US military chief warns adversaries against complacency

General Mark Milley, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, warned America’s adversaries not to assume that the country was weak or unwilling to take military action to defend its interests in the wake of its withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Critics have argued that US rivals interpreted the Afghan exit as a sign of weakness and lack of appetite for conflict after two decades of war. That debate has continued as Russia has deployed about 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine.

Asked if Russia’s president Vladimir Putin might be preparing for an invasion, Milley declined to single out Russia, but he warned adversaries not to be complacent and make faulty assumptions about US resolve.

“It would be a mistake for any country to draw a broad strategic conclusion based on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and then take that event and automatically apply it to other situations,” said Milley during a flight from Seoul to Washington. “The United States is a difficult country for other countries to understand sometimes.”

Milley’s comments came as tensions soar between the US and Russia over Ukraine. Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, held tense talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on Thursday, a day after he warned that an invasion would trigger “severe” consequences, including “high-impact economic measures”. Russia denies that it has plans to invade.

On Ukraine, Milley declined to specify what options the US was considering, but he said, “the full range of diplomatic, economic information and military activities are certainly out there, depending on what and if Russia does something”.

“It remains to be seen whether that military activity that we’re seeing on the Russian side of the border is going to turn into something very aggressive,” he added. “We don’t know yet. But it is significant, and it’s real.”

Concerns about a Russian invasion spiked in April when the Russian military positioned tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s eastern border and in Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014. But Milley said the current build-up, coupled with other developments, suggested that Russia was more serious about military action.

“Last time, it turned out to be a series of exercises. One of the most noticeable differences between now and April is the rhetoric,” said Milley. “The public rhetoric coming out of Russia seems to be a little bit more strident than it was before.”

Milley said the Pentagon prepared for numerous contingencies but did not provide any details related to Ukraine. He also stressed that diplomacy was going to be the most important channel to resolve the crisis.

“The issues that are at stake in Ukraine . . . can and should be resolved diplomatically in a way that doesn’t lead to violence or armed conflict.”

Speaking in Seoul on Thursday after he and Milley had met their South Korean counterparts, US defence secretary Lloyd Austin declined to say if Washington would threaten military retaliation to deter Moscow.

“I don’t care to speculate on potential responses. I would just say that we’ll continue to use the best methods to address whatever the situation is that occurs,” Austin said.

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @Dimi

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