The Trump administration has pushed to reduce US troops in Germany for years, criticising Berlin for failing to meet NATO defence spending targets.
The US military has unveiled plans to withdraw about 12,000 troops from Germany, in fallout from President Donald Trump’s long-simmering feud with Berlin, saying it will keep nearly half of those forces in Europe to address tension with Russia.
Trump announced his intention last month to cut by about a third the 36,000-strong US troop contingent in Germany, faulting the close US ally for failing to meet NATO’s defense spending target and accusing it of taking advantage of the US on trade.
“We don’t want to be the suckers any more,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Wednesday about the decision. “We’re reducing the force because they’re not paying their bills; it’s very simple.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper has not portrayed the pullout in those terms and said the military’s plan would prevent the troop movements from undermining NATO and its efforts to deter Russian intervention, following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
In remarks likely to irk Moscow, Esper said some US troops would reposition to the Black Sea region and some could temporarily deploy in waves to the Baltics.
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European headquarters will move to Belgium
Other forces leaving Germany would permanently move to Italy and the US military’s European headquarters would relocate from Stuttgart, Germany, to Belgium.
In total, about 5,400 troops of the 12,000 leaving Germany are expected to remain in Europe. Many of the other forces will be based in the United States but will rotate into Europe for temporary deployments without their families.
“I’m telling you that this is going to accomplish what the president said with regard to getting us down to a lower number in Europe, and it meets his other objectives I outlined with regards to the strategic piece,” Esper said.
US officials stressed that only a relatively small number of advanced units would move anytime soon. The rest of the troop movements would take years to fully implement, in part given the potentially billions of dollars in additional cost.
A remarkable rebuke
Still, the moves out of Germany represent a remarkable rebuke to one of the closest US military allies and trading partners.
The premiers of four German states that host US troops have appealed to members of the US Congress to block Trump’s withdrawal, which current and former American officials, as well as German officials, have criticised as politically, not strategically, driven.
“Instead of strengthening NATO, the troop withdrawal will weaken the alliance,” Norbert Roettgen, a senior member of Chancellor Angel Merkel’s conservatives, told Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper.
If he is elected president, Democrat Joe Biden will review the Republican incumbent’s decision to withdraw the troops from Germany, a top Biden aide told Reuters earlier this month.
Since World War Two, the US military has considered Germany to be one of its most strategic locations overseas, and it serves as a critical logistics hub for troop movements not just within Europe, but to the Middle East, Africa and beyond.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, however, the number of US troops in Germany has been steadily reduced from some 200,000.