Opening Statement of U.S. Senator Jack Reed

Ranking Member, Senate Armed Services Committee



Hart Senate Office Building

Thursday, October 8, 2015


To receive testimony on Russian strategy and military operations

(As Prepared for Delivery)

Welcome to our witnesses.

This morning’s hearing focuses on developments in Russia’s strategy and military operations, which are causing fundamental shifts in the security environment, not only in Europe but in the Middle East, the Arctic, and elsewhere.  The United States and its allies are facing an increasingly aggressive and revanchist Russia, and a Putin regime that is willing to use all tools at its disposal, including its military power, to achieve its goals.  Putin’s goals appear to be: first, regime survival in the face of Russia’s economic, political, and social decline; second, securing Russia’s periphery by pressuring its neighbors against integrating with the West; and third, exploiting opportunities to weaken Western unity by dividing member states within the EU and NATO against each other.  Yet, Russia’s provocative and dangerous aggression often appears opportunistic and potentially harmful for its longer-term interests. 

Last month I visited Ukraine, where the nascent democratic government in Kyiv is struggling to defend its sovereignty against aggression from Russia and Russian-backed separatists.  Russia has demonstrated in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine its willingness to use military force to violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity and intimidate its neighbor.  It is clear that President Putin sees a functioning, democratic, Westward-oriented Ukraine as a threat to his regime’s survival domestically, and to Russia’s broader regional security strategy. 

Recently, Russia has shifted its tactics in Ukraine, from an emphasis on territorial gains through hybrid warfare and proxy forces, to an expansion of its activities aimed at destabilizing the Ukrainian government and economy.  This shift in Russian tactics is a result of several factors, including the determination of the Ukrainian forces and people to resist Russian aggression; international sanctions that are proving costly to Russia; the difficulty of disguising casualties from the Russian people which is engendering opposition within Russia; and most recently, a possible desire by President Putin to shift the focus away from Ukraine and toward the conflict in Syria.

Russian military operations in the Donbas have been a proving ground for its hybrid warfare techniques, which continue to evolve with increasing sophistication.

The United States needs to be firm in support of Ukraine right now, or else the United States and NATO will have bigger problems in the future.  If Ukraine does not weather the current crisis, then Russia’s aggressive behavior will be repeated elsewhere, potentially threatening NATO members.  The United States needs to act in concert with our allies to assist Ukraine. 

One immediate need is for the international community to press Russia not to support the illegitimate local elections called by the separatists, which violate the specific terms of the Minsk agreements and Ukrainian law.  The outcome of local elections in the Donbas threaten to further undermine the prospects for negotiations as part of the Minsk peace process.  I understand that elections in the conflict area have now been postponed until February.  The United States and its allies and partners must immediately agree on an approach that supports Ukrainian efforts to hold elections under Ukrainian law, pressures Russia to uphold the terms of the Minsk agreements, and makes clear that any separatist “victors” in sham elections will not be accepted as participants in future talks under Minsk.

The United States and its partners should take other steps to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine as well.  Ukraine’s need for defensive weapons, including counter-artillery radars and anti-tank weapons, remains critical.  Other actions to help Ukraine include expanding the training in Ukraine of units of the Ministry of Defense; training Ukrainian forces at facilities outside Ukraine on key defensive weapons systems, should a decision be made to transfer those systems to Ukraine; and exploring options for developing Ukraine’s capability to produce domestically much-needed weapons systems, such as anti-tank weapons and vehicles.

In Syria, much as it did in Ukraine, Russia has hidden its true intentions, using the ruse of joining the fight against ISIL to provide cover for Russia’s military intervention to prop up the Assad regime.  Russia’s actions, however, increasingly expose their true objectives.  Instead of focusing on targeting ISIL, Russian airstrikes have predominantly occurred in Homs and Hama, areas controlled by moderate Syrian forces challenging the Assad regime.  And yesterday it was reported that Russian ships in the Caspian Sea launched missiles against a coalition of Syrian opposition forces that does not include ISIL.  Russia is providing broader enabling support to the Assad regime’s forces attacks against the moderate opposition.  These Russian missile attacks and enabling support were apparently conducted in coordination with a new ground offensive by the Syrian Army, Iran’s terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, and other Iranian-affiliated forces. This alignment of terrorists and their state sponsors is alarming.

Russia’s open military intervention in a conflict well beyond its borders marks a significant departure from how Russia has operated in the past, and suggests that President Putin may be attaching particular strategic importance to Russia’s access to bases and overall relationship with Syria.  I hope our witnesses will provide their assessment of the strategic significance of Russia’s decision to deployment military forces to Syria. 

Russia’s unilateral and belligerent efforts are not helpful to the efforts of the unified coalition of 60-plus countries fighting ISIL and create a dangerous risk of unintended consequences.  President Putin has chosen not to join the international anti-ISIL coalition.  Instead, Putin has chosen to align with Iran and Hezbollah to attack Syrians seeking to end the brutality of the Assad regime and establish a better Syria.  Russia’s actions are likely to only prolong and further complicate this conflict.  Russia appears to be seeking to keep Bashar Assad in office and maintain Syria as a client state.  In addition, Russia, Iran, and Iraq have concluded an intelligence sharing arrangement, and Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi has suggested that Iraq would welcome Russian airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq, adding to concerns over unintended consequences.  I would be interested in hearing our witnesses’ assessment of what they believe President Putin hopes to achieve strategically in Syria and Iraq in the long-term. 

Finally, Russia is staking a claim in the Arctic, expanding its military presence, including coastal defenses, in the north to be able to control movement through a northern passage.  I will be interested in hearing from our witnesses regarding their assessment of Russia’s strategy in the Arctic and any recommendations for how to respond to Russian military operations in the north.

Again, thank you to our witnesses for testifying this morning.