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US Troop Withdrawal from Germany | An Expert Analysis

Last week, the Trump Administration announced the withdrawal of nearly 12,000 troops from Germany and a plan to move the headquarters of US European Command from Germany to Belgium. The decision has sparked bipartisan congressional opposition and is seen as a blow to NATO and a move that will possibly weaken the US military’s position toward Russia. The Kennan Institute recently asked several of our experts to weigh in on this developing story and consider the following questions:

1. What are the implications of the removal of American troops from Germany, the move of an army corps headquarters to Poland, and possible future rotations of troops further East for NATO members and other regional states?

2. What are the implications for the US-Russia and NATO-Russia relationship, if any?

3. What might the impact of the troop transfers be on regional security issues in the European theater both in the short and long term?

This compilation is one in an occasional series highlighting the expertise of Kennan Institute scholars and staff.

Click Below to Read Each Expert's Analysis

  • As far as the trajectory of US-Russian relations is concerned, the move will have little impact on the worsening relations between the two countries. The Russian leadership perceives a deeply anti-Russian sentiment in Washington that stretches much further than President Donald Trump’s initiative to be on friendly terms with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And the recent reports of Russian bounties on the heads of US soldiers in Afghanistan has deepened the already extreme skepticism of most in Washington of Russia’s willingness to play a responsible role in the international order.

    Russian leaders will certainly see their position with regard to NATO improve in so far as the troop withdrawal from Germany is a weakening of one of the strongest NATO relationships—that of the United States and Germany. That said, Russian military leaders will be taking stock of the impact on the balance of forces with the possible troop deployments further east and the standing up of a corps headquarters in Poland.

  • 1. The recent announcement by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper about the US military posture in Europe will be, if executed, the most drastic change concerning our forces based in Europe since the early 1990s. Then, we greatly reduced troop levels in Germany as part of the “peace dividend” arising from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Further cuts were made a little over 10 years ago as we settled into the seemingly perpetual “global war on terror” and repositioned forces in the United States. This recent change is significant for several reasons. First, the decision overwhelmingly involves withdrawing troops from Germany, which creates the perception that the decision is particularly political. To be clear, military leaders have always been obligated to fulfill policy decisions and do the best with the political guidance they are given. Second, by cutting combat arms troops from Germany, we are potentially making it harder to sustain our current military presence in Europe. Having the 2nd Cavalry Regiment redeploy to the States not only reduces our reaction time to a crisis in Europe, but it also weakens the multinational military relationships that this unit has built over the past 10 years that contributed greatly to interoperability. Furthermore, the movement of two Combatant Commands out of the Stuttgart area in Germany will likely cost billions and require more agreements before they can be executed. Lastly, the announcement that part of the newly activated US Army 5th Corps would rotate to Poland, accompanied by possible unit rotations there and to the Baltics as well as the Black Sea region, highlights that the Department of Defense is still increasingly committed to dynamic force employment, a concept that avoids permanent positioning in favor of periodic deployments abroad. This arguably will increase the strain on the force.

    2. The US-Russia relationship is already quite acrimonious for many reasons, and this announcement sends mixed signals. These moves would, at least on the face of it, increase the Kremlin’s already overwhelming conventional military advantage. The 2nd Cavalry Regiment was a known entity in the Russians’ mind, regularly deploying to the Baltics and southeastern Europe and training alongside allies and partners. The language about potential future unit rotations to Poland, the Baltics, and the Black Sea area leaves much room for interpretation and could be more unpredictable for Russian General Staff, depending on how the United States follows through. Despite this factor, these moves could decrease our ability to react, since in the event of (an unlikely) conventional fight, Russia has the advantage of geography and time. But this is not the main concern. The Kremlin is programmed to look for opportunities and weakness, and it will regard the announcement as yet another indicator of our deteriorating political relationship with Germany, with the hopes that it can continue to exacerbate this rift within NATO. It also might not matter too much for Russia at the moment. After all, the Kremlin has many other domestic concerns to contend with—the continued rise in coronavirus infections, protests against the Kremlin in the far east of the country, and some increasing tensions with long-time ally Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled for 26 years, is facing one of his tougher elections on August 9.

