Does Biden’s Base in Poland Break a NATO Promise?

On June 29, Biden introduced his presence at the NATO summit in Madrid, by announcing that the US would establish a permanent headquarters for US forces stationed in Poland. Biden announced that "The new base will be home to the first permanent US forces on NATO’s eastern flank."

It will be the first permanent US base because the US and NATO promised that there would be no permanent base in NATO’s eastern flank. At a time when the US should be doing everything possible to nurture a diplomatic solution to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden, instead, antagonized Russia by breaking that promise and enhancing NATO’s eastward expansion.

US officials parried the broken promise agreement thrust through the sophistry of distinguishing the permanent headquarters from the resident troops who will be on rotational deployment. They say that the word "permanent" is an accurate description of the headquarters but not of the combat troops stationed in the headquarters. However long troops remain in a base, though, they always rotate through, making it very unlikely Moscow will be assuaged by the rotating troops in a permanent base argument.

In May 1997, when it was clear that the US would break its promise and extend NATO east toward Russia’s borders, President Clinton at least offered Boris Yeltsin and Russia the compensation of the NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations. That act promised that as NATO expanded east toward Russia, there would be no "permanent stationing of substantial combat forces."

Biden’s announcement clearly breaks that promise. A permanent headquarters that "will include a command post, garrison, and field support battalion" seems to be a clear violation of the act.

Though the individual soldiers may not be permanently stationed at the base, US Army V Corps soldiers will be permanently stationed at the base: there will be "a steady, consistent rotation of forces," seemingly making it a "permanent stationing of substantial combat forces."

Biden’s announcement referred not just to a permanent base, but to "the first permanent US forces on NATO’s eastern flank." And though the White House has often needed to walk back Biden’s words, it did not walk back these ones. A Defense Department fact sheet used the exact same words. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin used the exact words on Twitter.

V Corps functioned in Europe for almost a century. It was inactivated in 2012. In 2020, it was reactivated to provide "additional command and control capability focused on synchronizing US Army, allied and partner nation tactical formations operating in Europe." V Corps became fully operational in November 2021, working "alongside NATO allies and regional security partners to provide combat ready forces" and to "improve interoperability and to ensure an appropriate collective posture of deterrence and defense."

Although the US may never have taken the NATO-Russia Founding Act totally seriously, it was very important to Russia. Richard Sakwa, professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent, told me that the Russian government is aware that we are living in a very different world and that the act is now dead. Alexander Lukin, who is Head of the International Relations Department at HSE University in Moscow, told me that he doesn’t "think that the Russian government has any illusions about that document."

That the act is still important to Russia, though, may be suggested by the terms Putin chose in laying out an opening negotiating position in the December 2021 draft security treaty he sent to the US Putin wanted a written guarantee that NATO troops deployed to eastern European countries that entered NATO since 1997 would be removed. That is, he wanted the promise of the NATO-Russia Founding Act to be kept.

The US may have never taken the Founding Act wholly seriously. It was a deceptive anodyne designed to soothe painful symptoms while masking that the problem was still there and could re-emerge. According to M.E. Sarotte in her new book, Not One Inch, the act was carefully written to allow a future president like Biden to wiggle out of the agreement.

In the section called "Political-Military Matters," the act sates "NATO reiterates that in the current and foreseeable security environment" there would be no "permanent stationing of substantial combat forces." Sarotte writes "the NSC assured Clinton that with these words, the United States had avoided making ‘an absolute commitment, in case future circumstances changed.’ The definition of terms such as ‘substantial’ was intentionally left vague, and Western negotiators would successfully resist all efforts to define it."

Lukin goes further, calling the Founding Act "a surrender of Russia’s interests and of the principle of equality." Like Sarotte, he says "there were no serious obligations" and says that "It was signed by Yeltsin to save face while he was begging Clinton for money."

Clearly a "permanent headquarters for U.S. forces," that is "accompanied by a field support battalion" that the White House specifically called "the first permanent US contingent on NATO’s eastern flank" fits any definition of "substantial." But the deliberate language of "current and foreseeable" allowed Biden to exploit the language of the act to break the promise of its spirit, choosing to antagonize Russia and risk prolonging the conflict between NATO and Russia at precisely the moment that creating diplomacy and not antagonism is desperately needed.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.