NATO's supreme commander called Thursday for an escalated military buildup in Europe to deter Russia as senators from both sides of the aisle questioned whether President Donald Trump would confront or cooperate with President Vladimir Putin.
"His intent is to fracture NATO," Army Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti said of Putin. NATO needs more troops, ships, planes and munitions -- including an aircraft carrier battle group -- to shore up allies against Russia, he said, adding he also needs strong support from the State Department.
"I rely heavily on our relationships with the other agencies in our government," Scaparrotti, who doubles as NATO supreme commander and head of U.S. European Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "That's the way we traditionally operate."
Trump's budget outline, released last week, proposes a 28 percent cut to the State Department in part to pay for a $54 billion increase in military spending.
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and the SASC chairman, asked, "It wouldn't help if we slashed spending for the State Department?" Scaparrotti replied, "No, sir."
McCain, who has repeatedly called Putin a "thug and a murderer," also renewed his charges that Putin is behind the intimidation, jailing and murder of dissidents.
He pointed to reports from Moscow on Wednesday that Nikolai Gorokhov, the lawyer for the family of slain dissident and whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, had been severely injured when he was pushed or fell from his apartment building window. "This kinda stuff you can't make up," he said.
McCain later noted that in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, dissident and former Russian parliamentarian Denis Voronenkov had been gunned down on the street Thursday. "This horrific crime marks the continuation of a campaign of KGB-style brutality designed to intimidate anyone who dares to oppose the tyranny of Vladimir Putin," he said.
Scaparrotti said, "We have to, both as the U.S. and also as allies, come together and make a more aggressive confrontation of Russia, particularly in this grey area" where Russia uses hacking and "fake news" in attempts to influence Western elections.
Democrats on the panel questioned whether Trump would ease sanctions on Russia in line with his campaign rhetoric, in which he expressed admiration for Putin. "I think we must retain the sanctions," Scaparrotti said.
"If we want to send the right signal to Russia," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, "a big piece of it is having a commander-in-chief that will say the right things to Russia."
She told Scaparrotti, "Until we have a commander-in-chief that is willing to speak out against this thug and his behavior, I don't know that all the great work that you and your command can do is ever going to move the needle enough."
Scaparrotti echoed other field commanders in supporting the supply of defensive weaponry to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, reconnaissance drones and electronic warfare capabilities to counter Russia's drones.
Ukraine "is in a very tough fight" against Moscow-backed separatists in the eastern Donbass area in a three-year-old conflict that has killed 10,000, Scaparrotti said.
He also said that the Obama administration's strategy of rebalancing forces to the Asia-Pacific region -- the so-called "Pacific pivot" -- had shortchanged the buildup of forces in Europe to deter Russia.
In his prepared remarks for the hearing, Scaparrotti said, "The strategic re-balance to Asia and the Pacific, combined with budget limitations in the Budget Control Act of 2011, have contributed to substantial posture reductions across our land and air domains.
"For example, between 2010 and 2013, two fighter squadrons and a two-star numbered air force headquarters were inactivated, along with associated critical enablers and staff personnel," he said. "In addition, the last two heavy Brigade Combat Teams (BCT), a two-star division headquarters, and a three-star corps headquarters were removed from Europe, leaving only one Stryker and one airborne brigade."
The U.S. and its allies have since begun to rotate troops and armor to Poland and the Baltic states, but "without fully resourced, heel-to-toe rotational forces, the ground force permanently assigned to EuCom is inadequate to meet the combatant command's directed mission to deter Russia from further aggression," Scaparrotti said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.