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Study: More U.S. Troops in Europe Could Deter – Or Provoke – Russia

U.S. Marine Corps 1st Lt. Nathaniel Lambert, scout sniper platoon commander with Weapons Company, Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), sights in behind a .50-caliber Special Applications Scoped Rifle during a simulated strait transit aboard the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS John P. Murtha (LPD 26) in the Pacific Ocean, Feb. 20, 2019. The Marines and Sailors of the 11th MEU are conducting routine operations as part of the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group in the eastern Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Israel Chincio)

Sending more U.S. troops to Europe could deter Russia from invading Ukraine. Or, it could provoke Russia to retaliate.

Exactly how American troops are deployed against Russia can profoundly affect whether their presence deters Moscow from aggression, or escalates the crisis, according to a new study by U.S. think tank RAND.

“Our research indicates that U.S. forces positioned in Europe are associated with the deterrence of malign activities in competition as well as armed conflict,” the study concluded. “Drawdowns of U.S. forces could threaten to undermine that deterrent, while a sharp increase in the number of U.S. forces—especially if they are present in substantial numbers and positioned in close proximity to Russia—are likely to provoke hostile measures directed at the host countries, at least in the short term.”

“Our research also suggests that small numbers of forces positioned in vulnerable states (such as NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence forces) are unlikely by themselves to provoke severe reactions,” RAND also noted. “However, any initiative to reduce or withdraw U.S. forces from these small, tripwire deployments likely would signal decreasing U.S. commitment to the region and thus potentially embolden Moscow.”

The study comes just as Russia has recognized the independence of the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in what most of the world still considers eastern Ukraine. Russia has moved “peacekeeping” troops into secessionist areas in what may presage a full-scale Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine, while the West has retaliated with economic sanctions against Russia. The U.S. is also reinforcing its forces in Europe with troops and aircraft.

For the most part, the RAND study did not address the current crisis in Ukraine (RAND declined to answer questions from 1945 on the study because the think tank is advising the U.S. government on the crisis). Rather, RAND focused on U.S. and Russian actions during past conflicts – including the Cold War and the 2014 Russian occupation of Crimea – to assess how U.S. military posture can deter Russia.

Historically, the most effective U.S. military option has been deploying boots on the ground. “Our statistical analysis found that the presence of U.S. personnel nearby the potential target of hostile measures (in-region as opposed to in the target country itself) is particularly associated with a reduction in the likelihood of many types of malign activities,” RAND said.

Less effective were joint training exercises and arms transfers to allies “because they do not pre-commit the United States to defend its allies or partners in the same way as forward-positioned forces.” Indeed, military exercises can spark war if they are perceived as a prelude for a U.S. attack.

This brings up the most significant finding of the study: what counts isn’t just deploying U.S. troops, but also how they’re deployed. The best option appears to be small, regular deployments of American forces to locations near Russia – but not so close that they spook Moscow.

The worst option appears to be sudden deployments of large numbers of U.S. troops close to the Russian border, that scare Moscow into retaliating against the host nations. “Forces stationed in vulnerable countries can make the host countries targets for a variety of hostile measures, from military intimidation (with the ever-present risk of inadvertent escalation) to subtler forms of aggression that are

intended to impose costs on or weaken the will of host countries,” said RAND.

The U.S. Army’s new emphasis on developing long-range guided weapons, including missiles with a thousand-mile reach, could also push Russia into retaliating “by targeting host countries with hostile measures.”

RAND recommends retaining U.S. troops in Europe, even if their bases are distant from Russia. But it warns against a policy of short-term deployments to forward bases near Russia.

As during the Cold War, relying on U.S. troop deployments to deter Russia is a dangerous gambit. “On balance, a great many posture changes are more often associated with escalation than with deterrence,” RAND concluded. “Without clear goals, it is difficult to weigh whether the escalation risks can be justified.”

A seasoned defense and national security writer and expert, Michael Peck is a contributing writer for Forbes Magazine. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy Magazine, Defense News, The National Interest, and other publications. He can be found on Twitter and Linkedin.

Written By

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for Forbes. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy Magazine, Defense News, The National Interest, and other publications. He can be found on Twitter and Linkedin.



  1. Commentar

    February 23, 2022 at 6:13 pm

    US shipping it’s war machine to Europe (while the nation itself slowly becomes highly combustible at home) is the wettest dream of the deep state cabal.

    Unfortunately for the US war machine, it is going up against a country that has deep & vast experience and memory of an earlier war machine (1941) that was just as ruthless as another war machine (13th century).

    Thus Russia will assuredly be greatly pissed off by this would-be latest pretender and has the weaponry to clip it’s wings and send it to HELL.

  2. Slack

    February 23, 2022 at 6:33 pm

    Sending more troops to Europe is similar to LBJ sending US GIs to Vietnam and the subsequent blood slaughter.

    Again like Vietnam, US is up against a foe that is resolutely firm and determined to stand it’s ground and also willing to tolerate no nonsense from the latest iteration of imperialist-fascist conquerors.

    Russia today is led by an Ivan who has the gumption, strength, fortitude, backing and tenacity to tear apart the invading troops ready to colonize europe once more.

