WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama's nominee to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Thursday that Russia poses the greatest threat to U.S. national security and it would be a reasonable military decision to supply lethal arms to Ukrainians fighting against rebels backed by Moscow. The White House quickly distanced the president from the remarks.
"Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security. ... If you look at their behavior, it's nothing short of alarming," Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford said during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Relations between Russia and the West have sunk to post-Cold War lows after Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its support for a pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine. The United States has responded with sanctions but so far has refrained from providing lethal arms to the Ukrainian forces.
At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest distanced the president from Dunford's assessment. He praised him as someone who had spent substantial time thinking about threats to U.S. security but said Dunford's comments reflected his own views and not necessarily "the consensus analysis of the president's national security team."
Russian President Vladimir Putin:
Joint Chiefs nominee: Russia is top security threat to US
Russian President Vladimir Putin takes a seat before a meeting to mark International Women's Day, in Moscow's Kremlin, Russia, Tuesday, March 8, 2016. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a glass of champagne after a state awards ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow, on March 10, 2016. AFP PHOTO / POOL / PAVEL GOLOVKIN / AFP / POOL / PAVEL GOLOVKIN (Photo credit should read PAVEL GOLOVKIN/AFP/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA. MARCH 1, 2016. Russia's president Vladimir Putin at the 7th congress of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation (CCI). Mikhail Metzel/TASS (Photo by Mikhail Metzel\TASS via Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin waves as he leaves the Italian pavilion at the 2015 Expo, in Rho, near Milan, Italy, Wednesday, June 10, 2015. Putin was meeting Wednesday with Italian officials and Pope Francis as the U.S. sought to encourage the Vatican to join the West in condemning Moscow's actions in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Pope Francis meets Russian President Vladimir Putin on the occasion of a private audience at the Vatican, Wednesday, June 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, Pool)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, flanked on his right by Italian Premier Matteo Renzi, waves as he leaves after visiting the Russian pavilion at the 2015 Expo in Rho, near Milan, Italy, Wednesday, June 10, 2015. Putin was meeting Wednesday with Italian officials and Pope Francis as the U.S. sought to encourage the Vatican to join the West in condemning Moscow's actions in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles during a meeting with foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, Pool)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu leave Moscow's Red Square on May 9, 2015 after the Victory Day military parade. Russian President Vladimir Putin presides over a huge Victory Day parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Soviet win over Nazi Germany, amid a Western boycott of the festivities over the Ukraine crisis. AFP PHOTO / KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV (Photo credit should read KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel meet in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, May 10, 2015. Angela Merkel attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, marking the 70th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, in Moscow. (Sergei Karpukhin/Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, right, attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Feb. 23, 2015. The Defenders of the Fatherland Day, celebrated in Russia on Feb. 23, honors the nation's military and is a nationwide holiday. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks to the media after the peace talks in Minsk, Belarus, Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday emerged from marathon Ukraine peace talks by announcing a new cease-fire deal, but questions remained whether Ukraine and the pro-Russian rebels have agreed on its terms. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow marking the 70th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, May 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with the leader of Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia Leonid Tibilov during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on June 1, 2015. AFP PHOTO / POOL / IVAN SEKRETAREV (Photo credit should read IVAN SEKRETAREV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles, during his meeting with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev in the Konstantin Palace outside St. Petersburg, Russia, Monday, March 16, 2015. Putin resurfaced Monday afterÂ a 10-day absence from public view, looking healthy. (AP Photo/Anatoly Maltsev, Pool)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, enter a hall for a meeting of CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) in Moscow's Kremlin, Russia, Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2014.(AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Presidential Press Service)
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014. The Russian economy will rebound and the ruble will stabilize, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday at his annual press conference, he also said Ukraine must remain one political entity, voicing hope that the crisis could be solved through peace talks. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, gestures during his talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, and French President Francois Hollande, right, in Moscow, Friday, Feb. 6, 2015. In a top-level diplomatic dash, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel flew to Moscow on Friday to seek a cease-fire and then a lasting peace for war-wracked eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - FEBRUARY 17: Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) looks on as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban kisses the hand of a member of the Russian delegation during a signing ceremony of several agreements between the two countries on February 17, 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. Putin is in Budapest on a one-day visit, his first visit to an EU-member country since he attended ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasions in France in June, 2014. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 21, 2015. AFP PHOTO / POOL / KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV (Photo credit should read KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)
SOCHI, RUSSIA - MARCH 16: Russia President Vladimir Putin waves during the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games Closing Ceremony at Fisht Olympic Stadium on March 16, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks during a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo, Japan, December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool
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Yet Earnest acknowledged that much has changed since 2012, when President Barack Obama mocked his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, for calling Russia the top U.S. geopolitical threat. Earnest said Russia's destabilizing actions in Ukraine and "saber-rattling" over its nuclear program and military activities near borders with NATO allies have increased U.S. concerns.
