The era of trying to work with Russia is over, the top U.S. commander in Europe said Thursday while arguing for the rebuilding of U.S. forces in that region.
“Russia does not want to challenge the agreed rules of the international order,” Gen. Philip Breedlove told the House Armed Services Committee. “It wants to rewrite them.”
Breedlove was on Capitol Hill defending the Pentagon’s budget request for fiscal 2017, which includes a fourfold increase in funding for the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) to deter an aggressive Russia.
The increase would bring the initiative's funding to $3.4 billion.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the committee, questioned whether the initiative is an adequate deterrence to Russia.
“We had a hearing a couple of weeks ago talking about Russia,” he said. “Among the witnesses, for example, was your predecessor and the question was raised, is ERI to really deter Russia? Or is it to make our allies feel better? And maybe it will be one, the latter, but not the former.”
Breedlove argued that the initiative does both. But, he added, it will take time to reverse the downsizing of U.S. forces in Europe.
“That 20 years of change will not be overcome in one or two steps,” he said. “ERI is one of the steps along the way.”
Work needs to be done in five areas, Breedlove added: building infrastructure such as ports, rail yards and training areas; prepositioning equipment; increasing rotational forces; building NATO allies’ capacities; and doing training and exercises alongside allies.
Still, Breedlove said, he doesn’t see a turn to a Cold War-era force posture.
“This is not the Cold War,” he said. “But I do believe we are not where we need to be now in the mixture of permanently forward-stationed forces and prepositioned stock so that we can rapidly fall in on it.”
U.S. relations with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, soured after the Kremlin annexed Crimea in 2014. Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad further strained relations.
Breedlove warned that Russia is “weaponizing” the Syrian refugee crisis. Russian airstrikes are hitting civilians, causing them to flee and overwhelm Europe.
“What I am seeing in Syria in places like Aleppo and others are what I would call absolutely indiscriminate, imprecise bombing,” he said. “Almost zero military utility, designed to get people on the road and make them someone else's problem. Get them on the road, make them a problem for Europe to bend Europe to the will of where they want them to be.”