KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — America’s top general in Europe has been ordered back from Washington to meet with NATO leaders because of growing uncertainty over Russia’s intentions in Ukraine.
Gen. Phillip Breedlove, who is dual-hatted as the head of U.S. European Command and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, was slated to testify before Congress Tuesday and Wednesday. But he returned to Germany on Saturday to confer with allies and staff ahead of a long-scheduled, two-day meeting in Brussels with NATO foreign ministers.
The decision to send Breedlove back early was made Friday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement.
Hagel “considered Breedlove’s early return the prudent thing to do, given the lack of transparency and intent from Russian leadership about their military movements across the border. More broadly, he felt it was important for Gen. Breedlove to continue our efforts to consult with NATO allies, and to discuss specific ways to provide additional reassurance for our NATO allies in Eastern Europe,” the statement said.
The Senate Armed Services Committee canceled its Tuesday hearing; the House will either try to reschedule Breedlove’s appearance slated for Wednesday for a later date or have one of Breedlove’s deputies testify instead, said committee staff member Claude Chafin.
The gathering of NATO’s top diplomats in Brussels will include U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who met in Paris on Sunday with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in an attempt to defuse the Ukraine crisis.
The first day of the NATO ministerial will focus on support for Ukraine and a review of the alliance’s relations with Russia, according to a schedule of events posted on NATO’s website. Originally, the meeting was expected to focus on the impending withdrawal of NATO combat troops from Afghanistan after more than 12 years of war and the international implications of that move, diplomats said.
Breedlove’s premature return to Europe “does not foreshadow imminent military action in Ukraine,” Kirby wrote, but “the general’s return will allow him more time to confer closely with his staff and our allies and partners, and to better advise senior leaders.”
Breedlove typically attends the foreign ministerials, a NATO official said, but his participation is often limited. Breedlove’s deputy, a British four-star general who has been officially on the job for less than a week, was scheduled to attend the gathering on his behalf.
U.S. officials decided to have Breedlove attend the ministerial in person. “The bottom line is he’s got the experience and the awareness of exactly what the situation is, and they thought he would be quite useful … as they made their mind up about what the way forward would be,” said the NATO official, who could not be named under standing alliance rules.
Jon Harper and Slobodan Lekic contributed to this report.