WASHINGTON — While headline claims of a Cold War resurgence are surely overstated, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine reminds Pentagon policymakers that their plans to shift U.S. military focus away from Europe may have to be tweaked.
Also subject to modification is the ongoing “Asia-Pacific pivot” to respond to China’s growing military power.
In a sign of the Russian incursion's impact, Pentagon officials said Monday evening they'd frozen most contacts with their Russian counterparts.
“We have, in light of recent events in Ukraine, put on hold all military-to-military engagements between the United States and Russia,'' said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary. “This includes exercises, bilateral meetings, port visits and planning conferences.”
Kirby rejected what he described as media speculation about new U.S. ship movements.
“There has been no change to our military posture in Europe or the Mediterranean,'' he said. “Our Navy units continue to conduct routine, previously planned operations and exercises with allies and partners in the region.”
Previously announced Pentagon spending cuts will still be included in the budget President Barack Obama sends Congress on Tuesday. But they now face an even harder sell on Capitol Hill, where home-state interests and election-year politics often prevail along with a bipartisan predilection for bombast.
Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, blamed Obama for having already cut projected Pentagon funding by $487 billion over 10 years.
“His disarming of America over the past five years limits our options in Ukraine today,” Inhofe said in a statement Monday.
Congress, however, has played a significant role in reducing defense spending from its 2011 peak of $739 billion, a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to its current annual level of $613 billion.
The military funding cuts from Obama and lawmakers have come in response to rising federal debt, the end of U.S. combat engagement in Iraq and the wind-down of American involvement in Afghanistan.
The budget Obama will send Congress on Tuesday, in fact, seeks to restore $26 billion in deeper Pentagon spending reductions that Congress approved in a December deal by large bipartisan majorities, according to a briefing last week by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
That budget accord, which funds the federal government through September 2015, replaced even steeper military funding decreases that lawmakers had imposed through a system of forced cuts called sequestration.
After more than 12 years of war, Americans are divided over how much money the Pentagon should get from Congress. Thirty-seven percent of Americans say the United States spends too much on defense, 28 percent believe it spends too little and 35 percent think current levels are about right, according to a Gallup poll released last week.
Defense analysts Monday described as extremely unlikely a direct U.S. military response to Russia’s effective takeover of the Crimean Peninsula, a region of southern Ukraine with a majority ethnic Russian population.
“Military force is out of the question, because I don’t think anybody believes it is a significant enough (Western) interest to introduce NATO or American forces,” said Charles A. Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University.
“There are not a lot of good options because the United States still needs Russia on Iran, on Syria, on other issues,” Kupchan said.
Moreover, Russia has helped American foreign policy initiatives. After Congress rejected Obama’s appeal to authorize an airstrike against Syria last September, Russian President Vladimir Putin helped prod Syrian President Bashar Assad to agree to destroy his chemical weapons. More recently, Moscow has helped broker an agreement requiring Iran to stop developing nuclear arms, in exchange for an easing of Western economic sanctions.
Despite Obama’s attempt to restore some Pentagon funding, his budget will still slash the U.S. Army from 520,000 to as few as 440,000 active-duty troops — its smallest size since before World War II — and also shrink other military services.
Russia’s encroachment in Ukraine, unless it spreads to envelope the rest of the former Soviet republic, won’t by itself reverse the downward trend in U.S. defense spending. But the aggression could affect where future reductions are applied.
With the post-9/11 focus on fighting terrorism, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of U.S. troops in Europe sank from 312,000 in 1988 at the end of President Ronald Reagan’s tenure to 69,000 in 2000 as President Bill Clinton prepared to leave office.
There are now fewer than 66,000 American troops in Europe, most of them in Germany, Italy and Britain, and Hagel indicated last week that more reductions are in store.
“DOD has already been reducing infrastructure where we can,” he said at the Pentagon. “In Europe, where (base-closing) authority (from Congress) is not needed, we have reduced our infrastructure by 30 percent since 2000. A European infrastructure consolidation review this spring will recommend further cuts, which DOD will pursue.”
In a warning that was clearly aimed at China, Hagel said: “The development and advancement of more advanced military technologies by other nations means that we are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies and in space can no longer be taken for granted.”
But the Russian takeover of the Crimean Peninsula could make U.S. leaders more open to some allies’ complaints that Iraq, Afghanistan and other anti-terrorist initiatives have shifted American attention too much away from Europe, the original focus of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization formed in 1949 after World War II.
“Over the last decade-plus since Poland and other new democracies have joined NATO, they have always said to us we’re spending too much time focused on out-of-area issues and not enough time focused on meat and potatoes; that is to say, their Eastern frontier (and Russia),” Kupchan said. “What is happening now (in Ukraine) is going to keep the Latvians and the Lithuanians and the Poles up at night. They may get some of what they want now.”