President Barack Obama yesterday pledged to increase America’s military presence in central and eastern Europe through a new-billion dollar programme.
His “European Reassurance Initiative” comes amid mounting anxiety on Nato’s eastern flank, caused by Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine, and renewed willingness to exert control over what it regards as its sphere of influence.
Mr Obama made the announcement on the first day of a trip to Poland to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the first free elections to be held in the former communist bloc.
“Today, I’m announcing a new initiative to bolster the security of our Nato allies here in Europe,” said Mr Obama during a joint press conference with Polish president Bronislaw Komorowski in Warsaw.
He said: “Under this effort, the US will pre-position more equipment in Europe.
“We will be expanding our exercises, and training with allies to increase the readiness of our forces.
“We’ll increase the number of American personnel continuously rotating through allied countries in central and eastern Europe.
“I’m calling on Congress to approve up to $1 billion [£600 million] to support this effort, which will be a powerful demonstration of America’s unshakeable commitment to our Nato allies.”
Earlier in the day, Mr Obama met US F-16 pilots stationed in Poland, saying “our commitment to Poland’s security, as well as the security of our allies in central and eastern Europe, is a cornerstone of our own security and it is sacrosanct”.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its alleged involvement in the fighting in eastern Ukraine and the muted response this has provoked in the West has fuelled concerns the concept of collective defence had begun to fray.
Earlier, Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, urged France to cancel the £970m sale of two helicopter carriers to Russia.
He claimed Russia would use the vessels to “threaten neighbours in the Black Sea, and that means Europe’s partners”.
The Polish president said the initiative was good for the whole region and would serve “as a very important element to discourage Russia from continuing its policy of pressure and aggression against neighbours that are located to the east of our borders.”
The US plan fell short of committing substantial troop numbers to Nato’s eastern flank.
At the moment, America has only a few hundred military personnel and 12 F-16s stationed in Poland, and some in the region had hoped to see that number increased.
But relocating troops from west to east would be a substantial logistical challenge and may also be viewed by some as an unnecessary antagonism of Russia.
Mr Obama’s announcement of increased spending came with a call for other Nato countries to shoulder more of the financial burden of collective security. Europe’s sagging economic fortunes and austerity measures have led to the axe being taken to many defence budgets, with only a handful of countries – including Poland –spending more.
“Every Nato member needs to step up,” said Mr Obama. “We have seen declines in defence spending and this has to change. The US is proud to carry its share but we cannot do it alone.”