officials have described Trump as fixated on Germany and its chancellor, Angela Merkel.
“He’s obsessed with the idea that Germany is taking advantage of the US, over defence, but on trade, selling too many cars to the US for example. He has always been particularly rude to Merkel,” a former White House official said.
Emily Haber, the German ambassador to Washington, said US troops “have become neighbors, partners and friends while protecting transatlantic security and projecting American power and interests globally”.
“We have been and are proud to host US troops,” Haber wrote on Twitter. “A strong, and united Nato is crucial for deterrence and power projection. Germany is a steadfast Nato ally and third largest contributor to its budget.”
Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow at the center on the US and Europe at the Brookings Institution, said: “I have sympathy for the criticism of Germany’s low defense spending, which does set a bad example for other member states who spend even less – it’s against Europe’s and our own interest.
“Moving Eucom to Belgium actually makes sense, but I find the strategic rationale for the other movements much less persuasive.”
Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, said: “Champagne must be flowing freely this evening at the Kremlin. The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw forces from Germany is not only an affront to one of our closest allies, but will ultimately weaken US efforts to counter Kremlin aggression in Europe.”
Trump’s relationship with Moscow, the issue that triggered his impeachment, came under renewed scrutiny earlier on Wednesday morning, when he admitted he had not confronted Vladimir Putin with intelligence suggesting Russia was paying Taliban fighters bounties for killing US soldiers in Afghanistan.
“I have never discussed it with him,” the president told Axios on HBO. “That was a phone call to discuss other things, and frankly that’s an issue that many people said was fake news.”
Esper argued the redeployments would make troops available to rotate in and out of the Baltic states, Poland and the Black Sea region. The defence secretary said: “it enhances deterrence, strengthens the allies, reassures.” He claimed he had received “very positive feedback” from the Nato countries affected.
He said US Africa Command, currently in Stuttgart, would be moved out, to a new headquarters yet to be decided.
Critics of the move have said it would be very expensive, time-consuming and would damage Nato cohesion and deterrence against Russia. Rotating troops eastwards would be more expensive and build less trust in the host countries, they argue, while at the same time undermining morale by making soldiers spend more time away from their families.
But retired Lt Col Daniel Davis, senior fellow at the Defense Priorities thinktank, argued that whatever the short-term justifications, pulling troops out of Germany made strategic sense.
“We don’t have a need for that many troops,” Lt Col Davis said. “Because there’s no security threat that those troops actually help with, in my view. Russia is already deterred. If you took all the American troops out of Europe … that’s not going to change the deterrent factor for Russia because the Nato combined militaries are far more powerful than Russia, plus they have nuclear weapons.”