    3. Despite the announcement, regional security for Europe remains an evolving concept, and military officials have been careful to note that the intended moves will take time before they can become reality. On a purely military level, we should keep an eye on two things. First, how will the United States follow through on professed deployments “farther east in the Black Sea region,” and will there be further deployments to the Baltics—and if so, what type? Will this “dynamic force employment” give both allies the reassurance they seek and achieve the deterrence effects we all seek? Second, how will the posture changes affect US and NATO logistical readiness for the European theater? Prior to this announcement, US European Command and its Army headquarters had invested in a productive relationship with Germany, developing both their military and critical infrastructure (like Deutsche Bahn) to make it the de facto logistical hub of Europe, given its highly developed rail network. On a political level, the not-so-subtle mention of the desired Defense Cooperation Agreement with Poland had its intended effect: two days after Secretary Esper made his remarks, Poland and the United States announced that they had reached an agreement. This move, combined with the obvious effect on US-German relations, could give the perception that the United States is creating a divide in Europe between what Donald Rumsfeld once distinguished as old Europe and new Europe.

    The opinions and views of the author are his own, and do not represent those of the Department of the Army or Department of Defense.

  • President Donald Trump’s decision not only is damaging to bilateral German-American relations but also undermines the cohesion of the Alliance. In essence, the American administration has staged a competition for troop redistribution in Europe, making allies compete with each other for who profits from troop reductions in Germany. It is no secret that Poland and the Baltic states have long desired a stronger US military presence on NATO’s eastern flank—albeit not at Germany’s expense. A major repositioning of US forces is thus likely to drive a wedge between Europe’s NATO members at a time when a display of cohesion and mutual solidarity in Europe is needed. What is more, the contradictory statements and mixed messaging from Trump and from the Pentagon concerning the withdrawal certainly did not reassure allies about the credibility of the American security guarantee to Europe.

    The plan does not increase NATO’s deterrence, either. On the contrary, the withdrawal negatively affects readiness and speed of response. Granted, some aspects of Trump’s plan have merit and make strategic sense—namely, the relocation of the US European Command (EUCOM) staff from Stuttgart, Germany, to Mons, Belgium, where the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), the NATO operational commander responsible for both EUCOM and SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe), is based. Other aspects, like the relocation of troops back to the United States coupled with the argument that US strategic flexibility would improve, are more questionable from a defense planning point of view. The US military has just upgraded many of its facilities in Germany, creating an important logistical and training hub for its operations in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Replacing or replicating these facilities and infrastructure elsewhere would bear immense costs and would not be realized for a few years.

    In addition to security implications, scaling back troops will likely have significant socioeconomic consequences. Many small towns and villages in the south of Germany, which have developed around and relied on a continued US presence for almost seven decades, are expected to suffer. Many Germans work as contractors for US troops and depend on American personnel and their families as customers for their businesses. Towns like Spangdahlem, where the F–16 squadron is based, are likely to experience an economic fallout when the United States moves its fighter jets to Italy. Growing anti-American and anti-NATO sentiment in the areas affected by the withdrawal is another possible outcome of Trump’s announcement.

    With regard to the implications of the troop transfers for NATO-Russia relations, the Russian government welcomed the news. Russia has long argued that the fewer US troops there are in Europe, the better. Yet given that almost half of the forces are to be moved from Germany to other locations in Europe, Russia will be concerned about their redeployment to Poland, Romania, or the Baltic states. In fact, Russia’s permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, has warned that such a move would constitute a grave violation of the NATO-Russia Founding Act. However, the current plan mentions repositioning of troops to Belgium and Italy only, rather than closer to Russia. As such, the repositioning is unlikely to cause tension or be perceived as antagonizing by Moscow. 

