Ask This General

Brigadier General Peter B. Zwack {Ret.}

peter b zwack




Russia Affairs
Eurasia Affairs
Joint Presentation
Keynote Address

Defense Attaché to Moscow 2012 – 2014

Global Fellow at The Kennan Institute
Woodrow Wilson International Center

University of Pennsylvania – Adjunct Fellow

Senior Russia-Eurasia Research Fellow
National Defense University 2015 – 2019

Why Are We Pulling Additional Forces Out of Germany?

The Trump administration’s decision to unilaterally withdraw additional military forces from Germany is short-sighted and unsettling. Why now? And why during these so unsteady times?

We’ve already drawn down so much in Europe and serious, unresolved threats clearly remain. Is this a carefully staffed policy decision or just planning by a small group of administration insiders?

Why so little pre-coordination with host nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or even our own military commands in Europe?

And why is the White House in such a hurry to get this done by September? Is this, in part, a personal jab toward Germany? These military drawdowns, often involving moving families and shutting bases, normally takes years … and some of you reading this have patiently lived through how wrenching they can be.

How does it get so often lost, that we derive great benefits in being cooperatively embedded in Germany and in Europe overall? Ever since VE-Day and the Marshall Plan, our steady presence in Europe has been the greatest form of realistic preemption versus dangerous potential outcomes that we’ve had on this planet beyond purely inflexible hard-power nukes. Besides providing deterrence toward potential adversaries, assurance for our allies and a platform and sanctuary for our forward deployed forces, they also help provide a significant mooring point business-wise with mainstream European society and NATO — the world’s core security alliance. It’s also an important and credible conduit to complex, difficult Russia.

Precipitously cutting more forces in Europe now, especially without coordination with our allies, only sends additional erratic signals during this fraught, uncertain period. With over a 11 years over more than three decades serving with U.S./allied forces in Germany and environs, I’ve personally seen and lived how affirming our presence and resultant allied-partner trust and interoperability matters. I have also experienced several major drawdowns that, especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Cold War’s end seemed appropriate initially — but much has changed since then.

Further reducing our presence in Europe at this time will further shake our allies’ and partners’ faith in our reliability and further reinforce potential adversaries who wish us ill. We’ve already pulled out of so much of the “global commons” treaty-wise and have been ceding our hard and soft power, including moral leadership, to other fast muscling entities … a trend that could strategically bite us one day.

What I am really worried about is that politically — and yes, personally — our formerly special relationship with Europe and Canada has been quite damaged … not yet irreparably, but painfully so, especially since 2016. This goes philosophically much deeper than just funding issues. Absolutely, key allies like Germany should spend more on defense and NATO’s 2 percent funding goal — but we should continue to work this via hard-nosed back-room diplomacy rather than public-stiffening media statements and tweets.

Where’s our discipline, our predictability, our perceived reliability?

Albeit with bumps, NATO has held together for 71 years. To remind, NATO and its tough predictability has worked regarding the challenging USSR/Russia relationship, and overall internal European security for a long seven-decade period of relative peace — unprecedented in Europe’s battle-scarred history.

Undeniably, Asia is looming and critical — all the more important to firmly anchor our center in Europe. And we had best do that with constructive and mostly philosophically aligned allies and partners. That extends into the Indo-Pacific as well.

Isn’t America most great and most secure when entwined with strong and supportive allies and partners? Such enduring relationships should not be measured just in dollars, but from all the other benefits that accrue from routine contact, presence and a common world view. Sure, it can be frustrating when we disagree. That will always be so in such voluntary constructs with equal allies.

We must — without public brinksmanship — firmly but diplomatically work through our differences within the complicated issues that always crop up in alliances and partnership. Simply walking out of important international treaties and agreements accomplishes little but sow ill will and discord.

If we continue on this self-isolating course, increasingly distancing allies and partners, we risk becoming more dangerously and expensively alone.

Finally, we cannot isolate ourselves from this cyber-connected transnational world. It’s simply not possible. We must find a balance. This is not the time to make such a short-sighted move to unilaterally withdraw forces from Germany and Europe. Instead, we should wisely re-embrace the global community and strive to lead by inclusive example once again.

Retired Brig. Gen. Peter B. Zwack commanded the U.S. Army’s 66th Military Intelligence Group from 2004-06 and served as a senior intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Kosovo, South Korea and U.S. Army Europe. He also was the senior U.S. defense attache to Russia (2012-2014) and operations officer for Army Cyber Command. He is currently a Wilson Center Global Fellow at the Kennan Institute.

Honor these U.S. and Soviet vets, coronavirus or not

The crushing defeat of Nazi Germany 75 years ago was memorialized on April 25, 1945, by a gesture, a handshake between battle-hardened American and Soviet soldiers linking-up as wartime allies in the closing days of World War II. This special embrace as comrades-in-arms along the Elbe River at Torgau culminated a fleeting bond between soldiers sharing in an indescribably costly but just war against the most hideous existential threat the modern world had ever known. Shortly thereafter, this hard-earned soldiers’ bond was abandoned and lost in the Cold War; an unfortunate state-of-being that in fits and starts has carried on to this day.

This year’s planned remembrance of that heady 1945 moment has been engulfed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Modest non-governmental commemorations, conferences and a reenactment scheduled for April 24-25 in Germany, Russia and at Arlington cemetery were planned then understandably canceled as travel bans were set in place in February and March of this year. U.S., Russian and former Soviet citizens including several ancient veterans, and retired Cold War-era generals from both sides, were to have publicly met. There will be a single virtual conference in their stead.

