Russia’s ‘Saber-Rattling’ Threatens Stability, U.S. Says

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Vladimir Putin in Moscow yesterday
Russian President Vladimir Putin at a reception for military graduates in Moscow on June 25. Photographer: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

Six years after then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Obama administration wanted to “reset” relations with Russia, the temperature is falling instead of rising.

It hasn’t plunged to Cold War levels, but despite cooperation in fighting terrorism and seeking to curb Iran’s nuclear program, relations between Russia and the NATO alliance have been deteriorating steadily, and concern over further Russian moves against Ukraine and other neighboring European states has grown steadily.

Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed on Thursday to modernize his country’s military, while top Pentagon officials condemned what they described as Russian “bluster and threats” about nuclear weapons. Russia’s “nuclear saber rattling” is undermining stability in a futile effort to intimidate European allies, Robert Work, the No. 2 Pentagon official, said in Washington.

In a phone conversation Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama called on Putin to remove Russian troops and equipment from Ukraine, according to a White House statement. The two leaders also discussed countering Islamic State fighters and negotiations over preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Putin and other Russian officials have raised concerns in recent days by announcing plans to boost their nuclear arsenal with 40 additional intercontinental ballistic missiles. Earlier, Putin said he’d been ready to put his country’s nuclear forces on alert when he annexed Crimea last year.

‘Irresponsible Statements’

“Senior Russian officials continue to make irresponsible statements regarding Russia’s nuclear forces,” Work, the deputy defense secretary, said Thursday at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.

Work and Admiral James Winnefeld, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Russia is reviving Cold War-style nuclear threats in an effort to intimidate the U.S. and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“They need to understand we’re not falling for this trap,” Winnefeld told the committee. “We will not let that deter us from protecting our allies.”

The U.S. has announced plans to send about 250 tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and howitzers to a half-dozen European countries for increased training in response to what they described as Russian provocations.

Putin Isn’t Done

“I don’t think Mr. Putin is done in eastern Ukraine,” U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe, said Thursday.

“Mr. Putin has developed a very capable force along the periphery of Ukraine,” Breedlove told reporters in Brussels on Thursday. “He has supplied it, trained it and positioned it so that it can do any number of things.”

In what sounded like a throwback to the Cold War era, U.S. lawmakers expressed concern over a Russian military doctrine that they said envisions the use of nuclear weapons early in a conflict to force the U.S. to back down.

“Anyone who thinks that they can control escalation through the use of nuclear weapons is literally playing with fire,” Work said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg echoed that concern Wednesday at a press conference in Brussels.

“It’s a rhetoric on nuclear activities which are completely unjustified,” Stoltenberg said. “And they are destabilizing.” The alliance must “assess very carefully the implications of what Russia is doing.”

Conflict Risk

Winnefeld told the congressional committee that the risk of a conflict with Russia in Europe “is certainly not smaller than it used to be, but I do think they understand we’ve got a red line there.”

The panel’s chairman, Republican Representative Mac Thornberry of Texas, said he worried that America’s European allies will question such a pledge.

“Saying something is a red line doesn’t quite have the punch it once did,” Thornberry said, in an apparent reference to Obama’s abandonment of a red line he drew if Syria uses chemical weapons.

At a meeting Thursday with graduates of military academies, Putin stressed the need for a “powerful army equipped with modern weapons” to protect Russia’s sovereignty, the Associated Press reported. While vowing to pursue military modernization, he said Russia has no aggressive intentions and will “settle any disputes exclusively by political means.”

The U.S. and Russia still maintain large nuclear arsenals, though they’ve been reduced by arms control agreements, including the 2010 New START Treaty signed by Obama and then-Russian President President Dmitry Medvedev.

As of March, the U.S. reported having 1,597 deployed strategic nuclear warheads and Russia reported 1,582 -- down from the more than 10,000 deployed warheads each nation had in 1990.

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