Last month, four-star Air Force General Philip Breedlove arrived in Washington to brief Congress on Russia’s mobilization on its border with Ukraine and the options available for the US and NATO — the latter of which Breedlove leads as Supreme Allied Commander. Breedlove, who is also the head of European Command for the Pentagon, got sent back early in order to consult with allies. However, a new exclusive from Eli Lake suggests his abrupt return to Europe may have been driven by a split with the White House over aid to Ukraine:
During classified briefings on March 26 and March 27, Gen. Philip Breedlove painted for members of the House Armed Services Committee a bleak picture of Russia’s actions—and warned that the United States was not taking steps it could to help Ukraine better defend itself. On several points—from estimates of Moscow’s troops to intelligence-sharing with Russia’s likely adversaries—Breedlove’s briefing directly contradicted the message coming from other branches of the Obama administration.
Breedlove, a four star Air Force general, was careful not to tell members of Congress anything that directly undermined the authority of the Commander-in-Chief during his March briefings. But lawmakers and Congressional staff members who attended these sessions say it was clear that Breedlove felt he was stifled to respond adequately to the crisis in Ukraine.
The quiet protests from one of Obama’s most important generals at the moment reveal an important policy rift inside the administration. While President Obama, the joint chiefs of staff and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have hesitated to provide too much assistance to the interim government in Ukraine, Breedlove has wanted to do more.
In a statement for The Daily Beast, Breedlove acknowledged that he met with members of both parties in Congress in the last week in March. “I provided my estimation of Russian capabilities and that estimation was well-received by the Members. As these sessions were classified, I can only get into generalities.” Breedlove added that he discussed a number of issues including the U.S. consideration of non-lethal aid to Ukraine. “I was clear that our efforts were aimed at reassuring our NATO Allies and European partners of our commitment and resolve,” he said.
Members of Congress, Congressional staff and U.S. defense officials say Breedlove has wanted to brief Ukraine’s military on the detailed intelligence U.S. spy agencies had gathered on Russia’s troop movements and analysis of Russian war plans.
This puts quite a different spin on the earlier news about satellite photos released by NATO. Breedlove was the one who released them, and made it clear why on his Twitter feed:
Russian forces around Ukraine fully equipped/capable to invade. Public denial undermines progress. Images tell story http://t.co/vQ0z2OM5I4
— Phil Breedlove (@PMBreedlove) April 10, 2014
Here is a report on Breedlove’s return from two weeks ago:
Breedlove’s abrupt departure looks like it was motivated by other interests than just getting a closer look at the Russian threat. It prevented his scheduled testimony last week to the House Armed Services Committee about the specifics of that threat, and Breedlove’s input on how best to respond to it. Mike Rogers, who chairs the committee, has a bill that would authorize specific areas of intelligence sharing with the interim Ukraine government, at which the White House has balked so far. Rogers told Eli Lake that the bill intended to respond to Breedlove’s recommendations, but that legislation is really too slow — and that the White House should be taking Breedlove’s advice directly.
Until now, Breedlove appears to have carefully picked his modes of dissent from the administration’s Ukraine strategy. Ironically, today is the 63rd anniversary of the firing of Douglas MacArthur for his attempt to publicly take control over war policy from Harry Truman, which was deeply unpopular at the time but served as a strong precedent for civilian control over the American military. The President has control of foreign policy, including military and intelligence strategy, and for good reasons — even when we don’t necessarily agree with the previous election’s results or the policies. If this is truly a split that’s going public, then both Breedlove and the White House will face some difficult choices, and soon.
Update: Someone’s a fan of this story …
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) April 11, 2014