US Air Force Gen. Paul Selva testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 11, 2014.

US Air Force Gen. Paul Selva testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 11, 2014. Lauren Victoria Burke/AP

Russia, Not ISIS, Greatest Threat to US, General Says

Some senators seemed surprised when Gen. Paul Selva called the nuclear-armed former superpower a bigger threat than Islamic State militants who drive captured Humvees.

Russia is a greater threat to the U.S. mainland than the Islamic State militants who are capturing territory in Iraq and Syria, said Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, President Obama’s nominee to become America’s No. 2 military officer. This seemed to surprise several of the senators gathered for Selva’s confirmation hearing on Tuesday.

But Selva’s comments echoed ones by Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, Obama’s nominee to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at his confirmation hearing last week. Together, they illustrate the U.S. military’s rising concern about Moscow since it invaded Ukraine last year.

“Russia possesses the conventional and nuclear capability to be an existential threat to this nation should they choose to do so,” Selva told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

When SASC Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., asked why he put Russia — and China, and Iran, and North Korea — ahead of ISIS, Selva said, “Because right now ISIS does not present a clear and present threat to our homeland and to the existence of our nation. It is a threat we must deal with and we must help our regional partners deal with, but it does not threaten us at home.”

Dunford and Selva appear to have caught lawmakers off guard, even though the Pentagon has taken a series of recent actions to counter the Russian military.

“I think it kind of caught a lot of us by surprise … that that would be your direction,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V. said.

(RelatedThe Man Under the Flattop: Who is Paul Selva?)

Earlier this month, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, unveiled a new National Military Strategy that warned of hybrid wars — ones that mix governments and non-state actors, like Russia’s pairing of traditional military units with eastern Ukraine separatists. It also forecast more protracted wars, like the current campaign against ISIS.

“I think our experience in Ukraine … highlights the fact that we need to update our deterrence and response model to deal with the threat that we have today, which has been described as a hybrid threat from Russia, which combines political instruments, unconventional warfare as well as support for separatists in these countries,” Dunford said last week.

The previous National Military Strategy, released in 2011, barely mentioned Moscow. It stated, simply, that the Pentagon “will increase dialogue and military-to-military relations with Russia, building on our successful efforts in strategic arms reduction” and “seek to cooperate with Russia on counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, space, and Ballistic Missile Defense.”

The same was true of the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, which focused on the pivot of U.S. forces to the Asia-Pacific region. Its only mention of Russia was this: “engagement with Russia remains important, and we will continue to build a closer relationship in areas of mutual interest and encourage it to be a contributor across a broad range of issues.”

At his hearing, Selva pledged to communicate with his Russian counterpart and possibly partner with Moscow’s military, like mentioned in these Pentagon strategy documents.

“Although we disagree with Russia’s recent conduct against its neighbors and will continue with our efforts to deter future actions, I will leave open the possibility for collaboration with Russia in areas of mutual national security interests,” he wrote in his response to advance questions from the committee.