- The Washington Times
Monday, June 22, 2015

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Monday committed U.S. troops and military hardware to NATO’s very high readiness task force, a move designed to both reassure allies and deter Russia from further aggression or land grabs.

The commitment to NATO, announced after a meeting with defense ministers from Germany, Norway and the Netherlands, would not include large ground forces, but could include intelligence and surveillance capabilities, special operators, logistics, transport aircraft and weapons.

“A more active Germany and a more adaptive NATO will ensure that while Vladimir Putin may be intent on turning the clock back in Russia, he cannot turn the clock back in Europe,” Mr. Carter said during a speech in Berlin to kick off a five-day trip through Europe.Steve Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said NATO and the U.S. are bucking up front-line states and sending a message to Moscow not to do anything stupid even though there are few American troops permanently stationed in Europe.

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“The alliance knows that a crisis threatening one of its members could come out of nowhere, so it’s putting a premium on forces that could be quickly activated,” said Mr. Sestanovich. While many NATO allies are likely worried that Russians will invade their countries, Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said that is unlikely because of the political and military costs of such an action. He also said there are much softer targets — like invading other parts of the Ukraine — that Russia could go after if they were interested in expanding their reach or rebuilding the Soviet empire.

“The question is what can the U.S, do on very short notice in case there’s a credible threat, in particular from Russia,” he said.There have been no decisions on how many troops would support the task force or where they would come from. No U.S. forces or assets will deploy immediately, but would be made available if requested.

The announcement is an “important first step,” but that answers about troop levels and which assets will be available will signal how significant the U.S. commitment is, said Boris Zilberman, deputy director of congressional relations at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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“I think it’s an important message that he’s sending, but it needs to be made sure it’s actually backed up in this type of way that solidifies that message, that it’s not an empty message,” he said.Gen. Philip Breedlove, the head of U.S. European Command, told reporters in April that officials were considering increasing the number of U.S. troops in Europe to adequately respond to the changing security situation.

“The forces in Europe over the past 20 years have been sized for a situation where we were looking at Russia as a partner,” he said. “What we see now, of course, is that Russia has demonstrated it’s not a partner.”Mr. Carter’s Europe trip will include visits to Germany, Estonia and Belgium, but will largely focus on dealing with increasingly aggressive behavior from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia will be a focus of the trip, and also of those aspects of NATO’s new playbook that are particularly intended to deal with Russia’s aggressive behavior to-date, and the need to have a strong but balanced approach,” Mr. Carter told reporters traveling with him Sunday night.There have been several incidents over the past year where Russian jets have buzzed by ships or flown just on the border of a country’s air space. In May, a Russian jet reportedly came within 10 feet of a U.S. plane in international air space over the Black Sea, CNN reported.

Most recently, a Russian Su-24 streaked by 1,600 feet away from the destroyer USS Ross in the Black Sea earlier this month, though Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren downplayed the incident, saying that the Russia jets didn’t have any weapons and the U.S. destroyer did not change its course or act aggressively.

Despite that, Mr. Carter said the U.S. will continue to work with Russia on areas where the two countries see a common interest, like the P5+1 nuclear negotiations and counter-Islamic State efforts.”We do not seek a cold, let alone a hot war with Russia. We do not seek to make Russia an enemy,” Mr. Carter said. “But make no mistake, we will defend our allies, the rules-based international order, and the positive future it affords us. We will stand up to Russia’s actions and their attempts to re-establish a Soviet-era sphere of influence.

“When asked why the trip did not include a visit to Ukraine, where Russian separatists seized the Crimean peninsula last year, Mr. Carter said that he didn’t have time this trip, but would be meeting with Ukrainian defense minister at a NATO meeting.

Versions of the annual defense policy bill that passed both the House and Senate include $300 million to help Ukrainians defend against Russian aggression, including authorizing the president to provide Ukrainians lethal aid.Despite announcing a military commitment, Mr. Carter maintained during his speech that economic sanctions are “the best tool” to counter Russian aggression.

The European Union voted Monday to extend economic sanctions on Russia for another six months because of their invasion into Ukraine and disregard for a cease fire earlier this year.

“The international community continues to act together in the face of the violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. “I think it is an indication of the international community’s resolve to making sure that President [Vladimir] Putin respects basic international norms.”

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