“It says a lot about Russia’s respect of international norms and standards,” Dunford said during a Washington Post Live event. “What took place in the Sea of Azov is consistent with a pattern of behavior that really goes back to Georgia, the Crimea and the Donbass in the Ukraine,” he said, referring to Russia’s steps to assert itself beyond its borders over the past decade.
The incident, which occurred as the Ukrainian ships sought to enter the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea in an area where Russia has built a bridge linking the Crimean peninsula to mainland Russia, was a stark illustration of Moscow’s military superiority over Ukraine. It also raised the prospect of further conflict between Russia and Ukraine, at odds over Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian government responded to the incident by imposing martial law and demanding the release of the ships’ crews.
“We refer to this as a competition that falls short of armed conflict, where what the Russians are really doing is testing the international community’s resolve in enforcing the rules that exist, in this case clear violations of sovereignty,” Dunford said.
Some sort of international response — which could be exclusively diplomatic and economic — was needed or Russia would continue to take such actions, Dunford said. More than 10,000 people have died in fighting in Ukraine since 2014.
The response from Dunford and other military leaders, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, illustrates the balancing act Washington faces in its desire to support Ukrainian sovereignty and check Russia’s extraterritorial ambitions while also seeking to avoid a military confrontation with Moscow.
While the United States has introduced tough sanctions on Russia, President Trump has embraced the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin.
Late last year, the Trump administration approved the sale of certain weaponry including antitank missiles to Ukraine. Today, Dunford said, the Pentagon continues to seek to help Ukraine restructure its defense sector and empower Kiev to defend itself.
Dunford said he had not discussed the incident with his counterpart, Valeriy Gerasimov, with whom he speaks periodically.
Separately, Dunford said the United States and its allies continue to make progress against the Islamic State in Syria, where small bands of extremist fighters have proved a stubborn challenge for U.S.-backed Syrian fighters.
Dunford suggested that the U.S. force in Syria could be in for an extended mission. He said American service members had trained and equipped about a fifth of a force of about 35,000 to 40,000 local troops that would be required to stabilize parts of Syria once occupied by the Islamic State.