Top general: No discussion of military response to Kerch Strait incident

The top military officer in the United States said Thursday there has been no discussion of a military response to Russia’s actions against Ukraine near the Sea of Azov.

Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford was responding to a question at a Washington Post event about providing Ukraine with naval weaponry as some have called for in the wake of last month’s incident in the Kerch Strait.

“There is not a discussion ongoing right now about a military dimension in response to the Sea of Azov,” Dunford told moderator David Ignatius. “Obviously, my job in uniform is to make sure the president has options available should he decide to respond with military force. But there has been no military response nor has there been a discussion about a military response to the Sea of Azov in public.”

Last month, Russia fired on Ukrainian ships as they tried to transit the Kerch Strait, which links the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea. Several crew members were injured, and Russia seized three ships. Moscow has been detaining the sailors from the ships since.

Earlier Thursday, the Pentagon announced that the U.S. military and several allies took part in an "extraordinary" flight over Ukraine as part of the Open Skies Treaty that was meant to send a message to Russia.

During the Washington Post event, Dunford said the Kerch Strait incident is part of a pattern of behavior from Russia meant to test the international community.

“And in this case, clear violations of sovereignty have taken place, and that doesn’t by any means indicate that there should be a military response,” he continued. “But I think the international community certainly has got to respond diplomatically or economically or in the security space, or Russia will continue to do what they’ve been doing over the last couple of years.”

Dunford added that he has not “specifically” spoken about the incident with his Russian counterpart, with whom he is in regular contact to prevent the U.S. and Russian militaries from coming into direct conflict.

The Kerch Strait incident is one of several recent developments that have ratcheted up U.S.-Russia tension in recent weeks.

This week, the United States also gave Russia 60 days to come back into compliance with a landmark arms control treaty or else the United States would stop adhering to it. Russia denies it has violated what’s known as the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Dunford said Russia’s continued violations of the INF Treaty could affect the extension of a separate treaty known as New START. That treaty, which caps the number of deployed nuclear warheads for each country, expires in 2021 with the option for a five-year extension. 

“It’d be best if Russia would comply with the INF, which would set the conditions for a broader conversation about other arms control agreements, to include the extension of START,” he said. “I will not obviously make this decision-- I’ll make recommendations. But it’s very difficult for me to envision progress in extending START II, as an example, if the foundation of that is noncompliance with the INF Treaty.”