Russia at the gates? US State Dept, Pentagon grilled over NATO expansion

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US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki and Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby have been challenged over the Department of Defense’s claims that the US must “deal” with “modern and capable” Russian armed forces on NATO’s doorstep.

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu expressed “grave concern” and “surprise” at a Wednesday speech made by US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel during the Association of the United States Army’s annual conference. Hagel declared that US armed forces “must deal with a revisionist Russia – with its modern and capable army – on NATO’s doorstep.”

READ MORE: US works on military ‘scenarios’ near our borders – Russian defense minister

During a State Department briefing on Friday, however, an AP journalist suggested that it would be more logical to say that “NATO has moved closer to Russia’s borders.”

“Is it not logical to look at this and say – the reason why Russia’s army is on NATO’s doorstep, is because NATO expands,” journalist Matt Lee said.

“That’s the way [Russian] President Putin probably looks at it, it’s certainly not the way that we look at it,” Kirby said in response to the journalist’s reasoning.

Though he eventually admitted that NATO has expanded, Kirby added that “NATO is not an anti-Russia alliance, it is a security alliance.”

“It wasn’t NATO that was ordering tons of tactical battalions and army to [the] Ukraine border,” Kirby added, before being reminded that Ukraine is not part of NATO.

Kirby then refused to agree with the point that the Russians could understandably perceive NATO’s expansion as a “threat,” especially given that the alliance existed as “anti-Soviet” for half a century.

“I’m not going to pretend to know what goes in President Putin’s mind or Russian military commanders…I mean, I barely got a history degree at the University of South Florida,” Kirby joked, dodging the question.

Kirby assured that NATO’s moves were not “hostile and threatening,” but rather a matter of security. He added that he was “worried about their [Russia’s] moves around Ukraine.” Psaki then cut in, saying that “other countries feel threatened,” and urged the conversation to move on.

In terms of new threats at NATO’s borders, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said on Friday that it is the US which has been “stubbornly approaching…closer to our doors.”

Relations between Russia and NATO have been tense since the alliance accused Russia of becoming involved in the Ukrainian conflict – a claim Russia has continuously denied.

Following Crimea’s accession to Russia in March, the US and Europe bombarded Moscow with sanctions. NATO also significantly increased its military presence near Russia’s borders, especially in Poland and the former Soviet Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, which have expressed concern at the potential for Russian incursions into their territories.

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