By Kristina Wong - 10-24-16 11:09 AM EDT
U.S. military leaders are increasingly leery of Russia, even as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump talks about improving relations with the nation on the campaign trail.
Russia appeared to be enemy No. 1 at a U.S. Army conference earlier this month, where military leaders spoke of potential war with near-peer competitors who are aggressively modernizing their militaries, at times explicitly mentioning Russia.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who has called Russia the top threat to the U.S., warned potential challengers: "You will lose to the American Army. Make no mistake about it."
He then quoted the Russian ambassador to the United Kingdom, Alexander Kramarenko, as recently saying the "established world order is undergoing a foundational shakeup," calling for the dismantling of NATO and the European Union.
According to Milley, Kramarenko said: "Russia can now fight a conventional war in Europe and win. Russia is the only country that will remain relevant forever. Any other country is dispensable, and that includes the United States. We are an endgame now."
"Bluster, hubris, bravado, or does he mean what he says? Does he believe it? More importantly, do the leaders in the Kremlin believe it? Well, history tells us to be careful," Milley said.
The Army chief also said war between the two nations in the future is "almost guaranteed."
"We read, of course, statements of the American military that the war is inevitable with Russia. I leave this on their conscience," Russia's top diplomat, Sergei Lavrov, said in a recent CNN interview.
Russian leaders deny they want war with the U.S., but Pentagon leaders warn that Russia is making alarming military advancements that could challenge U.S. military superiority.
"We've also seen them modernizing their existing systems and also some capabilities that are particularly concerning to the United States and our interests," said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford at the conference, which ran from Oct. 3 to 5.
"Their long-range conventional strike, modernized nuclear capabilities, and then focus on developing a wide range of robust cyber, space, electronic warfare and undersea capabilities. And they are also doing that while continuing to maintain a very capable conventional force," he said.
Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, who also spoke at the conference, said the Russians have also effectively demonstrated the ability to use a variety of long-range guided munitions across different domains, launched from the air, sea and undersea.
They have also improved the accuracy and responsiveness of their indirect fires skills, using artillery and rockets guided by drones, cyber, signal intelligence and electronic intelligence, he said.
Work cautioned that the U.S. would be "foolish" not to pay attention to its operations.
"They are, quite frankly, a pacing competitor that tells us where we need to go to make sure that we have operational and tactical superiority," Work said.
Russia is one of the top concerns behind the Army's new "multi-domain battle" concept to overcome adversaries' growing abilities to keep the U.S. from operating within their borders, a strategy referred to as "anti-access, area denial" or A2/AD.
Russia is likely a high priority in the Pentagon's next U.S. national military strategy, which Dunford previewed during the conference. He said Moscow is specifically seeking to undermine America's ability to project power and the credibility of its alliances - which he called the military's "centers of gravity."
Russia's rapid military modernization and improving capabilities have occurred against the backdrop of a swift deterioration in the U.S.-Russian diplomatic and military relationship over the past two years.
The U.S. suspended its military relationship with Russia in March 2014 and worked with allies to levy sanctions on Moscow after Russian forces invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea.
Russian forces continued to mass along Ukraine's eastern border, support separatists inside Ukraine, and increased harassment of U.S. air and naval forces in the Black and Baltic seas, according to U.S. officials.
The Pentagon increased its training exercises and rotational deployments in the region, and along with NATO allies created a "very high readiness" joint task force and increased military presence throughout Eastern Europe.
Russia then upped the ante by intervening in the Syrian civil war to shore up its ally, President Bashar al-Assad, despite U.S. policy calling for him to step down, complicating the prospect of U.S. military action against the regime.
Russia recently announced it had deployed more air-defense systems in Syria as Washington deliberates on limited airstrikes against Assad.
Moscow also recently pulled out of a deal with the U.S. to clean up weapons-grade plutonium and announced it had moved nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad and that it would renew bases in Cuba and Vietnam.
And Russia has stepped up its cyber hacking of the U.S. government and political institutions, taking down the Joint Chiefs of Staff email system for several weeks last year, and hacking into the Democratic National Committee and a top Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton aide's email account.
The Pentagon has said it would continue to view Russia as an adversary but would leave the door open for cooperation should it change its mind.
Some experts argue that Russia's aggressive behavior comes from a point of weakness instead of strength and point to its economy's declining growth.
However, Dunford dismissed talk of Russia being weak.
"They have significant demographic and economic challenges, there's no doubt, but it's equally true that they've been pursuing a path of military capability development and modernization that's virtually unmatched around the world," he said.