A joint U.S.-Russia military training exercise earlier this year is raising concerns on Capitol Hill that U.S. military cooperation will increase the threat posed by Moscow’s military to friends and allies in Europe.
The two weeks of military exercises in late May included sending 20 Russian troops to Fort Carson, Col., where they held joint exercises in what defense officials called “mountaineering familiarization and parachute” training.
A senior Senate aide said of the exercises: “While I grant that military familiarization does not necessarily confer improved capabilities, Russia is not an ally, and the thing our real allies most fear are small-scale, territorial incursions in the north—like Poland and the Baltics—and the south—like South Ossetia in Georgia.”
The U.S.-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission stated in its June newsletter that “the training consisted of tasks common to both units: marksmanship, parachute jumps, communications, and medical evacuations.”
“The end result of this program is an improved understanding of how the other foreign military works, thus enhancing the operational effectiveness of allied forces,” the newsletter stated.
The Senate aide said that holding the counterterrorism exercises and describing them as enablers of interoperability with Russia is undermining U.S. efforts to support European allies and states such as the Republic of Georgia, which was invaded by Russian military forces in 2008 during a dispute over Russian claims to the Georgian region of South Ossetia.
The U.S. government, while seeking closer ties with Moscow, is “insulting” Georgia by holding the joint exercises, since the Obama administration remains unwilling to sell the Georgians needed defense equipment and arms and has held very little training joint training with its military, the aide said.
Additionally, the Georgians are “under constant threat from a large-scale Russian military mobilization set for Georgia's Oct. 1 parliamentary elections,” the aide added.
“The idea that some of these same Russian paratroopers could drop into NATO territory someday is not a fantasy,” the aide said. “What is a fantasy is thinking that they would never have to do it.”
Several NATO allies have questioned the U.S. government about the joint military exercises, U.S. officials said.
The senior aide criticized the exercises as “more of the reset foolishness and weakness,” a reference to the Obama administration’s conciliatory policies toward Russia.
“Why don't we do more in NATO? I guess Obama has reset that, too,” the aide said.
The Obama administration cancelled plans for a major U.S. missile defense interceptor base in Poland in favor of deploying smaller defenses in an effort to forestall Russian opposition to the defenses.
Russia continues to oppose U.S. and NATO sea-based and ground-based missile defenses in Europe.
In May, weeks before the joint Colorado training, Russia’s chief of the general staff threatened publicly to launch pre-emptive attacks on the European missile defenses unless the United States agreed to Moscow’s demands for reaching a legally binding agreement on missile defense.
Ariel Cohen, a Russia affairs analyst with the Heritage Foundation, said now is not the time for such military exercises with Russia.
Russia has sent military intelligence agents disguised as special forrces soldiers to spy on American troops, tactics, techniques, and procedures, he said.
"Today, Russia, together with Iran and Venezuela is among the troika of the most virulent anti-American countries, not counting Cuba and North Korea," Cohen said.
"Russia is playing the godfather of Syria and is threatening to aim nuclear tipped missiles on our European allies because their military is still thinking we will deliver the nuclear first strike. This is why they oppose our European missile defense."
The Russian exercises came weeks before several episodes of Russian military activities that also prompted concerns among Republicans in Congress.
In June, Russia’s military conducted a large-scale strategic bomber exercise in the arctic that included Russian Bear H bombers flying inside the U.S. air defense zone near Alaska. U.S. and Canadian jets were scrambled to intercept the jets.
The exercise, according to U.S. officials, appeared to violate the 2010 U.S.-Russia START arms treaty, which requires Russians to provide advance notice of such bomber exercises. None was given, either in advance or after the war games ended. A Russian military spokesman said the bomber exercises included practice targeting of “enemy” strategic defenses, presumably U.S. missile defense sites in Alaska.
Then, on July 4, another Russian Bear H bomber flew within 100 miles of the West Coast near California prompting a second scrambling of interceptor jets.
U.S. officials called that incursion the closest a Russian strategic bomber has flown to U.S. territory since the Soviet Union collapsed.
U.S. officials then disclosed that a Russian attack submarine sailed undetected in the Gulf of Mexico for several weeks before being spotted outside the Gulf.
The bomber and submarine activities are indications of what U.S. officials have said is growing military aggressiveness by Russia, which has toughened its posture toward the United States because of its opposition to U.S. and NATO plans to deploy missile defenses in Europe.
Pentagon spokesmen did not respond to multiple requests for an explanation of the exercise with the Russians.
Fort Carson military spokesman Lt. Col. Steve Osterholzer in an interview declined to comment on why the exercises were being held, calling it a “political question.”
However, he also said it was the first time Russian troops trained at the base near Colorado Springs with members of his 10th Special Forces Group at the Fort.
The 22 Russians were part of a Russian airborne batallion and were not “spetznaz,” or Russian special forces.
The training grew out of a 2011 U.S.-Russia military agreement on “sharing counterterrorism techniques” and was part of the Army's recognition that there is a "global society," Osterholzer said.
The training included “very basic infantrymen’s core tasks,” as well as joint parchute jumps and communications operations.
None of the exercises involved classified information and the Russians were under 24-hour escort, Osterholzer said.
“The whole purpose of this is because we work with lots of other foreign miliaries and we need to have a basic relationship,” he said.
U.S. troops are expected to visit Russia next year for a similar joint exercise, he said.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command held an exercise in 2010 simulating multinational cooperation in tracking a terrorist hijacking of an airliner.
Other joint U.S.-Russian activities outlined in the presidential commission newsletter included meetings between the U.S. and Russian drug czars in May, and a delegation of senior U.S. Justice Department officials led by Attorney General Eric Holder, who traveled to Russia.
Russia’s government has come under fire in recent weeks over its increasing turn toward dictatorship under President Vladimir Putin.
Three punk rock band members were recently given prison terms for holding a protest in a Russian Orthodox Church.