The largely overlooked deployment this past weekend of some 4,000 U.S. troops to Poland is an important message from Washington to Moscow: Don’t mess with Eastern Europe, especially the Baltics. It is a message that Donald Trump needs to reinforce, no matter how much he admires his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
“We have waited for you for a very long time," Poland’s defense minister, Antoni Macierewicz, told the troops when they arrived in the town of Zagan, as reported by the Chicago Tribune. "We waited for decades, sometimes feeling we had been left alone, sometimes almost losing hope, sometimes feeling that we were the only one who protected civilization from aggression that came from the east."
Macierewicz was referring to the neglect Eastern Europe suffered throughout the Obama administration, starting with its decision in 2009 to downsize an antiballistic missile system in Poland.
Only in its last week did the outgoing administration push back with the troop deployment, which, though mostly symbolic in size, is meant to demonstrate American resolve to defend European countries that border Russia and feel intimidated by their large and aggressive neighbor.
They have good reason.
A report by Poland’s Institute of International Affairs details evidence that Russia, having successfully annexed the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, is eying with malicious intent the Baltic countries that were once part of the now-defunct Soviet Empire.
Those countries’ intelligence services agree that Putin’s perceived intentions toward Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and even Poland are troubling. The report suggests that Russia’s military intelligence agency – the GRU – and its civilian counterpart – the SVR – are engaged in a systematic attempt to rile Russian-speaking minorities, which comprise as much as 30 percent of the population in the Baltics, much as they did in eastern Ukraine in preparation for the 2014 military incursion there.
In addition, Lithuanian intelligence believes the Kremlin is sending spies under the guise of diplomats to gather information and to turn civilians into informants, using blackmail or once-widely used “honey-traps” – luring victims into sexually compromising situations. The latter takes on special significance given the online publication earlier this month of a dossier of unsubstantiated claims that such evidence had been used against Trump. Those rumors were roundly denied, but there is little doubt that even if Trump was not a victim, the Russian practice of blackmailing potential assets goes on.
An outpost of 4,000 U.S. troops is not enough to make a difference should Russia rashly decide to expand its land grab in Eastern Europe. But its presence is comforting to Poland and its neighbors, even as Moscow denounces the deployment as a provocation.
Any new administration must come into office prepared to face an early challenge from foes abroad. Team Trump would be wise to keep an eye on Poland and its Baltic allies. Putin has shown he has a dangerously wandering eye, and not for the ladies.