STUTTGART, Germany — If the crisis in Ukraine is prompting a strategic reassessment of the security situation in Europe, don’t look to the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review for evidence of a heightened focus on the Continent.
The 2014 QDR, released Tuesday, shows a Pentagon that views Russia as a difficult partner, but not one demanding excessive strategic attention.
Relations with the sometimes ally, sometimes adversary are described this way: “The United States is willing to undertake security cooperation with Russia, both in the bilateral context and in seeking solutions to regional challenges, when our interests align, including Syria, Iran, and post-2014 Afghanistan. At the same time, Russia’s multi-dimensional defense modernization and actions that violate the sovereignty of its neighbors present risks. We will engage Russia to increase transparency and reduce the risk of military miscalculation.”
It is worth noting that the document was crafted long before Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, which is not mentioned. Political upheaval and Russia’s sudden intervention last week have brought tensions with the West to the highest level they’ve been since the Cold War.
For the Pentagon, the crisis in Ukraine is a reminder that Europe can still be a source of instability, particularly in the East, where Russia remains an unpredictable wildcard.
“Russia’s actions remind us that the world today remains unpredictable, complex, and quite dangerous,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in prepared remarks Wednesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We cannot think too narrowly about future security challenges, nor can we be too certain that we have it right. The world will continue to surprise us, often in unpleasant ways.”
During the hearing, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that U.S. intelligence agencies’ inability to predict the Russian invasion was a “massive failure.”
But it should have been easy to foresee, he said.
“Mr Putin was not going to see Sevastopol go into the hands of a government that was not his client,” McCain said.
Russia’s intervention in the Crimea region isn’t the first time the U.S. and its allies have been caught off guard. Moscow also left the West flatfooted in 2008, when it pushed deep into the territory of the Republic of Georgia after a Georgian attack on its breakaway territory of South Ossetia. That conflict resulted in Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia’s independence, as well as that of Abkhazia, another breakaway Georgian territory. The specter of such secession now looms over Ukraine’s autonomous Crimean peninsula.
How tensions in Ukraine could shape or alter the U.S.’s strategic outlook on the region isn’t entirely clear. The conflict in Georgia soured relations with Russia and heightened alarms, but that didn’t stop the Pentagon from pursing a program to downsize its footprint in Europe. Meanwhile, U.S. officials have made clear the events in Ukraine must be dealt with through diplomatic and economic channels. There is no military option on the table.
As the QDR makes clear, more reductions in Europe are being looked at, and there has been no indication from the Pentagon that has changed.
“We will continue to study U.S. infrastructure and headquarters in Europe to balance further consolidation in a time of fiscal austerity with our enduring responsibility to provide forces in response to crises in the region and beyond, and to train with NATO allies and partners,” the QDR says.
Still, events in Ukraine could focus more energy on measures aimed at reassuring eastern allies, who have long been wary of Russian intentions. For example, Poland earlier this week requested a rare NATO Article 4 meeting, which is typically called when a member state feels it is under threat.
“I think whatever reductions are planned right now in Europe probably won’t be paused, but any further reductions, people are going to have second thoughts about,” said Kathleen McInnis, a defense expert at Chatham House in London and a former planner at the Pentagon. “We need to see how the security landscape looks in the wake of this crisis.”
Unlike with the conflict in Georgia, Ukraine’s proximity to NATO territory — it borders NATO member Poland — makes the crisis in the Crimea more acute, McInnis said. “This really brings it home that Russia is not the most predictable partner.”
For the U.S., bolstering training missions with its allies in the east could be one way to signal reassurance.
“We will continue to adapt the U.S. defense posture in Europe to support U.S. military operations worldwide while also conducting a range of prevention, deterrence, and assurance-related activities in Europe itself,” the QDR says.
Nonetheless, the heart of the military effort in Europe appears to remain focused on other areas.
During the Cold War, Europe was the front line, with forces focused on preventing a Soviet invasion into western Europe. Today’s mission is more nuanced. Building up the capabilities of partner militaries and ensuring access to volatile hot spots in Africa and the Mideast are the primary objectives.
Still, budgetary uncertainty and the threat of deeper cuts in connection with the so-called sequestration could hamper even those priorities, prompting deeper troop reductions.
Stars and Stripes reporter Chris Carroll contributed to this report.