WASHINGTON, July 9, 2014 —
Days after the Ukrainian government abandoned a ceasefire and began an offensive against pro-Russian forces in the country’s east, a senior Defense Department official said today that the United States is concerned Russian troops may be preparing a counteroffensive in support of Moscow’s separatist allies.
“I think we have to really expect the worst in terms of a Russian response, and that’s why we’re watching it so closely,” Derek Chollet, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It’s a very dangerous situation.”
The Ukrainian military has forced Russian-backed separatists to retreat in some areas, has surrounded others, and is warning it is prepared to force insurgents out of additional towns in the region, where since March separatists have been battling Ukrainian troops with what the U.S. and its European allies say is clear support and, at times, intervention from Moscow.
Chollet testified that Russia remains heavily active in destabilizing Ukraine’s east, despite having pulled back troops who were massed along the border area.
“Russian irregular forces and Russian-backed local separatists remain active inside eastern Ukraine, and both are supported by Russian financing,” Chollet said. He credited Western sanctions with changing “[President Vladimir] Putin’s calculation on how much support he would be willing to give and how deep he would get into this,” but he warned that Russia’s support for re-establishing a ceasefire may not last.
“I think we have to be very mindful of what the Russian response could be,” he said.
Last month, Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe and commander of U.S. European Command, said Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine had brought Europe to the most decisive point since the end of the Cold War and that additional rotational forces could be needed on the continent to sustain security.
Today, Chollet said Ukraine’s leaders have made clear they want U.S. help on security and that the United States continues to work with President Petro Poroshenko, who met with President Barack Obama last month. Obama has approved $33 million in security assistance to the government in Kiev, steps that are being enhanced, Chollet said, by visits from U.S. military advisors to the country.
“We are discussing additional steps to help train and professionalize Ukraine’s military,” he said, adding that the Defense Department will work with Ukraine on reforming, and in some cases rebuilding, its defense institutions.
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