Iran and ISIS may be grabbing the news headlines, but a top US military leader says that he is more worried about Russia.
General Joseph Dunford, the nominee for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers that Russia poses the greatest threat to US national security. "In Russia, we have a nuclear power. We have one that not only has the capability to violate the sovereignty of our allies and to do things that are inconsistent with our national interests but they are in the process of doing so," he said at his confirmation hearing in the Senate on Thursday.
"If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I'd have to point to Russia. And if you look at their behaviour, it's nothing short of alarming," the general said.
The White House, however, distanced itself from the assessment.
General Dunford went on to list China, North Korea and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as the next biggest threats.
The sobering assessment by a candidate for the top-ranking position in the US armed forces marks a growing concern among US military leaders about Russia's inflammatory actions in Eastern Europe since it annexed Crimea in March last year.
A refreshed US National Military Strategy released two weeks ago similarly chided Russia for its aggression in the region and warned of a "low but growing" probability of an interstate war with a major power.
Given his assessment of the threat posed by Russia, Gen Dunford said Ukraine should be given heavy weapons, including anti-tank missiles. "From a military perspective I think it's reasonable that we provide that support to the Ukrainians and frankly, without that kind of support, then they're not going to be able to protect themselves against Russian aggression."
The position is one that is echoed by US Defence Secretary Ash Carter, although he also stresses that economic sanctions should remain the priority. The White House has largely resisted proposals to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine, fearing that might escalate tensions with Russia.
Asked about the general's comments on Thursday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said: "I think it's fair to say these kinds of assessments are dynamic, based on the activity and the situation on the ground... But I think he would be the first to admit that that reflects his own view and doesn't necessarily reflect the view of - or the consensus - analysis of the President's national security team."
Russia, aside, Gen Dunford said he was satisfied with the Pentagon's efforts to rebalance to Asia. "We have strengthened our alliances and greatly expanded partnerships with countries like Singapore, Vietnam and India," he said.
He raised concerns about Chinese actions in the South and East China seas, but stressed the importance of maintaining a strong military-to-military relationship with China. "It allows us to increase co-operation on areas of mutual interest and reduces risk as our forces come into closer contact," he said. But "the relationship has room for improvement".
Gen Dunford is expected to be confirmed soon.
This article was first published on July 11, 2015.
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