The top US military officer told lawmakers Tuesday that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine likely could not have been prevented and warned that the Pentagon has picked up “provocative rhetoric” from Russia about its nuclear alert level.
Gen. Mark Milley, tchairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the conquest of Ukraine had been a “long-standing objective” of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Candidly, short of the commitment of US forces into Ukraine proper, I am not sure he was deterrable,” Milley told the House Armed Services Committee while testifying alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. “This has been a long-term objective of his that goes back years. I think the idea of deterring Putin from invading Ukraine — deterring him by the United States — would have required the use of US military forces and would have risked armed conflict with Russia, which I wouldn’t advise.”
Milley’s admission contradicted rhetoric from the Biden administration about the hoped-for effect of sanctions against Russia prior to the Feb. 24 invasion.
As late as Feb. 22, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters, “Sanctions are not an end to themselves. They serve a higher purpose. And that purpose is to deter and prevent. They’re meant to prevent and deter a large-scale invasion of Ukraine that could involve the seizure of major cities, including Kyiv.”
In his prepared testimony, Milley said Russia’s invasion had “created a dangerous, historical turning point.”
Despite Russia’s economy being rocked by Western sanctions, Milley warned that Moscow “retains a large and varied nuclear capability to threaten the United States and our allies and partners, and we have heard very provocative rhetoric concerning Russia’s nuclear force alert levels from Russian senior leaders.”
Days after giving the invasion the green light, Putin ordered his country’s nuclear weapons to be placed on high alert due to what he called the West’s “aggressive statements” in defense of Ukraine.
“Western countries aren’t only taking unfriendly actions against our country in the economic sphere, but top officials from leading NATO members made aggressive statements regarding our country,” Putin said in remarks carried on state television on Feb. 27.
Russia sits on the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons — nearly 6,000 warheads — which includes missiles capable of striking the US mainland, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
With Russia’s assault on Ukraine, Milley said, the US is “facing two global powers, China and Russia, each [with] significant military capabilities, both who intend to fundamentally change the rules-based current global order.”
Austin echoed Milley’s comments, describing China and Russia as the two “greatest challenges to US security,” in that order.
“The People’s Republic of China [PRC] is the department’s pacing challenge due to its coercive and increasingly aggressive efforts to refashion the Indo-Pacific region and the international system to suit its interests and preferences,” Austin told the House panel.
The secretary went on to say that Beijing has modernized all aspects of the People’s Liberation Army, including its nuclear capabilities, with the aim to counter US military advantages.
“The PRC seeks to fragment US alliances and security partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region, and the PRC’s leaders hope to leverage their economic influence and the PLA’s growing military strength to coerce China’s neighbors and threaten their vital national interests,” Austin said.
Milley, in his prepared opening remarks, pointed out that China is “actively watching” the events in Ukraine with the intent to “exploit efforts in order to weaken the US and our allies supporting Ukraine.”
However, he insisted that war with China “is not inevitable.”
”The PRC is clearly a strategic competitor, and it continues to improve its technology and modernization of its armed forces,” Milley said. “It is imperative that we keep our relationship with the PRC a competition and not allow it to become a conflict.”