US allies and partners such as Germany and NATO have been left to make their best guess from media reporting as to the true nature of plans to remove one-third of US military personnel from Germany. Meanwhile, the lack of hard information leads to speculation on the reasons behind them - and none of the possible explanations that have been put forward is good news.
There is the suggestion this is a straightforward gift to Vladimir Putin, which along with the proposed invitation of Russia to the G7 summit the previous week shows Donald Trump meeting Russian policy objectives more urgently and with less restraint as the end of his term approaches.
Or it could be a petty snub to Angela Merkel in response to any one of a number of perceived slights - most recently, declining to join the same proposed G7 event. Or simply a piece of political theatre by Trump to appear to meet promises to his base while helpfully diverting the attention of his critics from his behaviour during more than a week of widespread protests and violence in the US.
Colossal strategic failure
If the objective of the leak was to sow alarm or dismay, or to distract from other issues, it has succeeded admirably. But the fact no US authority has yet found itself willing or able to explain what is happening represents a colossal failure of strategic communication.
Not only to America’s friends and allies, not only to adversaries including Russia, but also - and especially - to its own armed forces whose senior leadership is already reeling from accusations of conflict of loyalty between the White House and the US constitution.
Most reports on the potential withdrawal, and reaction to it, assume it is going ahead despite the lack of confirmation or detail. Despite claims the move has been under consideration since September 2019, it is unknown whether this is a firm plan of action, or just a threat from a US administration exasperated - as many before it - by Germany’s apparent unwillingness to take an interest in funding its own defence. It would not be the first time the US has threatened to withdraw troops in order to focus minds.
Given how little is known about the plans, it is possible – albeit with a hefty dose of optimism - they could be a component of a considered, rational redistribution of US forces in Europe with a clear objective. That is especially the case if, as has been suggested, some are to be redeployed to Poland.
But even if the real impact of the plans is less than feared, the damage done by allowing the story to break in this way is already severe. Even directly affected US forces in Europe were apparently taken by surprise and, with media and politicians urgently seeking clarification, the US European Command has referred enquiries to the Pentagon, and the Pentagon has referred them on to the White House.
If the withdrawal plan was drawn up without consultation on its implementation, this suggests its origins are political rather than practical. A previous ill-considered order to withdraw US troops from northern Syria in late 2019 similarly blindsided its allies, the US’s own military and intelligence structures, and its own men and women on the ground. The consequences – giving both encouragement and practical assistance to Russia - were disastrous and totally foreseeable.
With luck this time, advance notice may mitigate some of the worst aspects of the supposed plan. Senior officers in Europe may have scope for damage limitation if they are directed to put a drawdown into effect. Much will depend on the willingness of General Tod Wolters, commander of US European Command and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, to seek the least worst outcome for his command - and for European and US interests - against the apparent wishes of the White House.
But the biggest challenge posed by the plans so far is the implicit weakening of the US commitment to NATO. This may not necessarily be the intent but, in the absence of any confirmation or clarification, this is how they are being understood in the United States, in Europe, and - crucially - how they will be seen in Russia as well.
Continuing silence by the US also does nothing to dispel widespread suggestions that Donald Trump is ordering a drawdown of US forces in Germany as a favour to Vladimir Putin. And suggestions the plans were drawn up because the current United States administration values its relationship with Russia more than with NATO will persist until an alternative convincing rationale is provided.
Military commentators have expounded at length on Russia’s ability to prevent movement into or in Europe using anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities - usually meaning missiles. But there can be no purer form of area denial than - as in northern Syria - causing US troops to be simply ordered away from where they are needed most.
Russia knows as well as anyone that the best way of winning a battle is to persuade the enemy to pack up and go home before it begins; even better if you can make this happen neatly and tidily through a legitimate order directly from their commander-in-chief.
The reactions of the US’s friends and allies, most particularly Germany and NATO, will also be key to damage limitation. But none can sensibly react until there is confirmation and clarification from the United States. Delay and confusion plays into the hands of the US’s adversaries by undermining deterrence, and harms its allies by eroding - still further - both confidence and trust in the current US administration’s competence and intentions.
Deterrence in particular requires clarity and firm commitment. The manner in which these plans have been made public provides precisely the opposite. As such, regardless of whether the plans are eventually implemented or not, their inadvertent or deliberate mishandling by White House sources can only encourage Russia in its long-standing aspiration to remove the United States from European security altogether.