  3. Rich

    February 23, 2022 at 7:19 pm

    All these articles strategizing US actions and the comments refuting the US are to be honest, BULLSH_T. The US will do nothing militarily except move a few token troops around a bit for show. NOTHING, NADA, ZERO that has any substantial military impact over the status quo. Putin knows this and the commenters here know it despite cries of Barbarossa II. As far as NATO. Tell me what country in NATO has the desire or even the capability to attack Russia? NATO is hollow and will do nothing; NOTHING! The US/NATO will never ever set foot on Russian soil. The entire world knows this, yet this idiocy still continues as if it’s possible. Again, Putin also knows this but is using this fake threat to justify his actions. Yes, sanctions will be imposed but will mean little with respect to Ukraine’s ultimate fate. BTW when Putin takes all of Ukraine, he should just make sure the “Big Guy” gets his cut and all will be fine in the west.

  4. Alex

    February 24, 2022 at 3:59 am

    You still don’t see what the rattling of a weapon near a bear’s nose can do? Are you short?

  5. Duane

    February 24, 2022 at 7:16 am

    I see the Putin hacks from the Trumplican Party, or the Traitors Wing of the GOP, are out in force cheering for our greatest natural enemy, Russia. What treasonous nutbags!

    In any event, Russia is behaving badly and must be taught a severe lesson. In three parts:

    1) Impose the harshest possible economic sanctions on Russia, with the aim of destroying their economy, including a complete embargo on exported Russian oil and gas to participating countries, including all of NATO. Make the Russian people suffer enough and they’ll rid themselves of Putin and his thieving oligarchs. Retired military leaders have already, in writing, threatened a coup against Putin if he went ahead and invaded Ukraine – let it happen internally.

    2) Launch massive cyber attacks on Russia, including disabling their sat nav system and degrading our GPS and the Euro constellation in Ukraine and Russia.

    3) Forward deploy large numbers of US and other NATO troops to the borders of Russia and Ukraine.

    4) Massively increase weapons sales and training support to Ukraine so that they can fight off Russia successfully, imposing massive human and financial casualties on the invaders.

    5) Flood the zone of the internet and radio comms to Russians so that they learn for themselves the disaster that Putin has brought upon themselves.

    Russia brought all of this on themselves and have nobody else to complain about.


    February 24, 2022 at 7:55 am

    RAND, you must be kidding! This is the weakest RAND study I’ve ever read, and I’ve read many. Quite banal actually. The idea that a few extra deployments of us military forces to NATO will deter or frighten
    Putin is laughable! Need I remind you NATO is a collective DEFENSE organization? Putin knows this and is not in the least worried about his rear area or flanks.

  7. Alex

    February 24, 2022 at 8:20 am

    Russia tried to carry on a diplomatic conversation until the very end. Now Russia has said that it is ready for ANY sanction and even … For a nuclear war. Are the people of the NATO countries ready for this?

  8. Scott

    February 24, 2022 at 2:02 pm

    Sadly, our greatest enemy is in the Whitehouse and is determined, along with his Bolshevik brethren, to exterminate our culture.

  9. Michael Byrd killed a right wing terrorist slut

    February 24, 2022 at 4:05 pm

    You subhuman xtian chimps don’t have a culture and deserved to be wiped out.

  10. Zero

    February 24, 2022 at 10:37 pm

    Joe Biden is merely a figurehead, a puppet–the government he ostensibly leads is run by unelected Democrat apparatchiks. So let’s get that out of the way–Biden runs nothing, except, possibly, his bowels.

    So the people actually making the decisions coach drool dripping senile Biden on what to say–and they pump him full of drugs for his rare speeches. I think the Biden team is relieved that war broke out, so that they can blame 7.5% inflation and the crazy COVID lockdowns on Putin this coming November elections.

    Everyone writes off the Ukrainian people, as if they will just roll over for Vlad the Impaler of Journalists. I am not so sure about that. A protracted war will send many Russians home in body bags, and Vlad was sounding a little less icy cool in his threat to go nuclear if anyone ‘outside’ interfered in his butchery–that means Vlad can sense some domestic pressure to his private war. A lot of very advanced TOW missiles and other anti-tank weapons were rushed into the Ukraine in the past month, and the Ukrainian Army is no tiny platoon to be rolled over easily, and urban warfare can sap even the best army.

    Time will tell, but Vlad has lost what few friends he had–Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary all are seeing Vladimir with new eyes. If this war stretches out, Putin might be replaced in a coup-d’etat.

    People also forget that Russia has a smaller GDP than Texas, and it will get much smaller. If SWIFT is denied Russia, that could cause real problems. As Russian expends missiles and ammunition–how will they be replaced quickly? There are many possible scenarios, but I say don’t rule out the people of Ukraine.

  11. from Russia with love

    February 25, 2022 at 5:41 am

    “There are many possible scenarios, but I say don’t rule out the people of Ukraine.”
    what people of Ukraine are you talking about? about neo-Nazis who seized power in 2014, or about those who voted for the return of Crimea to Russia and have been defending their right to free choice in the Donbass with arms in their hands for 8 years?


    February 25, 2022 at 7:00 am

    A little history: When german fascists invaded ukraine in WW2, there was no shortage for the Germans to get full-time and part-time collaborators in the lovely land of ukraine to round up local jews, commissars, partisans and one’s personal enemies to fill the nearest prison cells and prison camps.

    Today, many of these collaborators are held in high regard by many rank and file Ukrainians, including the speaker of Kyiv’s ukrainian parliament, kyiv’s political parties, media outfits and uniformed personnel in the armed forces.

    However, the people in Donbass region (and also in crimea) don’t share these sentiments and this is why ukraine is such a highly volatile mix.

    NATO & US have fully capitalized on this weakness in ukraine, and the result – war ! THANKS, NATO, US !

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