- The Washington Times
Monday, April 7, 2014

NATO is increasing the number of fighter jets and surveillance aircraft supporting U.S. allies in Eastern Europe, but some Republicans remain critical of the Obama administration for not taking a more proactive posture toward what they describe as Russian war-gaming in the region.

The issue will likely sit at the center of debate Tuesday when the House Armed Services Committee convenes a hearing examining recent Russian military developments and their strategic implications.

The hearing comes on the heels growing security concerns in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian protesters took over government buildings in some areas over the weekend — a development seen by some in Washington as a signal that Moscow might be preparing to invade.

The situation has raised particular concern for Rep. Michael R. Turner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the U.S. delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, who told The Washington Times on Monday that the Pentagon has ignored a March 26 letter he wrote warning that a Russian move on Eastern Ukraine may be imminent.

A Pentagon spokesman told The Times that the Defense Department takes congressional queries seriously and is planning to respond to Mr. Turner’s letter as soon as possible.

A day after sending the letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Mr. Turner had asserted in a statement that he and other officials believed Moscow had engaged in a “buildup of up to 80,000” troops along the Russia-Ukraine border.

With the assertion still ringing through U.S. national security circles last week, Russian authorities announced that they were pulling their troops back from the border.

Mr. Turner’s claim of 80,000 Russian troops, was then put into question when U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove — the commander of all NATO forces in Europe — suggested the number was closer to 40,000.

Still, the congressman was livid on Monday, asserting in an interview that the Pentagon’s failure to respond to his letter was “pretty consistent” with what he would expect from the Obama administration.

“I think they don’t respond because they don’t know what to say,” he said, adding that the White House has pursued “a false narrative” by believing that “Russia is not an aggressive state.”

Despite recent claims by Russian President Vladimir Putin that he has no interest in invading eastern Ukraine, Mr. Turner told The Times that “we are now seeing that Putin has shattered that narrative.”

Away from such political fireworks, the U.S. military is gearing up for a May 1 transfer of control to NATO member Poland over an ongoing air-policing operation in the region that protects the airspace over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Lt. Col. Jay Janzen, spokesman for NATO Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, told The Times that several NATO allies have offered to augment the mission by providing aircraft equipped with specialized radars and international fighter jets as part of an effort to show Russia that NATO’s military might should not be tested.

NATO has embraced a United Kingdom offer to provide Eurofighter Typhoons to the policing mission, according to Lt. Col. Janzen, who said Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Turkey and others have signaled a willingness to commit extra military assets to the operation, such as air-to-air refueling aircraft.

Despite such multilateral military-muscle flexing, some analysts say there are rumblings of discontent among key U.S. allies about the role being played in the situation by Washington.

At specific issue, according to Jorge Benitez, an analyst specializing in NATO at the Atlantic Council in Washington, is a document known as the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, which Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States signed in 1994. The document states that all three countries are obligated to protect Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty.

“I have heard from Japanese officials and other government officials from other countries that they are very concerned about the U.S. response to the Russian occupation of Crimea and the limited response to the treaty we signed with Ukraine,” said Mr. Benitez. “It has hurt our credibility and we have only begun to see the damage done from that response so far.”

Mr. Turner added that while Ukraine is not a NATO member, they should be treated like one.

But there is disagreement among Eastern European allies about the level of protection NATO should be providing to the region, according to Mr. Benitez. Some want U.S. troops on their territory, while others would prefer a mix of U.S. and European troops to prove that all of NATO — not just the United States — is committed to defending the region, he said.

• Maggie Ybarra can be reached at mybarra@washingtontimes.com.

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