The Pentagon’s Military Strategy Does Not Focus on Russia

Moscow’s recent invasion of Ukrainian territory could change the Pentagon’s priorities.

Heavily-armed soldiers without identifying insignia guard the Crimean parliament building next to a sign that reads: 'Crimea Russia' after taking up positions there earlier in the day on March 1, 2014 in Simferopol, Ukraine.
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
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Sara Sorcher
March 4, 2014, 11:24 a.m.

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.

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