Dunford, asked if the U.S. should provide lethal arms to Ukraine, said that from a military standpoint, it would be a "reasonable" response.
"Frankly, without that kind of support, they are not going to be able to defend themselves against Russian aggression," he said.
His comments were welcomed by Sen. John McCain, chairman of the committee.
"In Europe, Vladimir Putin's Russia continues its onslaught in Ukraine," said McCain, R-Ariz. "But even as Russian troops and equipment execute this neo-imperial campaign to undermine Ukraine's government and independence, the United States has refused Ukraine the weapons it needs and deserves for its defense."
On Iran, another major international issue, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., asked Dunford about the possible nuclear agreement being negotiated between the Islamic Republic, the U.S. and other world powers. If the U.S. and its partners reach a deal with Iran, he asked, would Tehran use part of the revenue it would receive through economic sanctions relief to further aid Shiite militias in Iraq, support militants in other countries and destabilize governments in the Middle East.
"I think it's reasonable to assume that," Dunford said.
Cotton also asked whether the U.S. has the military capability to destroy Iran's nuclear program.
"My understanding is that we do," Dunford replied.
Before the hearing, Dunford provided written answers to a broad range of national security questions posed by the committee. A copy was obtained by The Associated Press.
Dunford said the U.S. and its coalition partners are making moderate progress in the fight against the Islamic State extremist group but that the strategy should be re-evaluated if efforts to improve governance and build reliable local ground forces stall. He said that if confirmed by the Senate he also wants to assess whether the U.S. should focus more on IS' "shifting geographic reach" and confront the militants where they are now and where they are most likely to go in the future.
McCain has voiced sharp criticism that the U.S. has only 60 trainees in a program to prepare and arm thousands of moderate Syrian rebels in the fight against IS militants. Dunford said the progress in training is "much less than what we estimated" and attributed the low number to a rigorous vetting process. He said that without talking with commanders on the ground, he could not provide further insight into the problems.
There are no U.S. troops in Syria, but about 3,300 U.S. forces are training and advising local security forces in Iraq. The Iraqi military, which was equipped and trained by the United States, has struggled to recover from its collapse a year ago when IS militants captured the country's second-largest city, Mosul, and swept over much of northern and western Iraq.
Since then, IS has seized control of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province in western Iraq, and other key terrain in the region. The loss of Ramadi, Dunford said, was a tactical setback that shows how agile and adaptive IS has become. But he said the U.S. military and the Iraqis have learned from that loss.
Dunford repeatedly says he will take time to assess the programs and promised that one of his first trips, if confirmed, would be to Iraq and the region.
Asked if the number of U.S. troops in Iraq is adequate, Dunford said is it enough but that "as conditions change on the ground, it may become necessary to adjust how we implement the military campaign."
On Afghanistan, Dunford, who until last year had been serving as the top U.S. commander in the country, also said that he is willing to recommend changes in the size and pace of the troop withdrawal there if security conditions worsen.
Defense spending bills moving through Congress call for padding a war-fighting account, which is not subject to congressional spending caps, known as sequestration.
"Quite frankly, if we go into sequestration we will be unable to support the current strategy that we have to protect our nation," he said, adding that the combat readiness of U.S. forces "will suffer what I would describe, and without exaggeration, as catastrophic consequences."