The commander of U.S. forces in Europe says the United States has accommodated Russia for too long amid aggressive military actions by Moscow and a shrinking U.S. footprint in the region.
U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, who is also NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, said that the United States had "hugged the bear" in Europe—a reference to Russia—after the fall of the Soviet Union in an attempt to promote cooperation with Moscow, the Department of Defense’s news service reported on Tuesday. Breedlove recently met with U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the headquarters of U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany.
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After the rise of President Vladimir Putin, Russia explicitly rejected the outstretched hand of the United States, he said. He added that Russian intransigence began before Moscow’s recent airstrikes in Syria and support for separatists in a part of eastern Ukraine known as the Donbass.
"What I would offer is that if you look at Russia’s actions all the way back to ’08—in Georgia, in Nagorno-Karabakh, in Crimea, in the Donbass, and now down in Syria—we see what most call a revanchist Russia that has put force back on the table as an instrument of national power to meet their objectives," he said in remarks to reporters.
While Putin has become more bellicose abroad, U.S. forces in Europe have declined. The New York Times reported in October that the United States has reduced its permanent troops in Europe by 35 percent since 2012, as well as withdrawn vehicles and weapons.
"Across that time … we have changed our force structure, we have changed our [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] allocations, we’ve changed our analytical allocations, [and] we’ve downsized the forces in all the media here in Europe," Breedlove said.
He is now advocating for a more robust U.S. military presence in Europe. He noted that the Army has begun deploying a brigade-sized unit to the region, along with 200 M1 Abrams tanks and additional vehicles and weapons.
Yet it remains unclear if the bolstered forces will be enough to deter Russian adventurism. The United States currently has about 30,000 troops in Europe, compared to a height of 300,000 soldiers at the end of the Cold War. U.S. forces often have to borrow equipment from allies, such as British helicopters.
Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the Army’s top general in Europe, told the Times that, "we have to figure out how you make 30,000 feel like 300,000."
All U.S. troops in Europe must now train for an Article 5 event, Breedlove said, in which an attack on one NATO ally would be treated as a threat to all members. Planning for such a scenario began before Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in early 2014, he said.
"Now every soldier, sailor, airman or Marine that comes to European Command will be focused on redeveloping that high-end kinetic fighting capability," he said.
In Russia’s new national security strategy, NATO and the United States are identified as threats. The Institute for the Study of War said in an analysis that the declaration was part of the Kremlin’s information warfare.
"The accusations in the new strategy represent Russia’s disinformation doctrine of reflexive control, which the Kremlin employs to both disguise itself as a besieged rather than an aggressive actor and to preempt assertive Western military action," wrote analyst Hugo Spaulding.
Though Russia has yet to directly attack a NATO member, it has continued to apply pressure on the alliance and Western allies through a variety of means. Russian hackers are the suspected culprits behind a cyber attack in Ukraine last month that led to power outages for tens of thousands of people—one of the first ever hacks against civilian infrastructure. And the Kremlin has expanded sanctions against NATO member Turkey after the latter shot down a Russian jet that appeared to violate its airspace in November.
Additionally, analysts say Russia’s new agreement with Armenia to create a joint missile air defense system threatens the neighboring countries of Turkey and Georgia. Georgia has sought closer relations with the West by opening a NATO training center and conducting military exercises with the United States.
"An expanding military presence will put Russia in direct competition with Turkey's ambitions in the South Caucasus and Georgia's cooperation with NATO and U.S. forces," said the intelligence firm Stratfor in an analysis.