Ukraine looms over the US general charged with leading NATO

Senators indicated they expect Christopher Cavoli will win their quick confirmation to the job

On duty in Germany in 2020: Cavoli, as head of the U.S. Army in Europe (Karsten Klama/picture alliance via Getty Images)
On duty in Germany in 2020: Cavoli, as head of the U.S. Army in Europe (Karsten Klama/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Posted May 26, 2022 at 3:07pm

Gen. Christopher Cavoli, President Joe Biden's nominee to head U.S. European Command and to be NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe, breezed through his confirmation hearing Thursday.

Cavoli, the commander of U.S. Army Europe and Africa, speaks Russian, Italian and French, and he earned degrees in biology from Princeton University and Russian and Eastern European studies from Yale University.

During the hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he demonstrated a fluency in the issues currently confronting Europe, particularly in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, having served as the director for Russia on the Joint Staff.

Oklahoma's James M. Inhofe, the top Republican on the committee, asked about the impact of the conflict in Ukraine, a leading exporter of wheat and other grains and foodstuffs, on food supplies for Africa.

Africa is already feeling the lack of grain exports from both Ukraine and Russia, Cavoli said.

“It’s of great concern,” he added. “In many cases, these are countries that don’t need an additional challenge.”

There are 22 million tons of grain in Ukraine ready and waiting to be exported, Cavoli said. About 90,000 tons a day can move through the port of Constanta, Romania, but the backup is severe.

The German national railroad agency has initiated a program called the Berlin Train Lift, a nod to the Berlin Airlift — when Western allies provided supplies to West Berlin in response to a Soviet blockade — to move grain out of Ukraine via rail, he said.

Cavoli also offered a succinct summary of U.S. goals for the resolution of the conflict in Ukraine, which has seen the U.S. provide almost $60 billion in security aid.

“We want Ukraine to emerge from this conflict independent and free. We want the NATO alliance to be unified and as strong as ever, and we want to do these things without engaging in a war with Russia,” he said.

NATO expansion

Cavoli said he supports the admission of Finland and Sweden to the NATO alliance. The two longtime holdouts recently applied following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Cavoli praised Finland’s expertise in defending its 800-mile border with Russia, and noted that it has fourth-generation U.S. fighter jets and just decided to buy 64 F-35s. Sweden recently bought Patriot missile batteries, and its Navy would be a significant asset in the Baltic Sea, he said. 

Cavoli agreed with Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton’s suggestion that Finland’s long border with Russia would pose more risk for Russia than for NATO, noting that Russia has not historically deployed many ground forces to the border, allowing them to focus their efforts elsewhere.

“That possibility will now go away for Russia,” Cavoli said.

Senators from both sides of the aisle gushed over Cavoli’s qualifications and voiced strong support for his confirmation.

“I would say you are Vladimir Putin’s worst nightmare,” Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan said. 

“I think your service not only justifies this confirmation, but demands it,” said Jack Reed, the Rhode Island Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee.

Reed noted that the first time he met Cavoli was in Ukraine in 2014, as Cavoli was leading efforts to start training Ukrainian troops as part of the European Deterrence Initiative (then known as the European Reassurance Initiative). The program provided Ukraine with more than $30 billion in U.S. weapons and training.

“I think your work then has shown itself to be extraordinarily useful today,” Reed said.