Therefore we have lost much of a seriously needed opportunity to spotlight for our respective publics a positive historic moment between Moscow and Washington at a time when current relations remain dismal and dangerous. It also was one of the final WWII anniversary moments left to honor our few remaining veterans — including those of our allies and foes — that served during that grimly epic time. This is especially important for our younger generation, who’ve grown-up only knowing tense U.S.-Russian relations and may have little or no awareness of this better historic moment.

Finding credible venues upon which to positively build are urgently needed to smooth the sharp and dangerous edges that continue to dog U.S. and Russian relations. Despite our opposing worldviews, there is a pressing need to rebuild educational and confidence-building venues between our citizens at every level. Special focus, urgently needed now, must be to deepen credible “eyes-wide-open” contact between our nuclear-tipped militaries across different operational and strategic levels. Despite improved direct Washington to Moscow links, the limited regional leader-level contact between our active militaries, both worldwide powers that stretch from the Atlantic to Pacific, is particularly problematic.

Some will surely say any enhanced U.S.-Russia contact, even if non-governmental commemorative events such as the Elbe link-up, would cast the United States and the West as appeasing Moscow during this geopolitically contentious period and imply acquiescence to Russia’s malign actions. I reject this perspective. Publicly commemorating positive events would not infer any easing of sanctions on Russia or mean reducing support for our NATO allies and partner nations such as Ukraine and Georgia.

There will be almost no World War II veterans left from any side for an 80th commemoration in 2025. Those few remaining are mostly infirm and sheltering from the lethal coronavirus. Their legacy and the memory of their passed peers should be publicly highlighted and remembered for all ages, especially today. Modest success would be public statements by our senior political and military leaders in conjunction with veterans and civic organizations commemorating the April 25 Elbe link-up and WWII sacrifices highlighting those remaining veterans with call-outs, media interviews and documentaries.

The U.S., Russia and the other countries of the former Soviet Union whose soldiers shook hands together on that fateful, promising day 75 years ago, must not abandon its memory and that of the overall end of WWII during these anxious COVID-19 times. It’s also important to assure our youth and future generations, who will surely grapple with the societal changes stemming from a soon-to-be post COVID-19 world order, that we did all we could to ease the world back from today’s dangerous state-of-affairs that remain a continuing existential threat to us all.

Americans should consider this a preparation drill for ‘The Big One’

COVID-19 has awakened the most primordial fears and concerns within most of us. It is stealthy, contagious and lethal. It is statistically certain to kill a proportion of our population. It has no borders, no antidote and can spread as fast as we travel. Fueled by 24/7 media coverage, this pandemic has focused us existentially in a way that only a nuclear crisis could.

Despite current sorrows and hardship, has its malignant arrival now actually done mankind a favor?

In 2005, concerned by the recently concluded SARs pandemic, my U.S. Army 66th Military Intelligence Group in Darmstadt, Germany, conducted a “what if” tabletop exercise about how to survive and manage during a Spanish Flu type outbreak in Europe. Beforehand, we handed out dozens of Gina Kolata’s highly readable book, “Flu,” to our officers and senior enlisted.

We then brainstormed how the several thousand soldiers, civilians and dependents in our bases and housing areas would ride-out such a pandemic if it were to hit us internally or infiltrate first into the German community that surrounded our installations.

The fundamental question was how would our personnel and families survive yet subsist and conduct mission within this challenged ecosystem?

We worked on thorny issues that included both guarding and quarantining our facilities from a potentially anxious local population with whom we coexisted and had an excellent relationship, and how to quarantine house-by-house, barracks by barracks if the pathogen spread within our fences. Acquiring foodstuffs and basic supplies, beyond those peremptorily stored, from a wounded military and domestic supply chain was a major concern — we recommended that each dwelling keep an in-house survival stock. We talked triage, grief management and in the worst-case took a macabre look at setting up an on-site field morgue in a gymnasium. It was a sobering exercise, well worth it for stretching some realistic thinking out of the unthinkable.

Has COVID-19’s onslaught created an opportunity to focus science and resources to preempt and ameliorate inevitable future outbreaks that could be even more contagious and virulent, as was the case with so-called Spanish Flu in 1918-1920?

The grim reaper that ravaged the 1919 world — with a minimum 50 million dead among a population just one-quarter the size of ours today — was also a virus. Little-known is the fact that it came in two waves, a first, less lethal strain, in the summer of 1918, and then a horrific mutation less than a year later that was indiscriminate in its killing.

Unlike today, the most vulnerable population then was fit young adults.

In the U.S. its dormant pathogen, spread by returning WWI doughboys, blossomed at Ft. Riley, deep in our Kansas heartland. Somehow, over early transportation, especially ships and railroads, it spread via pulmonary contagion — in other words, people breathed and coughed on each other, while leaving droplets on multiple surfaces — first across the world and then through our country. Sound familiar?

After scourging the planet, it disappeared into the hothouse of spent, metastasizing pathogens. This, as the hopefully permanently eradicated smallpox has shown, is the most transmissible form of contagion. Highly lethal Ebola is more difficult to spread — by direct fluid-to-fluid contact, such as blood.

We must take advantage of the focus this current pandemic provides and do the additional governmental and community brainstorming with essential preparations for a worst-case outbreak.

The panicked run on our stores and supermarkets and political finger-pointing show that we really haven’t thought this through beyond higher-level homeland security, medical and first responder communities. While unlikely, what would happen if this pathogen returns near-term in an even more virulent form?

Despite numerous personal tragedies today, this outbreak presents an opportunity for all Americans — in concert with our global community — to apply far-sighted, preemptive thinking and action against future pandemics whether natural or man-induced.

Like a monster hurricane, earthquake with tsunamis or — God forbid — something hideously nuclear, we must societally prepare for “the big one” within the pathogen world. COVID-19, in its present form, appears not to be that. But it is a clarion-call for future action now.

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