Standoff With Russia Fuels U.S. Defense Spending Debate

President Faces Calls to Take More Forceful Action to Counter Moscow

(WALL STREET JOURNAL 03 MAR 14) … Dion Nissenbaum and Julian E. Barnes

WASHINGTON – The deepening East-West standoff over Ukraine is triggering a shift in political pressures in Washington and adding fuel to a debate over U.S. military spending cuts.

President Barack Obama is facing calls to rethink diplomatic strategies and exert a more forceful American response. At the same time, even self-professed Republican hawks aren’t urging military action, a recognition of limits on U.S. options.

The facedown with Moscow is breeding demands for more strenuous action than the administration has so far taken. While the U.S. has said it may boycott the June Group of Eight summit in Sochi, for instance, lawmakers are urging that the U.S. lead a charge to evict Russia from the group.

Lawmakers also have demanded more funding for missile defense programs across Europe and for strengthening Georgia and Moldova – two other former Soviet republics at odds with Moscow.

“Every time the president goes on national television and threatens Putin or anyone like Putin, everybody’s eyes roll, including mine,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said Sunday on CNN. “We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression. President Obama needs to do something.”

But the GOP in Washington has been splitting between traditional defense hawks and a rising wing of conservatives who are skeptical of what they see as overseas adventurism.

Rep. Mike Rogers, (R., Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, criticized the Obama administration and said it had been outwitted by Russian President Vladimir Putin, but urged caution on the U.S. response.

“Candidly – and I’m a fairly hawkish guy – sending more naval forces to operate in the Black Sea is really not a very good idea,” Mr. Rogers said. “Unless you’re intending to use them, I wouldn’t send them.”

The Ukraine crisis comes just as Mr. Obama this week planned to unveil a budget plan that calls for cutting the size of the U.S. Army and for other reductions to address congressionally mandated cuts.

That fate of timing has opened the administration to a new round of criticism. Rep. Buck McKeon (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the military cutbacks are likely to embolden Mr. Putin in Ukraine.

“Putin’s not a dummy,” he told a small group of reporters last week. “He looks at it and says: ‘Hey, America is cutting back their defense. I can push here.’“

Senior administration officials updated members of Congress over the weekend on the president’s handling of the crisis, although there were no formal briefings.

Pentagon officials scoffed at the idea that their spending plan represents a retreat from the world. “There is no retreat from the world,” one defense official said. “The sun rises and sets on literally hundreds of countries where American troops are operating or are based.”

“The budget we are presenting allows us to stay engaged, not without risk, but to stay engaged,” said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary.

U.S. forces remain deployed around the world, including thousands of troops in Europe, as well as forces based in the U.S. that are available for the use of regional commanders.

The Pentagon began closing bases and moving troops from Europe to the continental U.S. under former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In the decade after 2003, some 100 installations were closed.

Mr. Rumsfeld had planned to cut the U.S. presence there from four Army brigades to two. But his successor, Robert Gates, slowed the withdrawal, keeping three brigades, and 80,000 troops overall, in Europe – in part because the forces were being used heavily in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. Gates’ successor, Leon Panetta, developed a new plan that once again called for the brigades to be reduced to two, the overall troop presence to decline by at least 10,000 and to inactivate the V Corps, a war-fighting headquarters based in Europe.

Officials said the new budget, with its investments in modernized weaponry and its emphasis on training partner nations will put the U.S. in an even better position to respond to—and deter countries with advanced military, such as Russia.

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