Top Pentagon officials have said that the United States will respond if the U.S. military is able to corroborate reports that Russia paid militants linked to the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the information thus far had not been corroborated by defense intelligence agencies, but vowed that the Pentagon will find out if it's true.
"And if it is true, we will take action," he said, without specifying what action might be taken.
Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper were questioned during a congressional hearing on media reports claiming Russia had offered Taliban militants bounties for killing Americans in Afghanistan.
Esper said his military commanders heard initial reports on the bounty issue in January and he first saw an intelligence paper about it in February. While the threats were taken seriously, he said they had not yet been found credible.
The New York Times first reported on the intelligence last month and said President Donald Trump was briefed on the intelligence but did nothing in response. The White House has said Trump was not briefed on the intelligence because it was unverified.
As the reports of the alleged bounties were becoming public at the end of June, Trump approved plans to withdraw nearly 10,000 U.S. military personnel from Germany, a move that General John Nicholson, the former commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, said sent the wrong signal to Russia.
"These troop withdrawals play into Russia's desire to undermine and weaken NATO. If carried out despite these bounties, this will be viewed as a sign of American weakness in the face of Russian threats," Nicholson told a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on July 9 dedicated to possible responses to Moscow's alleged actions.
Ian Brzezinski, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO during the administration of George W. Bush, recommended the United States transition a temporary armored brigade in Poland into a permanent presence as a response. A permanent contingent of special forces could also be deployed in the Baltics, he said.
The Kremlin has strongly opposed permanent troop deployment to Poland and the Baltics, which border Russian territory.
Brzezinski told the hearing that the allegations of bounty payments fit into the pattern of Russia's "steady escalation" of interference and aggression on the world stage and that the incremental U.S. response to date had not only "failed to convince [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to reverse course," but may have even emboldened him.
"If we are more forceful, if we are more firm, we do have very good prospects of actually restraining Putin's actions and ambitions," he said.
The experts also said the United States could impose more sanctions on Russia, including on the GRU, the military intelligence agency that supposedly organized the bounty payments.
Washington has known for years that Russia has been supporting the Afghan insurgents, including through arms shipments, Milley said during the hearing in the House Armed Services Committee.
But the Pentagon did not have "concrete corroborating evidence" or intelligence to show it had been "directing" the Taliban and, he said, "that's a big difference."
The United States is still looking into the matter, he said, and, if it's confirmed that the Russians have paid the Taliban bounties, it would be a "big deal."
On July 7, the head of U.S. Central Command said in an interview he was "not convinced" that any Russian bounties paid to Taliban militants resulted in the deaths of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Marine General Frank McKenzie said he was familiar with the information and he found it "very worrisome," but added that he didn't find a "causative link" to the deaths of any U.S. soldiers.
Russia and the Taliban have denied the claims.
The United States has been gradually withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan, a key demand of the Taliban and a term of a deal signed between the United States and the Taliban in February.
With reporting by AFP, AP and Reuters