07/27/2014 01:01 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2014

Chairman Of The Joint Chiefs: My Fear Is That Putin Is Lighting A Fire He Cannot Control

JIM WATSON via Getty Images

In a sign of just how rapidly American and Russian tensions are rising in the wake of the downing of Malaysian Flight 17 over Ukraine, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Martin E. Dempsey, publicly expressed concern over the chain of events Russian President Vladimir Putin was unleashing in Eastern Europe “that many not stay in Eastern Europe.”

“If I have a fear about this,” General Dempsey told the Aspen Security Forum over the weekend, “it’s that Putin may actually light a fire that he loses control of.”

The Russians “are on a path to assert themselves differently,” Dempsey said, “not just in Eastern Europe, but in Europe in the main and toward the United States.”

Already, he noted, Russia’s violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty have triggered a rise in nationalism around Europe.

Referring to Stalin’s invasion of eastern Poland in September, 1939, Dempsey continued, “You’ve got a Russian government that has made the conscious decision to use its military force inside of another sovereign nation to achieve its objectives -- first time, I think, probably, since 1939 or so that that’s been the case.”


General Dempsey offered his view of what was driving Putin’s actions: “I think this is very clearly [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, the man himself, with a vision for Europe, as he sees it, to what he considers to be an effort to redress grievances that were burdened upon Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, and also to appeal to ethnic Russian enclaves across Eastern Europe with ... a foreign policy objective, but also a domestic policy objective. And he’s very aggressive about it, and he’s got a playbook that has worked for him now two or three times. And he will continue to [use it].”

In a startlingly candid remark, Dempsey surmised that Putin’s own military was not entirely on board. “I think that the Russian military is probably reluctant -- -- you know, this is risky for me to say this, and 10 of them could end up in a gulag tomorrow -- but I think that the Russian military and its leaders that I know are probably somewhat reluctant participants in this form of warfare,” he said.

Going forward, Dempsey said that NATO will have to revive its mission of maintaining stability in Europe, this time to counter Putin’s Russia instead of the Soviet Union.

In the meantime, America’s top commander said “I am maintaining an open line of communication with my counterpart, and so far, he’s doing the same with me.”

The Army General also said that an “active process” is underway to determine what help the US could provide Ukraine. The New York Times reported Sunday that US intelligence was considering providing real-time targeting data to Ukrainian forces on the location of Russian and pro-Russian separatist missiles and artillery.