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The Greatest Threat to U.S. Security?

A Russian Tu-95 Bear bomber is escorted by a British Royal Air Force Typhoon fighter during an intercept in September 2014. Click through the gallery to see other intercepts in late 2014.

A Russian Tu-95 Bear bomber is intercepted by a British Royal Air Force Typhoon fighter in September 2014. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in November that alliance fighters had intercepted Russian warplanes as they flew close to NATO countries more than 400 times in 2014, the kind of Russian air activity not seen since the Cold War. (CNN)

What would you consider the greatest threat to national security currently being faced by the U.S.? If you listen to the likes of Donald Trump, a prospective presidential candidate, the greatest threat comes from Mexico and the hordes of illegal immigrants crossing the border to commit rape and murder. Other presidential candidates, geopolitical pundits and economic analysts would more reasonably argue that the destabilizing force of Islamic State, China in the South China Sea, the sectarianism of Iran, North Korea and its ballistic missile capabilities, or the economic fallout from Greece pose the greatest threat. While many Americans were perhaps not contemplating the answer to that question this past fourth of July, as they enjoyed their barbecues or watched the fireworks, members of the military, homeland security, Wall Street, and the FBI were busy seriously confronting that question on that day.

On July 4, the FBI was busy thwarting ISIS terrorist plots from coast to coast intended “to kill people in the United States” on the nation’s holiday, using unsophisticated means such as guns and knives. One such plot involved the son of Boston police Captain Robert Ciccolo, one of those early responders to the Boston Marathon bombing of April 2013. His son allegedly planned to use a pressure cooker bomb “to conduct terrorist attacks on civilians, members of the U.S. military and law enforcement personnel.” The FBI informed the planned attack later switched to a state university, “to include executions of students, which would be broadcast live via the internet.” Thankfully, Ciccolo was stopped by FBI undercover agents before he could carry out his action.

Over in China, regulatory authorities were busy on July 4 trying to stem the rapid decline of the Shanghai and Shenzhen stockmarkets, after a third straight week of battering led them almost 30 percent lower than they were in mid-June. Some anxious analysts harkened the coming collapse of China or warned of the potential to derail the recovery of the American economy. Ruchir Sharma, head of emerging markets at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, chose to use the market decline as a warning signal and claim the next global recession will be “made in China.” While Chinese stockmarkets have since recovered, the measures taken by regulatory authorities (such as bans on selling) are short-term measures and will largely fail to restore confidence in the markets or in the party’s ability to control events.

Also on July 4, Greek voters and European leaders were anxiously awaiting a referendum the following day when Greek citizens would vote “Yes” or “No” to a list of European and IMF bailout conditions. Worries over whether Greece would exit the euro had weighed down central and eastern European economies over fears a “Grexit” would trigger a new wave of economic and banking system distress in Europe. A last minute deal to impose more austerity on the Greek economy has finally been agreed to by both sides, despite Greeks rejecting austerity measures in a recent referendum.

All of the above events are worrisome, but the one event on July 4 which failed to get any of the widespread coverage in the U.S. media the others received was symbolic in representing perhaps the greatest threat to U.S. national security.

On July 4, the U.S. military performed two intercepts of Russians aircraft on the same day Russian President Vladimir Putin sent congratulations to the White House to mark the national holiday. American F-22s took off from Alaska to identify and track two Russian TU-95 Bear bombers flying off the southern coast, while American F-15s tracked two other TU-95s detected near the coast of San Francisco. While all of the flights were eventually escorted safely away from U.S. airspace, the flights were successful in delivering a message to Obama that Russia is not afraid of confrontation.

On Monday, Russia confronted Georgia by placing “border” markers on the edge of the South Ossetia region, which has been occupied by Russian military troops along with Abkhazia since 2008. The demarcation now effectively seizes part of a British Petroleum-operated oil pipeline, which Georgia considers a violation of its sovereignty.

While both these Russian actions on their own can be considered relatively minor infractions on a geopolitical scale, these “salami-slicing” or “creeping annexation” efforts (coupled with a large nuclear arsenal and its destabilizing role in Ukraine) may represent the single greatest global threat to the United States, if we are to listen to the man slated to be President Barack Obama’s top military adviser.

During his confirmation hearing to be the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford told the Senate Armed Services committee, “Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security,” and called Russia’s behavior “nothing short of alarming.”

If General Dunford is right, perhaps now is the time to reconsider military assistance to the Ukraine. Indeed, this is what Dunford recommended to the committee, arguing that it would be “reasonable” for the United States to provide sophisticated anti-tank and artillery assistance. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter also voiced his support for such weapons to Ukraine, and the Obama administration has started to take their message more seriously.

On Monday, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the commander of U.S. Army Europe based in Germany, told reporters a review is underway for a training program for regular Ukrainian army soldiers, to include defensive techniques against electronic warfare, communications intercepts and jamming of communications. U.S. military officials are also considering the expansion of tactical training to army and special operations troops. The U.S. has to dates provided Ukrainian forces with millions of dollars worth of non-lethal equipment, including armored Humvee military vehicles, helmets and body armor, night-vision goggles, lightweight counter-mortar radar and medical supplies.

Putin’s recent “salami-slicing” method of sending bombers close to U.S. airspace and the “creeping annexation” efforts underway in Georgia may be symptomatic of a much greater effort by Putin to stir nationalism among his compatriots and diffuse any grumbling at home over the deteriorating economic situation.

Despite a string of accidents involving the country’s military aircraft, including a crash of a Tu-95 bomber in far eastern Russia on Tuesday, NATO allies close to Russia need reassurance from Washington. Washington needs to continue an aggressive program of military exercises in Europe, and quickly reach a decision to help train Ukrainian army forces. Putin is clearly testing, in small increments, the fighting resolve of nations he believes should be in Russia’s orbit, and without an equivalent counter-response to each infraction from the U.S. or Europe, he may be tempted to raise the stakes soon. Let’s just hope it doesn’t come in the form of a “full-scale invasion,” as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned of in June.




Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666