The top U.S. commander in Europe said in an interview that he sees no sign that Russian forces are backing away from the border with Ukraine and called Moscow's conquest and annexation of Crimea a "paradigm shift" that requires a fundamental rethinking of where American forces are located and how they are trained.
Gen. Philip Breedlove, who serves as both the supreme allied commander of Europe and the head of the Pentagon's European Command, said Russian President Vladimir Putin's forces were still massed near eastern Ukraine. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday that Putin had ordered a partial withdrawal, but Breedlove offered a strikingly different, and more pessimistic, assessment of conditions on the ground there.
"There are reported moves away from the border, but I must tell you that we do not see that yet," Breedlove said in the interview. "We are looking for it, and we have not seen movements to the rear."
Moscow has long claimed its troops had been stationed along the border for military exercises, but Breedlove said the forces were so well equipped that they could cross the border into eastern Ukraine, begin to deploy inside the country within 12 hours, and have essentially taken it over within several more days. Beyond the soldiers, Breedlove said Moscow had deployed "the whole package" to the border, including helicopters and attack aircraft, as well as jamming systems and cyber-assets. The United States must see genuine movement away from the border and back to Russian garrisons before it will be convinced Moscow is trying to de-escalate the situation, he added.
"The bottom line is that there is a force there sized and outfitted and provisioned with everything that it needs to have an incursion into Ukraine," Breedlove said by phone from Brussels, where he was participating in a high-level NATO summit dominated by the crisis in Ukraine.
On Tuesday, European ministers meeting there ordered an end to civilian and military cooperation with Russia in the aftermath of Putin's annexation of Crimea in late March. Russian aggression "is the gravest threat to European security in a generation, and it challenges our vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at the conference.
Breedlove thinks there are long-term implications for U.S. policy and its military footprint in Europe as a result of the crisis. Before March, Breedlove's primary concern was holding the line against cuts to U.S. military personnel in Europe, where there are now about 67,000 troops, down from about 100,000 in 1990. Although the Pentagon has announced no public proposals to draw down U.S. forces, European Command has been seen by some as low-hanging budgetary fruit since before February. During the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the perception of European Command's operational and strategic importance sharply diminished, leaving it vulnerable to bureaucratic indifference. At the same time, the command has felt the impacts of sequestration and other cuts, with both flying hours and training opportunities for ground forces reduced in recent years.
"For years, [European Command] has been the natural bill payer," said Mark Jacobson, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, using Pentagon-speak for a command or program forced to accept cuts in favor of other defense programs.
But the crisis in Crimea is helping Breedlove make the case that no further cuts should be made. In fact, he said, the military footprint in Europe should be rethought altogether in light of what has unfolded in recent weeks. Breedlove declined to be specific about how he might want to beef up the U.S. military presence there, but he was adamant that the United States must endeavor to do a comprehensive examination of how the U.S. military is deployed throughout Europe.
"The question now is how is the force positioned and provisioned to prepare us for a new paradigm," he said.
The crisis in Crimea will undoubtedly have an impact on European Command and the U.S. role in Europe, but it has thrust Breedlove, a Harley-Davidson–riding Georgia Tech graduate, into the national security spotlight. The Air Force general took command in 2013 after Gen. John Allen, who had been nominated for the position following his tour in Afghanistan, opted not to take the job.
Breedlove has done multiple tours through Europe, so U.S. military officials say he has the background and credibility to forge close ties with other NATO allies. Still, the job he took over last year isn't the one he has today. As recently as January, Breedlove was focused on lobbying allies to increase their defense spending and on pushing back against Pentagon cuts. Now he finds himself managing a crisis that could potentially erupt into open conflict between NATO and Russian forces.
Retired Gen. Norton Schwartz, the former Air Force chief of staff and one of Breedlove's last bosses, said his former subordinate is just the man for the job. Breedlove, he said in an interview, is "a worldly person who is sneaky smart" and who possesses the temperament that is required for the job he now confronts. As Breedlove communicates with allies and seeks to reassure them that both the alliance and the United States will stand beside them, those qualities are particularly important, Schwartz said. And if Breedlove has to go toe-to-toe with his Russian counterparts, Breedlove can do that too.
"If the leadership in NATO needs steel, he certainly has that," Schwartz said.
Barack Obama's administration has said there are no military solutions to the Ukraine crisis and is focused on finding a diplomatic one, a position Breedlove shares. At the same time, the general has helped oversee a modest show of strength designed to send a signal to Moscow that NATO is prepared to defend member states. Since the crisis, the United States has deployed a dozen F-16s and about 200 U.S. military personnel to Poland, a NATO member, to augment training there that was part of a pre-scheduled deployment. NATO also deployed two surveillance planes to the skies above Poland and Romania, and a detachment of American C-130 transport planes arrived in Poland for a scheduled training event this week. In the meantime, the deployment of the USS Truxtun, an American warship, was extended in the Black Sea during the crisis, though it has since left the area.
"The most important thing is to assure our allies but not to accelerate the problem," said Breedlove, attempting to explain the balance the United States must walk in the region. "That's the tricky line we're walking here: show NATO resolve … but not further incite the Russians while we're trying to negotiate a very tricky situation on the Ukrainian border."
While Breedlove has tried to hold the line on any further cuts to the size of the force in Europe, the amount of infrastructure there may be a different issue. In an interview with Foreign Policy in January, Breedlove acknowledged he has excess capacity in terms of housing, office buildings, and other base infrastructure across Europe. He has signaled a willingness to work to reduce the size of some bases and close other ones altogether. A Pentagon review of infrastructure, likely to be a political hot potato when it's complete by summer, will recommend a number of reductions across Europe. Defense officials have declined to say how the events of recent weeks may affect that review's findings.
In the meantime, as the West works to isolate Putin and the United States has itself cut off all routine ties to the Russian military, Breedlove insisted that not all communication lines should be cut off. He last spoke with his Russian counterpart around March 19, after a Ukrainian warrant officer was killed in Simferopol and there was a clear difference in opinion between what the United States was seeing and what the Russians were saying. Although "mil-to-mil" relations between the United States and Russia have been severed for now, Breedlove sees a value in staying in touch.
"I believe that we must maintain a positive contact," he said. "If we can find places where we agree on the truth, maybe we can effect positive change."
Photo: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP