The U.S. commander of NATO said Thursday that Russia and pro-Russia separatist forces exploited the recent cease-fire in eastern Ukraine to “reset and reposition themselves” and appear now to be preparing for a fresh offensive against Ukraine’s military.
During a hearing on Capitol Hill, Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove also told lawmakers that he generally supports their call to provide Ukraine with offensive military hardware to deter a Russian advance — but he stopped short of offering specifics.
The general told the Senate Armed Services Committee that U.S. officials are reviewing troop levels in Europe given the new aggressive posture in recent years.
“Russia is blatantly attempting to change the rules and principles that have been the foundation of European security for decades,” he added. “The challenge posed by a resurgent Russia is global, not regional, and enduring, not temporary.”
Gen. Breedlove said Washington should carefully weigh whether to begin providing offensive military hardware to help Ukrainian forces fight back against Russian troops and Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, something President Obama and other Western leaders have resisted as too provocative.
“I 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 final solution,” the general said.
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But when pressed for a clarification by Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the general spoke only in broad terms of what was needed. The situation is not helped by the fact that several NATO allies face tight budgets under sequestration caps, the general said.
The White House has so far resisted calls from Republican and Democratic hawks to provide weapons to the Ukrainians. Critics argue hardware such as anti-tank missiles would likely provoke more violence in eastern Ukraine and a widening confrontation with Russia.
In February, lawmakers introduced legislation calling for $1 billion to send such lethal weapons. Elements of the legislation made it into a $612 billion defense policy bill that the House Armed Services Committee passed on Thursday. The bill, which now awaits a full House vote, authorizes $200 million to help arm Ukraine’s military.
Gen. Breedlove told lawmakers the current situation in eastern Ukraine remains “volatile” and “fragile” roughly two months after the signing of a February cease-fire. “Russian forces used the opportunities provided by the recent lull in fighting to reset and reposition while protecting their gains,” the general said.
“We have seen a period of what I would call ‘resetting’ and preparing, training and equipping to have the capacity to again take an offensive,” he said, although he stressed it is difficult to predict Moscow’s next move because of limitations on U.S. surveillance in the region.