U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s top commander, said Thursday that the separatist forces have been using the relative lull in fighting since a cease-fire was signed in February to regroup.
“These preparations are consistent with the possibility of an offensive,” Gen. Breedlove said at a Pentagon news conference.
“And that is what we have seen through several of the previous pauses in eastern Ukraine.”
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has warned in recent days of an increase in violence, including heavy shelling last weekend outside the port of Mariupol, the largest government-held city in the area.
A top European Union official said this week after meeting with Ukrainian leaders that they fear Russia is preparing a broad attack on their country.
French President François Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin—the four leaders who brokered the Feb. 12 peace plan—agreed in a conference call Thursday that ensuring peace is the “absolute priority,” Mr. Hollande’s office said.
French and Russian officials said representatives would meet within a week to discuss reconstruction, security and how to deal with refugees who have fled the fighting in recent months.
The meeting would “mark the beginning of a political phase” in trying to implement the cease-fire plan, a French official said.
The Kremlin said they reported “some progress” in the cease-fire effort and weapons pullback.
Speaking at the Pentagon and testifying before Congress, Gen. Breedlove said the U.S. needs to increase its deterrence as Putin modernizes and builds up the capabilities of his military and displays “ambitious strategic intent.”
“We also know Putin only responds to strength and seeks opportunities in weakness,” Gen. Breedlove said.
“We must strengthen our deterrence in order to manage his opportunistic confidence.”
Toward that end, the U.S. has deployed additional aircraft to conduct patrols over the Baltic countries and staged additional military exercises and training in Eastern European countries.
It also approved funding for additional stocks of prepositioned military equipment, a move that could allow for U.S. forces to be built up quickly in locations across the continent.
Gen. Breedlove suggested that the U.S. may need more forces in Europe as well.
“The forces in Europe over the last 20 years have been sized for a situation where we were looking at Russia as a partner,” he said.
“What we see now is that Russia has demonstrated it is not a partner.”
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the U.S. response in Europe has been taken as a sign of weakness.
Having cut its Cold War era forces by as much as 75%, the U.S. in recent months has been increasing the number—and frequency—of rotations of forces into Europe for training with NATO members.
The U.S. currently has 67,000 troops permanently stationed in Europe.
An additional 3,000 are currently deployed there on a temporary, rotational basis, Pentagon officials said.
Gen. Breedlove said the rotating forces allowed the U.S. to address shortfalls in its troop levels, but told senators that:
“Rotational presence is not a substitute for permanent forward presence in building relationships or signalling our commitment.”
Despite the current cease-fire, Gen. Breedlove said, in his opinion, Putin was still pursuing a strategy to ensure Ukraine is within Moscow’s sphere of influence.
“I believe Putin very much wants, the West out of Ukraine and Ukraine out of the West. I believe he will bring pressure on the government in Kiev until that simple formula is met.”
Source: The Wall Street Journal