Russian armored vehicles drive on the road between Simferopol and Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula. (Agence France-Presse)
WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials on Tuesday described a Russian military that possesses “very limited” ability to punch outside its neighborhood due to poor logistics and “aging equipment.”
In addition, Defense Department officials vowed to a House committee that the Obama administration is prepared to “punish Russia” for invading Ukraine’s Crimea region, and for any possible future aggressive acts. But Derek Chollet, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, told lawmakers any US actions will be “mostly economic.”
A handful of Republican House Armed Services Committee members called on the Obama administration to use more military means to counter Russian moves and prevent future ones.
Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, co-author of a coming bill calling for a beefed-up US military presence in the European region to counter Russia, cited a recent Washington Post editorial that said the Obama administration’s Russia policies are rooted in “fantasy.”
He also said that senior US commanders in Europe say up to 80,000 Russian troops appear to be amassed on that nation’s border with Ukraine. Turner tried to get Chollet and Vice Adm. Frank Pandolfe, director of strategic plans and policy on the Joint Staff, to describe the combat punch and reach of the Russian forces.
Pandolfe did not directly address that part of Turner’s inquiry, saying a classified session slated for later Tuesday would provide a better setting for his answer. But he did say Moscow has fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, armored vehicles and other combat systems along that border.
But in his opening statement, the three-star officer was more blunt about Russia’s force.
“Today, Russia is a regional power that can project force into nearby states but has very limited global power projection capability,” Pandolfe said. “It has a military of uneven readiness.
“While some units are well trained, most are less so. It suffers from corruption and its logistical capabilities are limited,” he said. “Aging equipment and infrastructure, fiscal challenges, and demographic and social problems will continue to hamper reform efforts.”
Still, Pandolfe described a Russian military that has changed “with some success” over the last six years.
“Since 2008, those efforts have had some success. Russian military forces have been streamlined into smaller, more mobile units,” Pandolfe said. “Their overall readiness has improved and their most elite units are well-trained and equipped. They now employ a more sophisticated approach to joint warfare.”
What’s more, he said, “the Russian military adopted doctrinal change, placing greater emphasis on speed of movement, the use of special operations forces, and information and cyber warfare.”
Pandolfe also sent a warning to Moscow, saying “the United States ... employs a military of global reach and engagement” and warning, “should Russia undertake an armed attack against any NATO state, it will find that our commitment to collective defense is immediate and unwavering.”
Chollet was more measured, telling the House members that measures against Russia already implemented and any that would follow future Russian aggression would be aimed at crippling Moscow’s economy.
Chollet pointed to US shipments of meals ready to eat, or MREs, to Ukrainian forces as an example of what the administration already has done. Republican members were not impressed, and called for Obama to better arm Ukraine’s military.
Turner called the MRE shipments a mere “extension of our school-lunch programs.”
“Don’t you think military assistance is what they really need?” he asked the witnesses.
Chollet sidestepped the question, but noted Ukrainian officials several times have told US officials they most need “non-lethal assistance.”
HASC Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., pushed back on such calls. He said there is “very little historical precedent” supporting the notion that “aggression responds best to aggression.”
And, notably, Rep. Walter Jones, a Republican whose eastern North Carolina district includes the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune, said his constituents are chilly to any US military operation in Europe to combat Russia’s moves.
Jones said voters in his district believe this of Europeans: “It’s their fight.”
He was one of the first GOP members to express deep concerns about the Afghanistan war, and has talked extensively about its massive costs in terms of national treasure, and wounded and dead American troops.
Jones also said his constituents, after 13 years of America’s post-9/11 conflicts, have expressed this collective feeling: “Here we go again.”
Not 'A Provocation'
Later Tuesday, Turner and HASC Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., will unveil their bill to beef up the US military footprint in Europe to counter Russia.
A White House spokeswoman declined to comment on the legislation because it has yet to be formally introduced. But the spokeswoman did make clear the White House believes it has already increased the US military’s presence in Moscow’s backyard.
“To date, those efforts have been mostly taking advantage of existing missions, such as deploying 12 additional F-16s to our aviation training detachment to Poland and augmenting our contribution to the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission with [six] additional F-15s,” White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said Tuesday. “We are going to do our part to increase our rotations of ground and naval forces to complement our increased aviation presence and will look for others to step up, too.”
US officials have urged other NATO members to make “similar contributions … as quickly as possible,” Hayden said.
She made a point that the military moves Obama has ordered are meant not as a “provocation or as a threat to Russia.” They are merely meant “as a demonstration of NATO’s continued commitment to European security.” ■