Despite a steady drumbeat from Obama administration officials and others that ISIS and terror groups like it represent the biggest national security threat to the U.S., a new crop of Defense Department leaders argue that the focus should be on an old foe: Russia.
“My assessment today, senator, is that Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security,” Marine Corps Gen. James Dunford, the president’s pick to be the next chair of Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Senate Armed Services earlier this month. He cited Russia’s status as a nuclear state and its military forces ability to violate allies’ sovereignty as key reasons why it should be at the top of the list.
"So if you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I'd have to point to Russia," Dunford, the current commandant of the Marine Corps said. "And if you look at their behavior, it's nothing short of alarming.”
Flash forward a few weeks later to when Army Gen. Mark Milley, tapped to be the service’s next chief of staff was before the Armed Services panel.
“I would put Russia right now from a military perspective, as the number-one threat,” he said.
Days later, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Robert Neller, Dunford’s possible successor as commandant, followed suit saying, “Russia is probably the biggest threat.”
The evaluations contradict several administration officials, and some senior members of Congress who have long warned about radical extremist organizations and their potential to carry out or inspire attacks on the U.S. homeland by so-called “lone wolves.”
In fact, the day after Dunford testified, a spokesperson for the State Department said Secretary of State John Kerry “doesn't agree with the assessment that Russia is an existential threat to the United States, nor China, quite frankly.”
Not that Russia hasn’t given military leaders plenty of reasons to change their minds. Moscow invaded Ukraine early last year and annexed the Crimea peninsula. Russia has since provided material and logistical support to separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine and undertaken numerous provocative acts that have frayed its relationships with the international community, such flying military aircraft through or near the airspace of Western powers.
The reason for alarm among the incoming brass is “an awareness that, if Russia ever attacked a NATO state even with limited/asymmetric means, we would quickly be risking war with a nuclear superpower,” according Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O'Hanlon.
“That’s a far greater threat than anything ISIL can pose. So the minute you have that fear in a realistic way, it necessarily trumps any kind of typical terrorist threat,” he added.
O’Hanlon doubted the similar warnings represented a “coordinate position, though once one person said it, others may have become more likely to see their point and reiterate the same argument.”
House Armed Services chair Mac Thornberry (R-TX) attributed the increased chatter to Moscow’s continued intransigence toward the U.S.
“All year, when we have had sessions with military leaders, intelligence leaders, Russia’s aggressive action plus the amount of money they’re spending in key technologies – modernizing their nuclear deterrent, for example – keeps coming up,” he told The Fiscal Times on Tuesday.
“So you put those things together and I think that’s the reason some people place them at the top of the list for now,” he added.
Whatever the cause, the Pentagon officials have found a receptive audience in Congress. Lawmakers in both chambers, such as Thornberry, have urged the Obama administration to get tougher with Russian President Vladimir Putin, like providing weapons to Ukraine’s military. The president has adamantly resisted such calls, opting instead to impose waves of economics sanctions on Moscow, though it’s unclear how much longer he can keep turning a deaf ear.
Lawmakers from both parties backed a provision in the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would give the Obama administration $300 million for Ukrainian security assistance. The measure demands that half of the proposed funding be withheld until at least 20 percent of it is spent on lethal aid.
Meanwhile temperatures continue to rise on Capitol Hill, thanks to Moscow’s demeanor.
Last week Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called it an “act of aggression” that two Russian bombers came within miles of the California coast earlier this month.
Two U.S. F-15 jets intercepted the foreign aircraft but not before the Russian pilots transmitted messages on an emergency frequency. "Good morning, American pilots. We are here to greet you on your Fourth of July Independence Day," the messages said.
“If you ever have any doubt whether the Cold War is back on, I mean these are the kind of maneuvers that show that it is,” according to Kinzinger, a former Air Force pilot.