WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Russia seems intent on weakening Western institutions and its relations with NATO will likely be more strained in the coming years than at any time since the Cold War ended, NATO's top commander said on March 24.
U.S. Army General John Craddock said Russia's military action in Georgia last year overturned a basic assumption made by NATO after the fall of the Soviet Union -- that no countries were under threat of invasion in Europe or Eurasia.
"That assumption has been now proven false," Craddock, NATO's supreme allied commander Europe, told the U.S. Senate's armed services committee.
"Russia seems determined [to] see Euro-Atlantic security institutions weakened and has shown a readiness to use economic leverage and military force to achieve its aims," Craddock said in written testimony for the committee.
Russia has pursued a more assertive foreign policy in recent years, strongly criticizing the United States and flexing its military muscle last August by sending troops into Georgia for a brief war over the region of South Ossetia.
Moscow also showed its economic clout by cutting off gas supplies to Europe in January during a dispute with Ukraine.
"Russian leaders, political and military, have signaled that the door remains open to closer cooperation," Craddock said in his written testimony.
"Nevertheless their actions in Georgia in August 2008 and with European natural gas supplies in January 2009, suggest that their overall intent may be to weaken European solidarity and systematically reduce U.S. influence," he said.
U.S. Seeks 'Reset'
President Barack Obama's administration has pledged since taking office in January to "press the reset button" in relations with Russia and Moscow has welcomed the overtures.
But it is unclear if the two countries will be able to overcome differences that emerged during the Bush administration over a range of issues.
Those issues include U.S. plans to place an antimissile system in Eastern Europe, possible NATO expansion into ex-Soviet states and assessments of Iran's nuclear program.
Despite the tensions, Craddock said the U.S. military was ready to engage with its Russian counterpart.
The United States and NATO broke off routine contacts with the Russian military after the Georgia war. NATO foreign ministers agreed earlier this month to resume formal ties with Russia after an alliance summit on April 3-4.
"In my experience as an armor officer, when you break contact and you lose contact on the flanks of friends, or break contact with a foe, then everything gets a little bit more confusing and ambiguous," Craddock said. "And in our business, it's not what we like," said Craddock, who is also head of U.S. European Command.
In a later session with the House of Representatives committee on armed services, Craddock said Russia could become less assertive due to its weakened economic circumstances.
"A stretching or a posing, if you will, on the part of Russians for the last couple of years -- that may be at the end right now given the fact there's the worldwide economic situation, and the price of energy," he said.