On June 3, 2014, President Barack Obama announced the European Reassurance Initiative, ERI, a key element of his Administration’s strategy to counter Moscow’s provocative military actions, including Russia’ invasion of Ukraine, launched just three months earlier. The initiative included a call to Congress for nearly a billion dollars in funding, which Congress appropriated and authorized with near unanimity in the FY 15 Defense budget. ERI was intended to demonstrate the steadfast commitment of the United States to the security of NATO allies and partners in Europe. Yet, today, on its one-year anniversary, the initiative’s execution has been a mixed blessing to the credibility of that commitment.
Obama’s European Reassurance Initiative consists of three key pillars:
• The sustainment of a persistent, rotational presence of U.S. forces in Central Europe through on-going exercises and related deployments. Operation ATLANTIC RESOLVE has deployed Army, Marine, Naval and Air Force units continuously from bases in the U.S. and Western Europe.
• Security assistance to countries threatened by Russia, including Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, so that they can better defend themselves and work more effectively with U.S. and NATO forces.
• Steps to increase the responsiveness of U.S. forces to contingencies in Central Europe, including according to a carefully worded U.S. European Command press release, “exploring initiatives such as prepositioning of equipment and improving reception facilities in Europe.”
When President Obama highlighted the ERI in a major foreign policy speech in Warsaw on June 4, 2014, he said the following to great applause: “Yesterday, I announced a new initiative to bolster the security of our NATO allies and increase America’s military presence in Europe. With the support of Congress, this will mean more pre-positioned equipment to respond quickly in a crisis, and exercises and training to keep our forces ready; additional U.S. forces — in the air, and sea, and on land, including here in Poland. And it will mean increased support to help friends like Ukraine, and Moldova and Georgia provide for their own defense”
The European Reassurance Initiative was warmly received and generated great anticipation in Central Europe. The initiative increased Central European appreciation for the importance of the transatlantic security relationship but it’s execution has simultaneously reinforced the region’s concerns about Washington’s commitment to that relationship.
ERI is valued by the likes of Poland, the Baltic states, and Romania. It has yielded a sustained U.S. military presence through continuous exercises and deployments to these countries, as well as the Black and Baltic Seas. Moreover, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, U.S. military deployments to the region happened sooner and been have far more significant than those of the far more geographically proximate West European allies. The flying of the American flag by U.S. units operating out of Lask in Poland, Narva in Estonia, and elsewhere has been a reassuring signal to those fearing Putin’s militaristic revanchism.
But Central Europeans quietly note aspects about ERI that they find disturbing. They are well aware that the quantity of U.S. forces deployed are for the most part company size army/marine infantry units, a limited number of mechanized units, and handfuls of aircraft and ships. These small, symbolic detachments are juxtaposed against Russian mobilizations for exercises and shows of force involving 10,000 personnel, 30,000 personnel, and sometimes well over 100,000 personnel in Russia’s Western military district, the region that borders Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states.
While the security assistance is appreciated and needed by Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, it too has its limitations. Ukraine and its immediate neighbors still cannot understand why the United States will not provide Kyiv lethal military assistance, such as the anti-tank and air defense weapons Ukraine needs to better defend against Russia’s continued aggression.
Poland and the Baltic states remain keenly hopeful regarding President Obama’s intimation about possible pre-positioning of military assets in Central Europe. His Warsaw speech was followed by teams officials and military personnel visiting Central European countries to examine potential pre-positioning sites. A year later, this dimension of ERI has been largely limited to announced plans to pre-position elements of an armored brigade combat team in Germany and to “improvements” of airfields in Central Europe. These are useful and will help facilitate the deployments of U.S. forces whenever they are completed, but fall short of the expectations that that ERI’s launch generated in Central Europe regarding permanent U.S. military presence.
Administration officials assert that consideration of potential pre-positioning sites in Central Europe continues. But continued delay cannot be attributed to the need for more time for more surveys or for budgetary restrictions, and it does reinforce the conclusion that Washington’s hesitancy is driven by a desire to avoid antagonizing Russia.
When President Obama launched the European Reassurance Initiative, it was praised by a Central Europe yearning for greater commitment from Washington to its security and greater U.S. leadership in European affairs. ERI’s minimalist execution risks transforming this bold initiative into a symbol of half-hearted commitment in the face of Putin’s militaristic revanchism. If President Obama wants ERI to be a true deterrent against aggression, it needs to feature larger-scale military deployments of U.S. forces, the provision of weapons to Ukraine so that it can better defend itself, and the pre-positioning of military equipment sets, if not the permanent stationing of U.S. military units, in Central Europe. President Obama should use this one year anniversary to inject needed vigor into the initiative he launched in Warsaw. Central Europe, Western Europe and Moscow will be watching and drawing their respective conclusions.
Ian Brzezinski is a Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. He leads the Brzezinski Group.