    For that matter, the withdrawal announcement may have inadvertently played into Moscow’s hands by exposing divisions among key NATO allies and fueling anti-American and anti-NATO sentiments in Germany that Russia might seek to amplify. Anything that indicates tensions among NATO allies is an enabling factor that any of NATO’s adversaries could exploit. Rather than direct confrontation, the withdrawal is more likely to invite foreign interference in domestic affairs, be it political, social, economic, or informational.

  • 1. The main implications of the announced force posture changes in Europe for NATO members are political; they hardly change the balance of military power in Europe, but signify one more step in the direction of lessening American commitment. The size and composition of US forces in Europe has changed many times in NATO’s 71-year history, and the general trends after the end of the Cold War have been clear: radical cuts to troop numbers and cautious moves further east. The new announcement comes after a months-long review of American force strength in Europe, where some troops are permanently stationed and others deploy on rotational basis to train alongside NATO allies. The announced changes were met with criticism from the US foreign policy community, many former top military leaders, and some European allies, including Germany, Poland, and the Baltic states. From their perspective, President Donald Trump’s decision weakens America’s military posture and gets nothing in return.

    US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said that the decision to move forces in Europe will help achieve “the core principles of enhancing US and NATO deterrence of Russia, strengthening NATO, reassuring allies, and improving US strategic flexibility and EUCOM operational flexibility.” But President Trump offered his own view: the force posture changes were meant to punish Germany for not paying its “NATO fees” and being “delinquent.” Germany will not become less secure because nearly 12,000 US troops will be redeployed elsewhere in NATO, but the negative political implications of the accompanying rhetoric may be profound.

    2. The implications of different components of the announced changes for US-Russia and US-NATO relationships will not be the same. The removal of American troops from Germany, first of all the return of the Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment from Vilseck to the United States, certainly will be welcomed in Moscow. Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told CNN: “We never hid that [we think] the less American solders there are on the European continent the calmer it is in Europe.”

    The move of a forward element of the US Army’s V Corps headquarters to Poland will stir up concerns among Russian military planners because it will be viewed as a step toward eventual permanent deployment of combat units. The Pentagon is also exploring a significant US military presence in Poland, where it has already rotated troops in recent years. Secretary Esper said that new deployments following the withdrawals from Germany could lead to an increase in the US military force posture in Poland and in the Black Sea region. This will be viewed in Moscow as a violation of the 1997 NATO–Russia Founding Act, which prohibits the permanent basing of NATO soldiers in central and eastern European countries. The “enduring” presence in NATO’s eastern and southeastern flanks will be a matter of serious concern and will have a significant negative impact on US-Russia and NATO-Russia relations.

    3. The single most important long-term impact of the troop transfers on Europe’s security will be its gradual and inevitable strategic decoupling from the United States. Germany and France will be determined to advance more quickly toward European strategic autonomy. So far, many European countries have not kept their commitments to the European Union (EU) Common Security and Defense Policy, but the announced US force posture changes in Europe may revitalize the project. Moreover, “progressing towards a European defense Union” is a stated responsibility of Josep Borrell, the EU high representative/vice president (2019–2024). The EU has already taken measures to build common European defense capabilities by developing such projects as the European Defense Fund and Permanent Structured Cooperation. These efforts may lead to a more balanced relationship with Washington, increased military capabilities, more technological innovation, and an overall step-up in European defense cooperation.

    In June, Senator Bob Menendez, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced the Maintaining United States National Security Interests in Europe Act, a piece of bicameral legislation to restrict funding for the implementation of President Trump's plans to withdraw some US troops from Germany. Even if this initiative succeeds, it will not stop progress toward Europe’s strategic autonomy—which may, in turn, force Berlin and Paris to look for common ground with Moscow.

  • 1. I have 11 years of experience in both West Germany and reunified Germany, serving in seven different locations including postings in two combat divisions, a military intelligence group command and the G–2 (intelligence) of US Army Europe. I lived the drawdown of 85 percent of its peak strength triggered by the near-miraculous fall of the Berlin Wall, followed by Operation Desert Storm.

