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Petraeus: Waning resolve toward NATO plays into Putin's plans

By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 1, 2017

WASHINGTON — Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus on Wednesday told lawmakers that waning U.S. resolve toward NATO and its allies will play into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to undermine the global order.

American political will, as well as military might, will be needed to push back against Russia as it tries to sow doubts about the United States and Europe and the NATO alliance that has helped maintain peace and stability since the end of World War II, Petraeus, who was considered for secretary of state by President Donald Trump, testified to the House Armed Services Committee.

“The paradox of the moment is that, just as the threats to the world order we created have grown ever more apparent, American resolve about its defense has become somewhat ambivalent,” he said.

The testimony by Petraeus, who once led U.S. Central Command and the CIA, feeds into a fiery debate in Washington over policy toward Russia as the Trump administration signals a much closer relationship with Putin — and concerns still swirl over Russian interference in the presidential election last year.

Russia hacked the Democratic Party and waged propaganda operations to influence the election, according to the U.S. intelligence community. The interference has triggered controversy and investigations in Congress.

Putin’s government also drew international condemnation in recent years for its annexation of Crimea, covert military intervention in Ukraine and indiscriminate bombing in Syria.

Trump has departed from the hawkish Republican position on Russia of recent years. He has called the NATO alliance “obsolete” and talked about partnering with Russia on shared interests such as fighting terrorism, but his administration has yet to announce any new policy toward Putin’s government.

Petraeus said a retreat from the European alliance is “precisely” the outcome Russia is seeking.

“President Putin, for instance, understands that, while conventional aggression may occasionally enable Russia to grab a bit of land on its periphery, the real center of gravity is the political will of the major democratic powers to defend Euro-Atlantic institutions like NATO and the [European Union],” Petraeus said. “That is why Russia is tenaciously working to sow doubt about the legitimacy of these institutions and our entire democratic way of life.”

He told the House committee that the current international order, secured by NATO, has helped create one of the longest periods of relative peace in history but is not “self-sustaining” and could “collapse” without support from the United States.

The House committee called Petraeus, who resigned from the CIA and later pleaded guilty to mishandling classified information, to testify during one of its first hearings this year and as it begins to focus on military and defense budget issues it might tackle.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the hearing was aimed at sorting through the complex range of threats the country now faces.

“My opinion is we have taken for granted the world America has made and we have not helped the American people understand how we Americans benefit from the world we have made,” said Thornberry, who has been a top proponent on Capitol Hill for increasing defense spending.

The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., slammed Putin, saying he is trying to undermine liberal democracies and prop up authoritarian governments around the world, such as that of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“That is the way [Putin] runs Russia and he does not want the Russian people to start thinking a liberal democracy is a good idea,” Smith said.

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

Retired Gen. David Petraeus at a Senate hearing in September, 2015.
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