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Trump’s decision to move troops from Germany slammed as ‘a gift to Putin’

President Donald Trump -- flanked by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley (third from right) and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Hyten (right) -- meets with military leaders and national security team in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. on May 9, 2020. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

(CNN) — President Donald Trump’s decision to pull nearly 12,000 US troops from Germany triggered an onslaught of disapproval from Republicans, Democrats and former senior military officials, who said the move will benefit Russia, degrade US national security and military readiness, cost US taxpayers billions and undermine US relations with Germany, NATO and Europe.

Trump’s explanation to reporters about the withdrawal, announced Wednesday morning by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, misrepresented how NATO works and contradicted his own military officials, raising questions about what strategy — if any — drove the decision.

Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah described Trump’s move as “a gift to Russia” and a “slap in the face at a friend and ally.” Romney added that the “consequences will be lasting and harmful to American interests.”

Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said aspects of the move, including the cap on US personnel in Germany, were “troubling.”

Rachel Rizzo, director of programs at the Truman National Security Project, who specializes in European security, said, “It’s hard, if not impossible, to see any benefit.”

Counterproductive

The former commanding general of US Army Europe, retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, said in a tweet that he was “sickened by this decision and explanation. It is not tied to any strategic advantage and in fact is counterproductive to showing strength in Europe.”

And retired US Navy Adm. Jim Stravidis, the former top military commander in Europe and NATO, said in a tweet that “abruptly pulling 12,500 troops out of Germany (to put half of them in countries who spend LESS on defense) doesn’t make sense financially, hurts NATO solidarity overall, and is a gift to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”

Removing US troops from Germany pulls them from a central location with a sophisticated transport and logistical network that speeds the movement of troops and equipment in Europe and beyond — allowing for a powerful counterweight to Russia, analysts say.

Reducing the American footprint in Germany could waste billions spent on recent upgrades to US military facilities there and require spending billions more to replicate those resources elsewhere. Among other issues, military analysts also say that replacing permanent troops with rotational forces can make training with host countries more challenging and create morale issues.

Analysts and lawmakers raised the prospect that Trump simply wanted to punish German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom he has a chilly relationship and whom he has angrily berated in private phone calls. And they pointed to the benefits gained by Moscow and Putin, who the President has cultivated.

Trump himself seemed to underscore that thinking Wednesday, saying the troop reductions had to do with Berlin’s failure to meet defense spending targets and not the strategic reasons Esper laid out when he announced the move, which included countering Moscow.

The President most recently spoke to Putin last Friday, the latest in a series of phone calls that CNN’s Marshall Cohen has documented as the most sustained publicly disclosed period of contact between the two leaders. In an interview released Wednesday, Trump told Axios that in that conversation, he did not raise US intelligence that alleges Moscow offered bounties to Taliban fighters to kill US troops in Afghanistan.

It’s not clear if the two leaders discussed Trump’s plan to reduce the US military presence in Germany, meant to be a bulwark against potential Russian aggression. But after Esper announced the troop drawdown, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the “champagne must be flowing freely this evening at the Kremlin.”

Esper explained the current plan is to move approximately 11,900 military personnel from Germany, reducing numbers from roughly 36,000 to 24,000. Of the troops leaving Germany some 5,400 will be “staying in Europe,” a senior US defense official said. The remaining 6,400 forces and their families will be returned to the US and will, in time, redeploy to Europe.

While Esper said the move was intended to help deter Russia, it did not appear that any US troops are being permanently repositioned to countries closest to NATO’s eastern frontier with Russia, despite those countries’ long-standing requests for such forces.

Italy and Belgium

The President of one of those countries, Lithuania, posted on Twitter, “We are ready to accept more US troops.”

But the vast majority of the troops permanently remaining in Europe will instead be relocated to Italy or Belgium, not posted in countries most concerned about the Russian threat.

“There are or may be other opportunities as well to move additional forces into Poland and the Baltics,” Esper said, without offering much in the way of specifics.

Removing US troops from Germany takes them from what Jeff Rathke, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University, calls “the best place from which they can operate. The German logistical network, which the US is able to access, is very sophisticated — airfields and bases, the rail network, which allows the US to move equipment.”

Germany is also “a central location from which the United States can move,” Rathke said. Pointing to the combination of Germany’s location along with its transportation and logistics, Rathke said, “You can’t replicate that in other places. They don’t exist in Poland or farther east.”

Menendez noted in a statement that Germany doesn’t just allow for “an enhanced forward presence effort in Eastern Europe to counter Russia,” but also “for US security interests across the Middle East and Africa.”

“That platform is not easily replicated elsewhere,” Menendez said.

There’s also the question of how much this will cost American taxpayers at a time of record-setting US budget deficits. The military move will potentially cost “several billion dollars,” Esper said Wednesday.

The Pentagon would be walking away from billions spent between 2004 and 2011 on upgrades to secure and consolidate key US military locations in Germany, Hertling said, only to have to replicate facilities such as housing, schools, HQs and barracks in new locations.

Rathke points out that there also are costs to bringing troops back to the US. “If you’re going to bring people back from Germany, where are you going to put them and has it been budgeted for, whether it’s housing or the base infrastructure for these people returning from Europe.”

NATO said in a statement that the announcement “underlines the continued commitment by the United States to NATO and to European security.”

But Hertling said that “what is obvious to me — having served 12 years in Germany and having participated in the last force structure change from 2004-2011, this is not a ‘strategic’ move.” Instead, he said, “it is disruptive, and affects readiness … especially when this is all happening without a previous plan.”

‘Punishing Merkel’

Moreover, Hertling was among many who argued that the President’s decision is about “punishing Merkel” and “is specifically a directed personal insult from Trump to our great & very supportive ally Germany.”

Agathe Demarais, global forecasting director at The Economist Intelligence Unit, said the move is part of a broader story of disintegration in US-German relations that “is partly because of a mutual enmity between the political leaders of the two countries.” Merkel and Trump “are different characters and have failed to build any sort of rapport since Trump came to power in 2016.”

Germans themselves pointed out that in moving US troops, the Trump administration seems to be working against some of its stated goals.

“In withdrawing 12.000 soldiers from Germany, the USA achieve the exact opposite from what Esper outlined,” the head of the German Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Norbert Roettgen, who is a staunch Merkel ally, tweeted on Wednesday. “Instead of strengthening #NATO it is going to weaken the alliance,” Roettgen said. “The US’s military clout will not increase, but decrease in relation to Russia and the Near & Middle East.”

In Bavaria, which hosts several US bases, the state governor, a member of Merkel’s conservative block, said, “We very much regret the decision of the US government.”

“Unfortunately, this seriously damages German-American relations,” Markus Soeder said. “A military benefit cannot be seen. It weakens NATO and the USA itself.”

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