WASHINGTON -- Russia is testing NATO and United States and the alliance needs to craft a more robust response to Moscow's actions in Europe and the Middle East, former top U.S. military and security officials warned.
The comments on February 10 before a congressional committee -- by a former NATO commander, a former top Pentagon official, and a former National Security Council officer -- reflected how quickly policymakers in Washington and other Western capitals are shifting priorities amid Kremlin aggression in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere.
The hearing at the House Armed Services Committee came as NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels approved a new multinational force to rotate in and out of Eastern European countries, and came just days after the Pentagon unveiled its budget request for a fourfold increase in spending linked to Russia's actions.
It also came just two days after the Kremlin ordered large-scale snap military exercises in regions bordering Ukraine and the Caucasus involving 8,500 troops, some 900 military vehicles, and 200 aircraft.
Russia has held similarly sized snap exercises with increasing frequency in recent years.
James Stavridis, formerly NATO's top military officer and top commander of U.S. forces in Europe, said Washington and NATO needed to strengthen sanctions against Russia, maintain their own nuclear deterrence, and reassure European allies.
"We don't need to stumble backwards into a full-blown Cold War, that is in no one's interest," said Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University near Boston. "But we must confront where we see the need to do so."
Washington should be concerned about Russian signals that it was increasingly willing to use tactical nuclear weapons as a "first-strike option" in any potential military clashes in Europe, said Evelyn Farkas, who resigned last year as the Pentagon's top Russia official.
And she noted U.S. assertions that Russia has violated a key 1987 arms-control treaty.
"I believe the United States needs to be prepared to deploy, unfortunately, intermediate nuclear weapons back to Europe if the Russians do not roll back their program," she said.
Farkas also repeated a growing sentiment shared by some lawmakers that the United States should supply more sophisticated weapons, like the Javelin antitank weapon system, to Ukraine and elsewhere to deter Russia.
The White House has resisted those calls, fearing it could provoke Russia into more aggressive moves in Ukraine.
Fiona Hill, who was a top Russia officer on the National Security Council during the 2008 war in Georgia, said recent actions reflect President Vladimir Putin's world view that Washington is out to keep Russia from taking what he sees as Russia's rightful place as a world leader.
"The military is not just there for show, it's there for use. It's there to be an instrument of policy and it's no good if people just think you're might just be toying with the idea of using these things," said Hill, an analyst at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. "People have to believe you will use them under certain circumstances."
Russia's skill in using "information warfare" -- to surprise adversaries, or sow confusion or doubt about its intentions -- needs a better response, both Hill and Farkas said, but they disagreed on whether the State Department was capable of leading that effort.
The speakers also suggested that U.S. policymakers needed to rethink the "pivot to Asia" touted during the first term of the Obama administration, which called for redirecting military and diplomatic resources to deal with China's increasing engagement in the region.
"Russia is the immediate threat. That probably does have some implications for the pivot," Farkas said.
While Stavridis pointed out that while Putin's muscular image and foreign policy remains wildly popular among Russians, Hill said there was less enthusiasm for the Russian political system, systemic problems like corruption, and a sharp economic downtown that has begun to pinch consumers.
"There is no political alternative to Putin right now," Hill said.
Russian moves in Ukraine, along with the snap military exercises, come amid more aggressive actions by Russian warplanes and warships in the Baltic, North, Mediterranean, and Black seas, as well as elsewhere.
Former Soviet bloc countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, and the three Baltics states have voiced particular alarm about Russian actions and concern about their vulnerability.
Those vulnerabilities were underscored last week in a report by the RAND Corporation, a U.S. defense think tank, which concluded Russian forces would overrun Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania within three days if the Kremlin decided to attack, and that NATO and the United States would have no good options to respond.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said a new force being set up by the 28-member alliance would rotate in and out of Eastern European member states rather than being based there.
There was no immediate agreement on the size or composition of the force, however.
One NATO official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make public statements, told the AP news agency that one proposal being considered calls for the creation of a brigade-sized unit of roughly 3,000 troops.
Reinforcing NATO's presence in Poland and other allies close to Russia "will send a clear signal," Stoltenberg said. "NATO will respond as one to any aggression against any ally."
With reporting by AP