    As one of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of fellow American military and civilians, I have personally seen and lived the goodwill, good training, good deploying, good interoperating, good logistics, and yes, good living for our families embedded in central crossroads Germany. It is impossible to put a transactional dollar sign on the 75-year value of these relationships and how it positively enhances US business and influence in Europe. Rotating forces actually distances troops from both local communities and US-based homes.

    Certainly, moving more American troops out of Europe and redistributing other forces is possible. This could include a small forward corps headquarters west of the Vistula. Changes in their physical array would not break the mission; nor would the low density of units repositioned pose any real offensive conventional threat to Russia. The two major headquarters envisioned for Belgium would enhance command and control, but in the worst case they also would add to the concentrated, target-rich environment adjoining Brussels.

    My core question, however, is this: why are all the forces only coming out of Germany, and why now? If this is solely logistical, is it mechanically justifiable? There would not be cost savings, and it would be unnecessarily disruptive during this already fluid period. Does this decision come out of a personal and political agenda that inflames an increasingly troubling erosion of national US and German relations, and by extension greater relations with NATO? If an inability to discreetly resolve differences over German defense spending is the main reason, then that is a failure of diplomacy and would be strategic.

    2. It is crucial that Washington and Brussels revisit serious dialogue with Moscow to somehow improve dangerously distrustful relations. For the United States and some NATO allies, this engagement should not ever come at the expense of the Alliance, our worldwide allies, or our partners. We must maintain a dual-track approach mixing firmness with frank “eyes-wide-open” dialog.

    A calm, stable Europe would be far better for long-term Russian stability than a disrupted, increasingly right-leaning West. Corrosive Russian “gray zone” activities intended to increase on stress NATO and European Union cohesion and domestic governance and civil society could be satisfying in the short term for the Kremlin. These malign actions, however, likely would have long-term negative consequences for a vast, overextended Russia. Other growing hegemons, especially China, would be the main beneficiary of such outcomes.

    Therefore, withdrawing additional US forces from Germany is a strategic issue involving the German defense ministry in Bonn and the greater NATO partnership. If the alliance appears to lose cohesion internally over cost-sharing and other issues, it could invite exploitation by an emboldened Russia, especially during an emerging crisis. At worst, it could lead to a miscalculated catastrophe in Europe that no one wants and spread cyber-fast worldwide through horizontal escalation.

    The US forces being moved east are modest in number and offensive capability. A forward corps headquarters in Poland west of the Vistula is no major offensive threat. These forces assure and deter and would be lethal if attacked, especially with all the “over the horizon” firepower they could direct. This is the same for the other multinational contingents that make up NATO’s 24-nation Enhanced Forward Presence in Poland and within the three Baltic states.

    3. As suggested above, in the short term the American troop transfers, whether repositioned within NATO from Germany or redeployed to the United States, are not decisive in the numerical sense. Their removal—especially that of the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment in training-rich Vilseck-Grafenwoehr, the last full-time combat brigade-sized unit in Germany—does reduce flexibility in the immediate theater and lessens the relationships cultivated by day-in, day-out proximity of collocated allies and friends operating, training, and living together.

    Shifting a modest presence and capability southeast toward Romania and the Black Sea region is prudent and has been underway over the past couple of years. Northern Italy provides good access to the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and the Aegean region. What Germany provides operationally with its superb road and rail network is also a central position that knits strategic Belgium to NATO forces and allies in Eastern Europe. Its tactical training facilities, in which I have spent at least a year of my life, are among the best in the world.

    In the long term, the outcome of the US presidential election in November should provide some clarity—how will the future United States be perceived abroad? Will it still be seen as a resolute, philosophically aligned defender of Article 5 (NATO collective defense) and global allies, or as an increasingly unpredictable, undependable interlocutor? This question is the most important, transcending the number of units and headquarters the United States has in Europe, and likely will be the key strategic question for an ever-observant Moscow . . . and Beijing.


Kennan Institute

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