Breedlove: Russian Buildup in Ukraine Could Signal Rebel Offensive

Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove

NATO Commander Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove said Thursday that the Russian buildup of rebel forces in eastern Ukraine during a shaky cease-fire could signal a new offensive by the separatists.

In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), Breedlove said that "Russian forces used the opportunities presented by the recent lull in fighting to reset and reposition while protecting their gains."

"Many of their actions are consistent with preparations for another offensive," said Breedlove, an Air Force general who doubles as Supreme Commander of NATO and U.S. European Command.

Breedlove said that it was impossible to know the intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin but "he wants the West out of Ukraine, and he wants Ukraine out of the West."

The Air Force general noted that the State Department recently has referred to "combined Russian-separatist forces" acting in eastern Ukraine, rather than the previous references to "Russian-backed separatists."

Russian denials of control over the rebels were spurious, Breedlove said.

"I believe Russian command and control is prevalent" in eastern Ukraine, he said.

Breedlove suggested at the hearing that he supported supplying Ukrainian forces with "offensive" weapons, which would have put him at odds with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and the Obama administration.

Offensive weaponry would help "to bring our opponent to the table" to negotiate a political solution, Breedlove said.

When asked to clarify by Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the ranking Democrat on the committee, Breedlove said again that he would "support the consideration of using offensive weapons to change the decision calculus on the ground and to facilitate bringing our opponent to the table for a solution, a final solution."

At a later Pentagon briefing, however, Breedlove said that he misspoke and he meant to refer to defensive weaponry. He declined to state what types of defensive weapons he would favor.

In his Senate confirmation hearing, Carter said, "We need to support the Ukrainians in defending themselves. I am inclined in the direction of providing them with arms, including lethal arms."

The U.S. has held off on providing arms to the Ukrainian forces at the behest of Germany, France and other allies, while providing non-lethal assistance.

Thus far, the Obama administration has provided the Ukrainian government with night-vision goggles; body armor; Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs); and other supplies. However, President Obama has drawn the line at funneling weapons in deference to the allies and also out of concern that such action would provoke a broader conflict.

At the SASC hearing, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the committee's chairman, renewed his criticism of President Obama for failing to provide arms to Ukraine.

"The Ukrainian people aren't asking for U.S. troops. They are simply asking for the right tools to defend themselves and their country," McCain said. "The president's continued inaction for fear of provoking Russia is seen by Putin as weakness and invites the very aggression we seek to avoid."

In his Senate testimony and at the Pentagon, Breedlove called on Congress to fund a broadening of NATO and the European Command's intelligence capabilities to defend against Russia.

"Russian military operations over the past year in Ukraine, and the region more broadly, have underscored that there are critical gaps in our collection and analysis," Breedlove said. "Some Russian military exercises have caught us by surprise and our textured feel for Russian involvement on the ground in Ukraine has been quite limited."

Breedlove said he was also concerned about the massive drawdown of U.S. forces in Europe since the Cold War, while Russia has been modernizing and building up its military.

The U.S. once had more than 400,000 troops in Europe and now has about 64,000 based on a strategy at the end of the Cold War that Moscow would eventually be a partner in Europe, Breedlove said.

However, "Russia has demonstrated that it's not a partner," Breedlove said, and "it's fair to say we probably ought to look at that force structure in Europe."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.

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