Russia’s meddling in elections in Europe and the United States, its aggressive seizure of Crimea, military involvement in Syria and actively supporting separatists in Georgia and Ukraine put it in a class by itself as a U.S. threat, three experts on Moscow-Washington relations told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
Because of these actions, “our current vector with U.S.-Russia relations is not good,” retired NATO Supreme Allied Commander Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove said. The former top American officer in Europe added, “We cannot simply dismiss Russia as a declining, regional power.” Moscow’s goal is to weaken and divide NATO, the European Union and the trans-Atlantic partnership.
President Vladimir Putin wants Russia unrestrained by Western standards,” William Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and a former ambassador, testified. By showing firmness and diligence, “we have a better hand to play.”
The “litmus test” for improved relations between the United States and Russia is Ukraine. “Any change for the better depends on Russian behavior,” Alexander Vershbow, a fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former deputy secretary general of NATO, said. “Anything less would reward Russian aggression.”
Breedlove added, “We should not reward bad behavior.” He recommended sending lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine, an authority already given the president but not yet acted upon, and encouraging allies to do more to assist Kiev in political reform and rooting out corruption.
Keeping sanctions in place on the Kremlin is a sign of unity for NATO and the EU, Burns said.
Putin “wants to go back to the days when Russia … dominated its neighbors,” Vershbow said.
To keep themselves in power in face of low oil and natural gas prices and the impact of sanctions for its actions in Crimea and Ukraine, the Kremlin “requires an external enemy,” such as the United States, NATO and the European Union.
In response to Russia’s new military strategy of escalating to the threat of using tactical nuclear weapons to de-escalate, Breedlove said the United States needs to “completely convince [Moscow] we are ready to respond.”
He said the European Reassurance Initiative is a good step forward in that regard. The $3.4 billion will be spent on improving infrastructure, pay for rotational exercises and permanent stationing of three heavy armored brigades in northern and eastern Europe. “Permanent presence is the best answer,” but may not be practical.
Burns and Vershbow both said cuts in the State Department aid programs are short-sighted, noting that Ukraine assistance would be affected. “We need to look at American power in the broadest sense,”
Vershbow said. Burns said, “I think leverage is important” and investing in allies and partners such as non-NATO nations Sweden and Finland strengthens the United States’ position.
“We cannot just circle the wagons” in NATO when meeting the challenges from Russia politically, diplomatically and militarily, Vershbow added. “NATO need to look south as well as east” and address terrorism and migration. “Defending societies is as important as defending borders.”
Referring to Russia’s apparent violation of the intermediate range nuclear missile agreement by stationing cruise missiles near its border, he added, “we cannot let that go unchallenged. This was not done by accident.” Vershbow said they “believe they can get away with it.”
Later in answer to a question, Breedlove said Moscow knows the deployment of Aegis ashore “is very divisive” among allies.
At the same time, allies need to be reassured about President Donald Trump’s agenda includes NATO. “The jury is still out,” Vershbow said as to whether that is the direction the administration take. Citing the campaign rhetoric and recent comments from the White House about the value of the alliance, Burns said “there is a lot of unrest” in European capitals about the future.
Rebuilding trust on issues of mutual interest — counterterrorism, nuclear material safety, announcement of military exercises — are the likely means to open communications with Russia.
“The real risk is letting channels of communications atrophy,” Burns said. It is the United States’ “cold-blooded self interest we understand each other.”