Top US nuclear commander: Russia is 'the only existential threat to the country right now'

Key Points
  • "Russia is the most significant threat just because they pose the only existential threat to the country right now. So we have to look at that from that perspective," Air Force Gen. John Hyten said.
  • Hyten is America's top nuclear commander, leading the U.S. Strategic Command, or STRATCOM.
  • He called North Korea the "most dangerous near-term threat" and said China "is the adversary that is moving the fastest."
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Maxim Shipenkov | Pool | Reuters

While the special counsel's investigation tries to determine whether Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, America's top nuclear commander described the nation as a paramount threat to the United States.

"Russia is the most significant threat just because they pose the only existential threat to the country right now. So we have to look at that from that perspective," the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, or STRATCOM, Air Force Gen. John Hyten said during the Association of the United States Army's Air and Missile Defense conference Wednesday.

Hyten noted that Russia, China and North Korea each assert distinct threats at varying tempos and yet, the U.S. is responsible for dealing with all of them at the same time.

"It's not one-size-fits-all and we keep as a nation trying to make it one-size-fits-all and it doesn't work that way," Hyten said of countering threats posed by America's three top adversaries.

What's more, the Department of Defense requested a budget of $686 billion, one of the largest in U.S. history, with an emphasis on offsetting emerging threats from Russia and China.

President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has spoken about the need to create a new nuclear arsenal. "We're modernizing and creating a brand-new nuclear force. And frankly we have to do it because others are doing it," he said earlier this month.

The White House didn't immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment on Hyten's remarks Wednesday.

"The Korean problem is different than the China problem is different than the Russia problem. Everything we do with respect to Korea impacts China. Everything we do with China impacts Russia. Everything we do with Russia impacts everybody else," Hyten said.

"I wish I could look at them as friends and partners, but when you have weapons that are clearly built for you as a military officer and as a combatant commander I don't get a choice. I have to figure out how to counter those threats and I look at them as threats."

Kim Jong Un's North Korea, the only country that has tested nuclear weapons this century, poses a unique threat to the U.S., Hyten said.

"I think Korea is the most uncertain threat and the most dangerous, near-term threat because we are not certain how that is going to play out this year," the general said. "There seems to be good things going on on the peninsula right now, but we will have to wait and see now that the Olympics are over how that goes."

Hyten also weighed in on the threat of a potential war with North Korea.

"Anyone that wears a uniform does not want war. Goodness knows you don't want a war on that peninsula," he said. "If you've been there you know you don't want to go down that path."

Hyten also said that China, Pyongyang's closest ally, poses unique threats to the U.S. as the nation's development in space systems and war-fighting capabilities outpace Russia and North Korea.

"If you talk about moving fast, there is nobody moving faster in the world than China. China is the adversary that is moving the fastest," he said. "They're moving fastest in space, they're moving fastest in hypersonics, they still trail the United States of America in most categories but holy cow they're moving fast."