Russia has shocked the world by sending troops into Ukraine, and a new Defense Department long-term threat assessment proves that the U.S. military was no exception.
The department released its Quadrennial Defense Review on Tuesday, and in all of its 64 pages, only one paragraph of the sweeping U.S. military strategy outlines the possible risks Russia may pose to Washington's or its allies' interests:
"The United States is willing to undertake security cooperation with Russia, both in the bilateral context and in seeking solutions to regional challenges, when our interests align, including Syria, Iran, and post-2014 Afghanistan," the document said. "At the same time, Russia's multi-dimensional defense modernization and actions that violate the sovereignty of its neighbors present risks. We will engage Russia to increase transparency and reduce the risk of military miscalculation."
The document largely focuses on how the military will shrink and still be equipped to "win decisively" in conflicts in the Middle East, "rebalance" its forces to the Asia-Pacific region, and combat a range of threats from terrorists to a nuclear-armed Iran. The military strategy was released along with the Pentagon's $496 billion budget request for next year.
But Russia certainly has the military's attention now: The Pentagon is keeping a close eye after Moscow sent thousands of troops to Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in the past week. And in response to what Obama administration officials have decried as a Russian "invasion" and "occupation" of Ukrainian territory that violates international law, the Pentagon has suspended its military relations with Moscow.
To be fair, the Pentagon has a lot on its plate—especially as it slashes hundreds of billions of dollars from its planned budgets. Military planners are transparent about the "rapidly changing security environment" the United States faces as it emerges from an era of long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So it's hardly surprising that the Pentagon's military strategy does not dwell on Russia, which has in fact cooperated with some of President Obama's diplomatic initiatives in recent months, including convincing embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to surrender his chemical-weapons stockpiles, and helping to seal a landmark deal with Iran to curb the major aspects of its nuclear program.
In this unexpected crisis in Ukraine, the Obama administration will likely focus on a show of diplomatic strength—and economic force—to isolate Putin, rather than rely on military might. So far, the U.S. has not adjusted its military assets in Europe or the Mediterranean. As National Journal's Michael Hirsh wrote this week, "Obama and his partners in the G-8 and the West must now wrangle with some grim realities: First, a military response is unthinkable between the nuclear-armed former adversaries of the Cold War."
Still, it's possible that the recent Russian incursion may spotlight the Obama administration's plans to close down military bases and facilities in Europe. The United States has already shuttered about one-third of its infrastructure in Europe, where fewer than 66,000 American troops are stationed, primarily in Germany, Italy, and Britain. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has already warned more cuts are coming.
Tuesday's military strategy fleshes out those objectives. "We will continue to study U.S. infrastructure and headquarters in Europe to balance further consolidation in a time of fiscal austerity with our enduring responsibility to provide forces in response to crises in the region and beyond, and to train with NATO allies and partners," the strategy said.
"The department will make every effort to enhance training with European nations, recognizing their role as primary U.S. partners in operations globally. We will continue to work to achieve a Europe that is peaceful and prosperous, and we will engage Russia constructively in support of that objective."
Now, however, with the military's relations with Moscow cut off, it's clear that engaging Russia "constructively" for a safer Europe will be a tougher task.
This article appears in the March 5, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.