March 18, 2024

Speed bumps on the road for the German brigade in Lithuania

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, right, arrives for a meeting with Lithuanian Defense Minister at the Defense Ministry in Vilnius, Lithuania, Monday, Dec. 18, 2023.
German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, right, arrives for a meeting with Lithuanian Defense Minister at the Defense Ministry in Vilnius, Lithuania, Monday, Dec. 18, 2023.

Germany’s commitment of an entire combat brigade to Lithuania is a prestige project of the Zeitenwende. Since its announcement in 2022, however, the two Allies have struggled to find common ground for such an ambitious undertaking, including on whether the entire brigade would be permanently stationed in Lithuania.

This problem, at least, seems to have been left in the past—in December 2023, German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius and Lithuanian Defence Minister Arvydas Anusauskas signed an implementation roadmap for the brigade’s deployment. This was undoubtably a big step forward, but many detailed issues remain uncertain.

When Pistorius visited the Lithuanian town Pabradė and its military training facilities near the Belarussian border in summer 2023, his announcement of plans for a permanent German brigade in Lithuania, rather than one stationed in Germany that could be deployed in days, surprised even his own ministry and military leaders. Vilnius reacted very positively—it had been pushing for such a solution for some time. Just six months later, the roadmap was agreed, envisaging the deployment of 4 800 German soldiers and 200 civilian personnel by the end of 2027, with the first 100 set to arrive by the end of this year.

However, financial disagreements have left the roadmap in some doubt. Germany expects Lithuania to pay not just for infrastructure for military use, but also for schools, kindergartens and housing for soldiers and their families. Pistorius wants to staff the deployment with volunteers; hence the framework needs to be as attractive as possible, especially as recent polls indicate that only one in five German soldiers sees themself moving voluntarily to NATO’s eastern flank. He also made clear his intention to create an entirely new brigade, rather than move an existing one to Lithuania. It is still not certain whether the reshuffling of personnel necessary to create this new brigade will have to be repeated every 2-3 years. Pistorius is confident that he can find enough volunteers, but is ready to “look into a plan B if necessary.

Lithuania, however, has made clear that it is not prepared to meet all of Germany’s wishes. According to a leaked December 2023 confidential note (Kabelbericht) from the German embassy, Lithuania is ready to pay for all military infrastructure, but only for part of the costs of housing German soldiers, as it sees German standards as significantly higher than those it offers its own soldiers. Furthermore, Lithuania expects Germany to bear all the costs for schools and kindergartens. It believes that its military budget of around 2 billion euros, which is well above NATO’s 2% goal, is simply not big enough to cover the investments the Germans want, and fears a public relations storm if it pays for allegedly luxurious accommodation for foreign troops. The government has, however, created a task force to recommend an updated cost-sharing plan by the end of April.

Berlin does, of course, have a much higher defence budget and an additional 100 billion euros from the Sodnervermögen (special fund), but is still reluctant to fully finance the new brigade. With the advance party expected in Lithuania in April, the German MoD is still “assessing the financial needs”. A leaked internal estimate puts the price tag for the whole project at 7.5 billion euros plus an additional 1 billion euros per year to sustain the brigade in Lithuania. The implementation costs include new equipment, most importantly new tanks for Panzerbattalion 203 to replace the Leopard 2s sent to Ukraine.

But the brigade is also missing equipment, clothing and ammunition which must be procured if troops stationed at home are not to be left underequipped. For expeditionary operations, the Bundeswehr often gathered equipment and material from troops left at home, but this would weaken the entire force if repeated in this case: Germany’s Chief of the Army, Lieutenant General Alfons Mais, warned last December that German forces were only 60 percent equipped, which could drop to 55 percent if a new brigade was created without further investments.

Clearly, this issue needs to be resolved as a failed or incomplete deployment would send a poor signal about NATO’s deterrence posture and embarrass Germany in its ambition to be a leading military player in Europe. Policy makers in Vilnius might pay more attention to the economic strength that 5 000 German soldiers and their family members would bring to the country in the long run. The 35 000 US personnel stationed in Germany, for example, generate around 2.3 billion euros every year. Obviously, this is far more than a German brigade would deliver, but an estimated economic benefit should nonetheless be part of the current financial debate.

At the same time, Germany’s clear need for more investment in its armed forces will not be fixed by making financial demands of a small Ally. If it is not certain that Germany can maintain defence spending above NATO’s 2 percent goal after 2027 (while still claiming to be a leading military power in Europe) the issues are more fundamental than luxurious barracks in Lithuania. Without another Sondervermögen and more defence investments, the implementation of the roadmap is questionable, regardless of whether Lithuania pays for more infrastructure.

In the end, both Allies have a common interest in the permanent stationing of German troops on Lithuanian soil. In moving ahead, they might draw inspiration from other examples. For instance, the latest defence agreement between Poland and the US pictures a significant improvement in the daily life of US soldiers stationed in Powidz and other Polish bases. Poland will support the plan with nearly 300 million US-dollars with only a small contribution from the US. And while investments beyond purely military infrastructure are usually part of the deal for receiving troops from abroad, this does not necessarily mean that the host nation should pay the bulk of the costs. US forces in Germany, for example, cost the US around 7.3 billion euros each year, while Germany only contributes 131 million euros.

This US-German arrangement also illustrates the potential sensitivity of this issue. During his presidency, Donald Trump was ready to sow division by highlighting dollar costs and ignoring less tangible benefits such as strategic value, support for power projection, and the presence of the biggest US military hospital outside of the US. While Berlin and Vilnius are presumably not inclined to repeat Trumpish rhetoric, pointing fingers and quibbling over relatively small amounts of cash is clearly not good for NATO cohesion.

Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).

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