A conservative Washington think tank that has several officials working on President-elect Donald Trump’s transition has broken with him on how it views Russia, saying in a new report that the threat Moscow poses has increased in the last year and ranges from Central Europe to the Arctic to Syria.

The Heritage Foundation’s “2017 Index of U.S. Military Strength” has been in preparation for months, and was released Wednesday, one week after Trump won the White House. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed Monday in a phone call that their two nations should improve relations and consider working together in Syria. That came despite Russian military actions in recent years that have alarmed the international community and prompted rebukes from both the Obama administration and Republicans.

“Russia seeks to maximize its strategic position in the world at the expense of the United States,” the new report states. “It also seeks to undermine U.S. influence and moral standing, harasses U.S. and [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] forces, and is working to sabotage U.S. and Western policy in Syria. Moscow’s continued aggression and willingness to utilize every tool at its disposal in pursuit of its aims leads this Index to assess the overall threat from Russia as ‘aggressive’ and ‘formidable.’”

Heritage Foundation officials, like many U.S. national security experts, have long been concerned about Russia’s intentions, but the new report says those worries have deepened.

The think tank’s 2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength assessed that while Russia’s behavior was aggressive, its capability was not yet formidable. The new report refers to Russia’s “incredibly advanced” cyber warfare capabilities, its efforts to build weapons that shoot down satellites and its regular violations of NATO airspace. Other potential adversaries, including Iran, China and North Korea, receive a lower rating of “gathering” military capability.


An image taken from footage released by Russia’s Defense Ministry on Oct. 22, 2015, shows a Russian air force pilot during a mission over an unknown location in Syria. (Russian Defense Ministry via Reuters)

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Spoehr, the director of Heritage’s Center for National Defense, said Tuesday that the foundation “unequivocally believes” that Russia poses a threat. Globally, 2016 has been marked by increased aggression and increased military buildup by numerous adversaries, with Russia at the top of that list, he said.

“What worries me the most is that there is real potential that we could face an adversary that has better equipment than we do,” Spoehr said. “That’s not a position that Americans are used to being in. There are not enough people talking about this on a national stage.”

Officials with connections to Heritage who have assisted the Trump team include Rebekah A. Mercer, a Republican Party mega-donor who is on Heritage’s board of trustees; Edwin Meese, a former Reagan administration official who is considered a Heritage elder statesman; James Jay Carafano, a Heritage vice president and national security expert; and Edwin Feulner, the former president of the Heritage Foundation.

Spoehr said he was not at liberty to discuss how the Heritage Foundation is assisting Trump’s transition. While Trump has shown a willingness to work with Putin, he also noted in a September speech in Philadelphia that Russia had defied the Obama administration “at every turn,” Spoehr noted.

“One of our folks here says we should take Mr. Trump seriously, but not literally,” Spoehr said. “Some of these things, the way he expresses himself evolves over time.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin says his country is ready to fully restore relations with the United States in an on-camera statement congratulating President-elect Donald Trump for his win against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. (Reuters)

Generally, Trump has praised Putin as a strong leader and suggested that the United States should work together with Russia to attack the Islamic State, something the Pentagon has resisted. Trump also suggested during the campaign that he saw NATO in Europe as “obsolete,” before shifting to say he saw value in the military alliance but wanted countries involved to pay a greater share of its costs.

In the Philadelphia speech, Trump called for several other moves advocated by Heritage and credited their research. The recommendations included stopping plans to shrink the Army to 450,000 soldiers and instead expanding it to 540,000, adding another 13 battalions in the Marine Corps so that there are 36, building more ships and submarines and making sure that the Air Force has at least 1,200 fighter jets.

The new Heritage report states that the Army’s overall posture is “weak” for the second year in row, citing the service’s need to stop modernizing to make sure forces needed now are able to deploy. The Navy, the Air Force and the Marine Corps were rated “marginal,” mainly due to struggles to keep existing equipment in service despite budget cuts.

Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Wednesday that the new Heritage report serves as a reminder the federally mandated budget cuts known as sequestration must come to an end and that a “strategy-based defense budget” is required.

“As the report warns, our military has been degraded by years of underinvestment, poor execution of modernization programs, and the negative effects of budget sequestration,” McCain said. “The result is that our military confronts growing capacity, capability, and readiness challenges that put America’s national security at greater risk. We cannot change course soon enough.”

This story was updated Wednesday morning after the Heritage report was widely released.

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