WASHINGTON: Despite Russian efforts to talk up their military modernization efforts and increasing ability to influence events far from its own borders, “Russia’s great power status still remains largely aspirational,” a top Pentagon official said Thursday.
That assessment by Katie Wheelbarger, the acting assistant Defense secretary for international security affairs, comes a day after other US officials warned Russia and China appear to have the capacity to restart nuclear testing. They remained vague, however, as to whether or not the think the two countries are actually doing so.
“The United States believes that Russia probably is not adhering to its nuclear testing moratorium in a manner consistent with the zero-yield standard,” US Defence Intelligence Agency chief, Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley said at a thinktank event Wednesday.
Despite that, Russian conventional forces continue to face “significant limitations,” as “years of neglect have atrophied much of its force-projection capabilities,” Wheelbarger said during a speech at The Atlantic Council.
Russian GDP ranks 11th in the world (just below Canada), but under President Vladimir Putin Russia has embarked on a well-publicized military modernization effort that has prioritized missile systems, electronic warfare capabilities, and hypersonic weapons, all areas US officials have expressed concern over.
It remains unclear, however, how the modernization effort will shake out, with US and European sanctions biting the Russian economy and little independent verification over how successful these efforts have been.
Competition in the Middle East
In the Middle East, where American and Russian aircraft have cast a wary eye on one another in the skies over Syria in recent years — and ground troops have operated within miles of one another — the situation remains complicated.
Wheelbarger said that Russia’s “very limited military commitments” in the region have showed that “even its force projection into the eastern Mediterranean, which is a complicating development for sure, has highlighted Russia’s logistical and capacity challenges when attempting to maneuver in different spheres.”
The Russian footprint in Syria has remained relatively light, deploying a small ground force alongside several dozen aircraft at a single air base near the Syrian coastline. But those aircraft have had an outsized influence on the conflict, helping Syrian forces flatten the rebel stronghold in Aleppo, along with bombing the regime’s enemies to include civilian relief agencies and rescue workers opposed to the government.
Still, “Moscow avoids real military confrontation,” in the region, Wheelbarger said. “Israeli military strikes in Syria continue to degrade Iranian positions despite Russia’s rhetoric to discourage them,” and “contrary to its rhetoric, Russia did not contest US retaliatory strikes on Syria for the regime’s use of chemical weapons.”
Outside of Syria, the Trump administration is deeply concerned by the growing relationship between Moscow and Turkey, expressed most concretely in Turkey’s plans to buy the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system. The deal is threatening Turkey’s role in the F-35 program, and underscores Russia’s ability to get inside US relationships with foreign countries, including efforts to split the NATO alliance without firing a shot.
“Let’s be clear: the S-400 is a Russian system designed to try to shoot down aircraft like the F-35” Wheelbarger said, calling the deal a “monumental challenge for us.” The deal, which both Russian and Turkish officials say is wrapped up, “would be devastating — not only to the F-35 program on which the West has placed its modernized integrated air capability — but it would rupture Turkish interoperability with NATO, which is a key aspect to the defense of the alliance.”
The US is considering suspending the training of Turkish pilots to fly the F-35 in the United States, a possibility that has come about after comments last week by Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar that Turkish military personnel were already receiving training in Russia to use the S-400.
The US has warned Turkish officials if they take delivery of the Russian system, the country would be hit with the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, meant to punish countries who buy Russian military kit. But so far, Ankara has held firm to its plan to buy the system, despite NATO concerns.
As NATO continues to search for new ways to counter Russian malign influence throughout Europe and the Arctic, the alliance is putting the final touches on its first new military strategy since the Cold War, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford said this week.
He said the plan, which is classified, was approved by US and European military chiefs last week and is being sent to each NATO capital for approval, which will likely take some time.
“It is the first NATO military strategy in decades,” Dunford said at the Brookings Institution. “It clearly articulates the challenges that confront NATO and it provides the framework for the various plans that will be in place if deterrence fails,” he added.
It’s not clear when the plan will be approved, as all 29 NATO member states have to sign off on the document, a process that will likely take months.