The Wall Cracks

Exclusive: Key General Splits With Obama Over Ukraine

The commander of NATO is insisting that the West do more to protect Ukraine from a possible Russian invasion. But the Obama administration has other plans.


Hazir Reka/Reuters

Late last month, as the world was still reeling from Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO was warning Congress that Moscow was preparing to make another move.

During classified briefings on March 26 and March 27, Gen. Philip Breedlove painted for members of the House Armed Services Committee a bleak picture of Russia’s actions—and warned that the United States was not taking steps it could to help Ukraine better defend itself. On several points—from estimates of Moscow’s troops to intelligence-sharing with Russia’s likely adversaries—Breedlove’s briefing directly contradicted the message coming from other branches of the Obama administration.

Breedlove, a four star Air Force general, was careful not to tell members of Congress anything that directly undermined the authority of the Commander-in-Chief during his March briefings. But lawmakers and Congressional staff members who attended these sessions say it was clear that Breedlove felt he was stifled to respond adequately to the crisis in Ukraine.

The quiet protests from one of Obama’s most important generals at the moment reveal an important policy rift inside the administration. While President Obama, the joint chiefs of staff and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have hesitated to provide too much assistance to the interim government in Ukraine, Breedlove has wanted to do more.

In a statement for The Daily Beast, Breedlove acknowledged that he met with members of both parties in Congress in the last week in March. “I provided my estimation of Russian capabilities and that estimation was well-received by the Members. As these sessions were classified, I can only get into generalities.” Breedlove added that he discussed a number of issues including the U.S. consideration of non-lethal aid to Ukraine. “I was clear that our efforts were aimed at reassuring our NATO Allies and European partners of our commitment and resolve,” he said.

Members of Congress, Congressional staff and U.S. defense officials say Breedlove has wanted to brief Ukraine’s military on the detailed intelligence U.S. spy agencies had gathered on Russia’s troop movements and analysis of Russian war plans.

The General also told the members and staff that detailed estimates of Russian troops showed the number of forces preparing to invade Ukraine numbered 80,000. Other U.S. intelligence agencies and the State Department have said the total number of forces numbered around 40,000. On Thursday, Breedlove published a set of commercial satellite photos showing Russian troop positions in Ukraine. On his Twitter feed he wrote, “Russian forces around Ukraine fully equipped/capable to invade. Public denial undermines progress. Images tell story.”

One member of Congress who had attended the Breedlove briefing in March told The Daily Beast it was extraordinary for the NATO chief to release the satellite photos.“Have you ever heard of a commander doing that? He wants so badly for the Ukrainians to get the information, he released it. He did not do this for CNN and Fox News.” This member added, “It was clear Breedlove wanted to be doing more, and he is still not getting the authorization.”

U.S. Navy Captain Gregory Hicks, a spokesman for European Command, said the troop numbers from Breedlove’s briefing differed from other U.S. estimates because of how the forces are counted. “The presentation of information given to members of Congress late March on the laydown of Russian forces was based upon best estimates using unclassified, open sources at the time, primarily numbers made public by Ukraine,” he said. “The unclassified information was meant to give members a sense of the massive deployment of Russian forces deployed directly opposite the eastern border of Ukraine. The numbers were different for several reasons, in part because Ukrainians were counting the number of forces differently than we do (include interior forces, fixed and rotary winged aircraft, depth of mobilized forces, etc.)”

Hicks said that Breedlove’s estimate “has been refined” in light of further analysis, intelligence and commercially available satellite information. “Presently, Russian forces in the vicinity of the border with Ukraine number approximately 40,000 troops and they are equipped with infantry fighting vehicles, tanks, combat and rotary wing aircraft, logistics, and artillery,” he said.

But other defense officials say Breedlove’s estimates from last month are still correct because they represented the total number of forces the Russians have mobilized whereas the 40,000 number only represents the total number of forces camped on Ukraine’s border.

The dispute is important. On April 15, Breedlove is scheduled to present a U.S. plan to redeploy assets in Europe as a response to the Ukraine crisis. At a hearing this week, Admiral Frank Pandolfe, the director of plans for the military’s joint chiefs of staff, said Breedlove’s plan would consider “increasing military exercises, forward deploying additional military equipment and personnel, and increasing our naval, air, and ground presence.”

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But already there are signs that the proposal will not be terribly bold. In an interview published on March 30 with the Los Angeles Times, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said bluntly that there were no plans to increase American force strength in Europe and that if Russia invaded Ukraine, the United States would not intervene militarily.

While Hagel has publicly warned that the United States must be mindful of the unintended consequences of arming Ukraine while it is still ruled by an interim government, Breedlove in classified sessions has pressed for sending Ukraine at least more non-lethal aid.

Rep. Mike Turner, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee that oversees tactical air and land forces, said legislation that he introduced this week to provide Ukraine with more military assistance was influenced by Breedlove’s assessments.

“We did craft the bill based upon our previous consultations with Breedlove,” Turner told The Daily Beast. “But legislation is the slowest form of policy making. The fact is we have this international crisis and the administration is not acting quickly enough.”

To date, the only military aid the United States has approved for Ukraine is 300,000 meals ready to eat. U.S. defense officials say Breedlove favors also providing Ukraine’s military with more secure communications equipment and other assets to assist its command and control capabilities in the field.

A Senate staff member who works closely on Ukraine and European security issues said: “When we went into Iraq we were able to establish tactical surprise. We still maintained tactical surprise. Breedlove is saying, ‘look at what Russia is doing. This is strategic build up of forces.’ He is saying this is the playbook we did in Iraq. He doesn’t want the Russians to have tactical surprise like we did.”

Another important area of disagreement between the NATO commander and others in the administration is on the issue of intelligence sharing. The U.S. intelligence community to date has concluded that the risk is too high that detailed intelligence sharing with Ukraine would reveal sources and methods to Moscow, Breedlove on the other hand has pressed to give the Ukrainians this intelligence.

A U.S. defense official was careful to stress that Breedlove did not want to give Ukraine specific tactical intelligence that could be used to target Russian forces over the country’s border. But this source confirmed that Breedlove still advocates for providing more strategic intelligence on the location and composition of the potential Russian invasion force.

Breedlove made the case that Ukraine’s military has been a good friend to NATO in the written testimony he was supposed to deliver to the House Armed Services Committee on April 2—but never did. (Hagel sent Breedlove to Brussels to attend NATO consultations in the first week of April). In that written testimony the general warned: “Recent Russian aggression could put in jeopardy Ukraine’s ability to contribute to NATO and any U.S. operations and exercises. It is important we continue to support Ukrainian cooperative activities with NATO and U.S. forces to enhance our mutually beneficial relationship.”

Moscow may or may not commit to an all-out invasion of Ukraine. But that doesn’t mean they’re looking to stabilize the region. Quite the contrary, Breedlove warned in his undelivered testimony: “Recent actions in Ukraine typify a long-term trend towards Russian intervention in the sovereign affairs of other countries to exert undue influence and pressure. The apparent focus of these efforts is to retain these countries and regions within Russia’s sphere of influence, while ensuring they do not turn their focus towards the West.”

The general added, “It appears Russia shows little interest in finding a solution, presenting an image that the conflicts remain unresolved to serve Russian interests.”