The Trump administration’s move to divert billions of dollars intended for military construction projects in order to finance a border wall with Mexico sparked outrage last week, with cuts to things like funding Army base elementary schools on U.S. soil dominating the discussion, and prompting sharp criticism from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
But what went relatively unnoticed was the equally large pot of Pentagon cash that will be diverted away from construction projects at U.S. military facilities overseas. And while that shift might carry less of a political risk, national security experts believe it could be a gut punch to U.S. diplomatic and security interests in a part of the world that has been a particular sore spot for the president: Europe.
The Trump administration is set to move $771 million of funding away from projects earmarked to the European Deterrence Initiative, a program created by the Obama administration that was designed to reassure anxious European allies that the U.S. would back them up in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
From 2014 to 2019, the Deterrence Initiative’s budget ballooned from $1 billion to $6.5 billion; Trump himself has pushed for increases to the program in his budget proposals. So while plenty of EDI funding still remains, deferred cash from the program accounts for two out of every five dollars that the administration is diverting to the wall from overseas—raising more questions about Trump’s inconsistent posture on the threat posed by Russia, along with his willingness to support NATO, which he has characterized as a financial burden on the U.S.
Those familiar with the region are now sounding the alarm about what signals the raiding of EDI sends to Russia and to U.S. allies in Europe. “The signal it sends to Russia,” said a congressional aide, “is that the U.S. isn’t serious about its deterrence initiative for Europe, we’re not serious about our commitment to NATO and to our allies. The messaging is bad, and it’s compounded with all the other bad things Trump has done to harm relations with Europe.”
The move is another slap in the face to European allies who have spent the last two and a half years frustrated and bewildered, said Jim Townsend, who was deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO affairs under Obama. “They’re punishing the Europeans,” said Townsend, who pointed out specific impacts from the cut list. Close to $16 million, for example, is being axed for U.S. special forces training facilities in Estonia—a country that is particularly wary of Russian expansionism.
“In my old office in the Pentagon,” said Townsend, “I’m sure the Estonians have already shown up and gone, ‘What the fuck?’”
The deferred EDI funds affect 25 military construction projects spread out over 13 countries, from the United Kingdom and Spain to countries on NATO’s front lines—such as Estonia and Poland—that stand to be most immediately impacted by any escalation of hostilities between the U.S. and Russia.
Experts are especially concerned with that latter group, pointing out that the administration has dried up funding for projects that most directly affect U.S. military readiness: In Poland, for example, $130 million will be deferred for the construction of ammunition and fuel storage facilities, as well as the building of railway extensions and staging areas.
“We already have a problem with cross-border transport in Europe, especially the eastern flank,” said the congressional aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the matter. “The eastern countries are the most vulnerable, their infrastructure is relatively new. Taking money from there increases vulnerability.”
The State Department referred The Daily Beast to the Department of Defense for comment about whether or not affected countries were informed of the funding shift. In response to questions, a Pentagon spokesperson pointed to a Sept. 3 Defense Department press briefing during which officials said they were “notifying countries” of the cuts, while adding little else in the way of detail.
The administration’s decision making, said Jonathan Hoffman, assistant to the Secretary of Defense, is intended “to provide time to work with Congress to determine opportunities to restore funds, as well as work with our allies and partners on improving cost burden sharing for the overseas construction projects.”
Given the significant increase in EDI’s budget over the last five years, the cuts aren’t as big as they sound, said Alina Polyakova, a fellow and Russia expert at the Brookings Institute, though she added the U.S. shouldn’t divest from initiatives that shore up NATO’s eastern flank.
But Polyakova argued that the move adds to a growing trust deficit between the U.S. and Europe in the Trump era. Already, the administration is withholding $250 million in annual military aid to Ukraine that is intended to deter Russia, sparking bipartisan frustration on Capitol Hill. And ever since he started out as a candidate, Trump has repeatedly criticized the NATO system, arguing that the U.S. contributes too much and Europe too little.
“It’s chaotic and is sending mixed signals to all of our allies in Europe, including EU and NATO member states,” said Polyakova. “You have this, withholding aid from Ukraine, the sanctions policy on Russia, it’s really confusing if you’re in Kiev or Warsaw.”
Evelyn Farkas, former deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia and Ukraine under Obama, said the U.S. looks again like an unreliable ally. “It raises the question of whether the president is sufficiently committed to deterrence of Russia and security of U.S. personnel and U.S. interests in Europe as opposed to on our border.”
But several experts argue that the EDI funding should not be confused with security assistance to NATO countries. “We don’t have facilities because we’re being nice to the Greeks or the Estonians,” said Townsend. “We have them because we feel we need them… Having a strong U.S. force posture deters Russia, helps the U.S., and helps the Europeans.”
“This is stuff we’re going to need if we’re going to make sure the Russians understand we’re gonna fight and defend an ally, and we’ve got the capability to do so.”
On Capitol Hill, aides concede there is not much they can do to stop the Trump administration from transferring the Europe security funds—or funds for projects in the U.S.—to the border wall. Lawmakers are sending letters demanding answers from the Department of Defense, and are mulling other steps they can take. While they press for more explanations as to why projects in their states and districts are being put at risk, the impact of the overseas cuts remains decidedly on the back burner.
“They were looking for easy targets,” said Farkas of the administration’s raiding of European deterrence funds. “There is no natural constituency for overseas projects, so it seems to be the least politically painful way to go.”