Amid Russia crisis, Pentagon nominee criticizes Obama response to Crimea

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WASHINGTON — A top Pentagon pick for President Joe Biden has criticized the Obama administration’s response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine as “too slow and too incremental,” at her confirmation hearing Thursday.

GOP and Democratic members of the Senate Armed Services Committee grilled Celeste Wallander, a senior Russia adviser to President Barack Obama in 2014, on past and future U.S. lethal aid for Ukraine. Wallander was nominated as assistant secretary of defense in international security affairs. She said that it was a bad decision not to send weapons into Ukraine.

“I believe that our response in 2014 was too slow and too incremental. It’s confirmed by the lessons I learned, which I believe others in national security community also learned, to better address Russia’s ongoing aggression,” Wallander said. He would be responsible for U.S. military cooperation and foreign military sale.

Later: Sen. Tom Cotton , R.Ark. asked if the Obama administration made a mistake by not sending Ukraine lethal arms out of fear of inciting war with Russia. Wallander agreed.

Cotton pointed out that the previous administration had sent such aid. .”

” Wallander stated that it would have been appropriate to provide Ukraine with the necessary resources to defend its territory.

Tension on the border

The hearing comes as Russia-U.S. negotiations in Geneva and a subsequent NATO-Russia meeting failed to narrow the gap on Moscow’s security demands amid a buildup of Russian troops near Ukraine. Moscow requested a halt in NATO expansion. However, Washington and its allies strongly rejected this as non-starter.

The Biden administration has threatened, if Russian President Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine, to levy stiff sanctions, reinforce NATO’s eastern flank and further arm Ukraine beyond the $450 million the U.S. sent in military aid in 2021. However, there has been a bipartisan cry from lawmakers who believe the administration must take a stronger approach to deter Putin.

When Wallander, D-Conn., said that she would investigate whether additional weapons should be sent for Ukraine at Thursday’s hearing he reacted.

“I take it you are more than just looking at it, because time is not on your side,” Blumenthal stated.

“That will show Vladimir Putin we mean business, because in my view that’s the only sign he will respect, other than strong economic sanctions.” Blumenthal said.

“That will show Vladimir Putin we mean business, because in my view that’s the only sign he will respect, other than strong economic sanctions.”

Wallander replied: “I agree with you those are core requirements Ukraine needs in the face of the force that Russia has amassed.”

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, left, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, right, attend security talks in Geneva, Switzerland, on Jan. 10, 2022. (Denis Balibouse/AP)

Since 2017, Wallander has been the president and chief executive of the U.S. Russia Foundation, created to strengthen ties between the two countries. Wallander was the senior director for Russia & Eurasia at the National Security Council. Before that, she was the deputy assistant defense secretary for Russia.

In separate exchanges about the potential for a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Wallander painted a grim picture: Russia’s movement of heavy armored forces from the east to the west was of “considerable concern” and signaled the situation “may be escalating.”

“I have a long career of studying the Soviet and then Russian military,” she said, “and it is my assessment … the Ukrainians would fight admirably and well, and would be quite effective in imposing enormous costs on Russian military forces. But the signals we’re hearing from the Kremlin suggest … a potential for a decisive and swift military strike, and it’s very concerning.”

Wallander appeared at her confirmation hearing alongside Melissa Dalton, who is nominated to be assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security. John Plumb, an ex-White House official and defense official, is being nominated as assistant secretary of defense for spatial policy. Based on a recent restructuring, his portfolio would include nuclear matters, missile defense, cybersecurity, and efforts to counter weapons-of-mass destruction. The GOP seized on the possibility of Russia imposing reciprocal limits on the number of missiles that can be deployed in Eastern Europe.

When Cotton asked him about the possibility of the U.S. negotiating with Russia over the Aegis Ashore missile defence system, Plumb, who stated that he was a key figure in the establishment of the system during the Obama administration, said that he would be “very reluctant” to do so. In an exchange with Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Wallander stated that she supports a “robust schedule” of exercises for U.S. Europe Command.

Beyond the Russia crisis, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., had Wallander affirm she believes NATO nations need to spend more than 2% of their respective gross domestic product on their own defense — the alliance’s target.

Hawley, part of a larger blockade on State Department and Pentagon nominees, extracted a similar pledge from Julianne Smith before she was confirmed U.S. ambassador to NATO in November.

Strategic forces

At the hearing, lawmakers asked Plumb and Wallander about reports that Biden was considering — over the objections of allies — an American a promise not to be the first to use a nuclear weapon. The Obama administration weighed a “no first use” declaratory policy but opted to leave U.S. policy ambiguous. Plumb stated that she doesn’t believe a “no first use” policy is in America’s best interests.

Asked about opposition from allies under the protection of America’s nuclear umbrella, Wallander said she too was opposed to “no first use.”

Celeste Wallander, here as president and CEO of the U.S. Russia Foundation, talks during a European security seminar in 2019. (Karl-Heinz Wedhorn/U.S. Defense Department)

“That is a fundamental reason why I do not support a no-first-use declaratory policy: because I believe it would create concerns not about the credibility of American defense commitments to our allies, in addition to possibly undermining our credibility in the eyes of our adversaries,” she added.

Several lawmakers questioned Plumb on the need for norms of behavior in space in light of Russia’s recent direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon test that created more than 1,500 pieces of new debris, according to the U.S. State Department. Plumb stated that he believes the U.S. will soon reach an agreement with China and Russia on international space norms. Plumb stated that nothing would prevent or hinder us from using both offensive and defensive capabilities in order to defend our assets and win in a conflict.

He later posed that the best way to mitigate the anti-satellite weapons threat is through a resilient architecture “able to withstand a blow to one or several satellites.”

Plumb also weighed in on progress the Space Force has made since its creation, following a question from Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., about how he would handle “growing pains” associated with establishing a new service. Plumb stated that he would continue to work with the Space Force in order to speed up acquisitions and counter emerging threats.

“The pace of Pentagon processes is not keeping up with the speed of the threat at the moment, and we have to do something about it,” Plumb stated.

Asked about efforts to transition the space traffic management mission from the Defense Department to the Commerce Department, Plumb said he supports the move, elaborating in his written responses to advance policy questions that the shift “would allow DOD to properly refocus resources on defending the nation.”

Space Policy Directive 3, released in 2018, mandated the transition, but progress toward implementing the change has been slow. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. raised concerns about a perceived lack of transparency from the Space Force about the cost of performing the space traffic management mission, making it hard for lawmakers to know how much funding to appropriate to the Commerce Department.

Plumb pledged to work with the Space Force in order to determine the training and resources needed to support this shift.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. Courtney Albon, C4ISRNET’s emerging and space technology reporter, is . She has previously covered the U.S. Air Force, and U.S. Space Force to Inside Defense.

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