Russia Missing from Trump’s Top Defense Priorities, According to DoD Memo
Meanwhile, Pentagon brass say Moscow is the No. 1 threat to the United States.
A Pentagon memo outlining the incoming Trump administration’s top “defense priorities” identifies defeating the Islamic State, eliminating budget caps, developing a new cybersecurity strategy, and finding greater efficiencies as the president-elect’s primary concerns. But the memo, obtained by Foreign Policy, does not include any mention of Russia, which has been identified by senior military officials as the No. 1 threat to the United States.
“People there now would be pretty concerned to see Russia not on the list,” said Evelyn Farkas, a former senior Pentagon official who worked on Russia policy before leaving in 2015.
For years, top cabinet officials at the Defense Department and the intelligence community cited Russia as the foremost threat because of its vast nuclear arsenal, sophisticated cyber capabilities, recently modernized military, and willingness to challenge the United States and its allies in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and other regions.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who will remain in that role after Trump takes office Jan. 20, told Congress last year that no other threat is more serious.
“If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia,” Dunford told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “If you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming.” He listed China, North Korea, and the Islamic State as the next biggest threats, in that order.
The memo, dated Dec. 1, was written by Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Brian McKeon to employees in his office. In it, McKeon said the four-point list of priorities was conveyed to him by Mira Ricardel, a former Bush administration official and co-leader of Trump’s Pentagon transition team.
The full memo is here.
Besides placing an emphasis on budgetary issues, “force strength,” and counterterrorism in Iraq and Syria, the memo noted other briefings between the Defense Department and the Trump transition team on China and North Korea. But Russia was not mentioned.
A Trump transition official declined to say where Russia fits into the president-elect’s defense priorities, but said the memo is “not comprehensive.”
“For the media to speculate that this list of issues represents all of the president-elect’s priorities is completely erroneous and misleading,” said Jessica Ditto, a transition spokeswoman.
A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment on the incoming Trump administration’s priorities, but said the transition team had been briefed on issues related to Russia.
“We would leave it up to them to describe their priorities,” Gordon Trowbridge, the deputy Pentagon press secretary told FP. “We have provided them with multiple briefings that touched on Russia policy. That’s the extent of our knowledge on their priorities.”
Since the beginning of his campaign, Trump has openly argued that an improved relationship with Russia is in the interest of the United States, especially relating to counterterrorism efforts in Iraq and Syria.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we got together with Russia and knocked the hell out of ISIS?” Trump said in July, a line he frequently reiterated on the campaign trail.
Last week, he nominated ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, arguing that the oilman’s extensive business dealings in Russia would be a major asset in international negotiations. Under Tillerson’s leadership, Exxon has lobbied against U.S. sanctions imposed on Moscow over its armed incursion into Ukraine and seizing of Crimea in 2014. The oil giant stands to profit from deals in Russia worth billions of dollars if the sanctions are lifted.
Trump’s messaging throughout the campaign markedly improved GOP attitudes on Russia, according to recent polling. But the U.S. foreign-policy establishment — including large swaths of employees at the Pentagon, State Department, and CIA — remains deeply skeptical of Moscow.
Steven Pifer, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who spent 25 years as a State Department diplomat, said the memo was “both surprising and concerning … given what the Russians are doing against Ukraine, their military modernization effort, the bellicose tone we’ve heard from Moscow the past three years, and NATO’s effort to bolster conventional deterrence and defense capabilities in the Baltic region.”
Last February, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper emphasized that the Islamic State terrorist group isn’t nearly as threatening to U.S. interests as Moscow. The Islamic State “can’t inflict mortal damage to the United States,” he said. “Russia can.”
That outlook is reflected in how the federal government has directed billions of dollars of defense spending. The Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer said earlier this month that U.S. defense budgets are now focused primarily on countering Moscow.
The White House earmarked an extra $3.4 billion in the 2014 defense spending bill to deploy two more U.S. Army brigades to Eastern Europe — along with hundreds of tanks and heavily armored vehicles pre-positioned for use in case of war with Russia.
The Pentagon and its NATO allies have revamped some training exercises specifically to replicate fighting Russian armed forces, head of the U.S. Army in Europe, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, told FP. Hundreds of American, British, and Canadian troops are deployed to western Ukraine, where they’re training Ukrainian forces who are seeing daily combat with separatists trained and equipped by Russia in the country’s east. Many of those separatist units are led by Russian officers, Hodges said.
Under a Trump administration, those initiatives could be scaled back, but not without a fight. Republican hawks in Congress, including Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and John McCain of Arizona, have pledged to oppose a softer line on Russia. Last week, Rubio openly cast doubt on his support for Tillerson in what will likely be a testy confirmation battle.
Others said it was too soon to judge the posture that Trump’s Pentagon would take toward Russia as Gen. James Mattis, his pick for defense secretary, hasn’t been confirmed yet.
“I would give this a little bit more time to be fleshed out and to hear more directly from Gen. Mattis about what his priorities will be,” said Heather Conley, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
A defense official with knowledge of the transition process confirmed that the Trump transition team has met with relevant officials tasked with Russia policy at the Pentagon, but said: “There’s not a lot of back and forth, it’s been mostly ‘how are you set up?’”
A second Pentagon official called the meetings professional, but said it is hard to discern the shape of the next administration’s policies before a defense secretary is in place.
Farkas, after reviewing the memo, said she would expect significant resistance from Pentagon officials if the next president tries to pursue its policy priorities as outlined. “They will find ways to drag their heels,” she said. “Clearly, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs still has six months to go, and he also agrees that Russia is the No. 1 threat.”
John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary