The Marine Corps General nominated by President Obama to be the country’s highest-ranking uniformed military officer told members of Congress on Wednesday that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is the most significant military threat to the United States.
Speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Marine Corps Commandant Joseph F. Dunford said that amid the various current and potential threats facing the U.S., including Islamist extremist groups, cyberattacks from China and North Korea, and more, the largest national security challenge the country faces is from Russia.
“If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia,” Dunford said. “If you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming.”
Dunford, who is expected to be confirmed as the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that as recently as a few years ago, U.S. defense policies “did not fully anticipate growing Russian aggression.”
Russia, which invaded the Crimea region of Ukraine and declared it “annexed” last year, continues to support armed rebels in Eastern Ukraine with soldiers and materiel. Dunford, asked by the members of the committee to prepare answers to some questions in advance, said that the U.S. military remains worried that Russia will invade other former members of USSR in an effort to rebuild its sphere of influence.
“Are you concerned that Moldova and Georgia may be at a heightened state of vulnerability, given Russian willingness to take aggressive action in Ukraine?” the committee asked.
“Yes,” Dunford replied. “Russia has demonstrated both in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine today its willingness to use force, violate sovereignty, and exploit the vulnerabilities of these fragile democracies to achieve its strategic objectives. Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine all contain Russian-occupied separatist regions that the Kremlin exploits for its own purposes.”
Asked what he believes the U.S. can do to block future Russian aggression, Dunford said, “Sanctions alone are unlikely to deter future Russian aggression; deterring combined Russian-separatists actions against Ukraine requires a whole of government approach that is aligned with our NATO allies and friends in Europe. However, U.S. and EU sanctions have had an impact on Russia's economy and send a clear signal to Moscow that aggression against Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity entails costs.”
Working with Russia – particularly to forestall the possibility of accidentally touching off a conflict, Dunford said, should be a priority.
“Cooperation with Russia in areas of mutual interest within the military sphere remains possible if Russia assumes the role of a responsible international actor moving forward, not isolated and moving backward as it is today. If confirmed, my intent for the military-to-military relationship is to reduce the chances of miscalculation or escalation through professional, candid communications and behaviors.”
However, he also suggested that when it comes to a reduction in the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, any further efforts now must be undertaken “hand-in-hand” with Russia – meaning that the U.S. can no longer afford to act unilaterally to reduce its arsenal. Any changes, he said, should “focus on measures that will maintain or strengthen deterrence of adversaries, assurance of our Allies and partners, and strategic stability.”
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