Pentagon: Russia not causing defense strategy rethink

The Pentagon is not rethinking its long-term defense strategy because of Russian aggression toward Ukraine, Defense Department officials told lawmakers Tuesday.  

“The fundamental strategy of the [quadrennial defense review] still holds,” said Derek Chollet, assistant secretary of defense for international security, at a House Armed Services Committee. 

The QDR, which guides Pentagon spending over the long term, prioritizes a shift of military assets and attention to the Asia-Pacific, as well as to growing cyber and special operations capabilities, over conventional military strength. 

“We must balance our energies to maintain security and stability, not just in Europe, but the Far East as well,” said Navy Vice Adm. Frank Pandolfe, director for strategic plans and policy on the Joint Staff, who also testified.

Defense officials said, if they were to rewrite it, they would make some “language changes” to reflect Russia’s seizure of Crimea and other global events since the QDR was unveiled last month, but that a rethink would not be forthcoming. 

“We’re not planning to rewrite the QDR,” said Derek Chollet, assistant secretary of Defense for international security. “The fundamental strategy outlined in the QDR is one that will fulfill our interests and help us respond to this crisis.” 

The assessment came, even as Russian troops remain massed on the eastern Ukrainian border. Pro-Russian protests in several eastern Ukrainian cities over the weekend have also worried the United States.

There is “strong evidence” that the protesters appeared to be paid by Russia, said Chollet. 

“The events of the weekend are very concerning … these aren’t spontaneous protests,” said Chollet. “This is deeply troubling to all states in the region and beyond, and we are watching Russian military movements very closely.” 

Defense officials said the U.S. is re-examining its force posture and exercises in the region, and is planning to take more steps to reassure NATO allies.

So far, the U.S. has sent 18 fighter jets to the region and about 200 additional personnel to Poland, and extended a destroyer’s stay in the Black Sea. The Pentagon is also planning to send a Navy ship to the Black Sea next week. 

Chollet added that, if Russia threatened any NATO member, it would find the U.S. “commitment to collective defense is immediate and unwavering.” 

Steps to bolster Ukrainian forces and stop Russia in the short-term were less clear. 

The U.S. has sent 300,000 meals ready to eat (MRE) foil packets so far, and the Pentagon is continuing to review other nonlethal aid items, officials said. Officials have also increased defense consultations with Ukrainian officials. 

“What Ukraine really needs badly is help with their economy,” Chollet said. “We do not seek military confrontation.”  

However, lawmakers from both political parties said they were worried that, if Russian troops moved into Ukraine, economic aid would be moot.  

“Sending MREs is basically a school lunch program,” said Rep. Micheal Turner (R-Ohio). 

Chollet argued U.S. sanctions and the suspension of bilateral military relations with Russia are also acting as deterrents.

“I would not underestimate the impact of Russia’s isolation. Mr. Putin very much enjoys the international spotlight. Russia is finding itself more and more alone, and that will have an effect as well,” he added. 

Rep. Buck McKeon, the panel’s chairman, argued that Russia is seeking to modernize its military and become a global player, something that should concern the U.S.

Pandolfe, however, downplayed concern that Russia was a global threat. 

“Russia is a regional power that can project power into nearby states … but has limited global power projection,” he said. 

This story was updated 4/10/14 at 1:32 p.m.