WASHINGTON - The top US diplomat doesn’t agree with the general nominated to be America’s next chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff that Russia poses the greatest threat to the US, a State Department spokesman said Friday.

“Certainly, we have disagreements with Russia and its activities along or within the region, but we don’t view it as an existential threat,” Spokesman Mark Toner said to reporters at the daily press briefing. “The Secretary of State (John Kerry) doesn’t agree with the assessment that Russia is an existential threat to the United States, nor China, quite frankly.”

Toner’s comments were in response remarks by Joseph Dunford, nominee to become the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said during his confirmation hearings that Russia presents the greatest threat to US national security. “If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia,” Dunford said. “And if you look at their behaviour, it’s nothing short of alarming.”

Toner said Kerry did not share that assessment. “You know, these are major powers with whom we engage and cooperate on a number of issues, despite any disagreements we may have with them,” he said. “Certainly we have disagreements with Russia and its activities within the region, but we don’t view it as an existential threat.” Dunford included China, whose expanding military is said to have alarmed Pentagon officials, second in his list of top US security concerns, as well as North Korea and the threat from Islamic State militants. Toner said Kerry did consider the rapid growth of groups like Islamic State, particularly in ungoverned spaces, an existential threat.

Dunford added his voice to those Pentagon officials who have supported providing lethal arms to Ukraine to help it defend itself from Russia-backed separatists, a step that President Barack Obama has so far resisted. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Thursday that the administration was mindful of Russia’s destabilising activity but Dunford’s comment reflected “his own view and doesn’t necessarily reflect the ... consensus analysis of the president’s national security team.”

US Defence Secretary Ash Carter has said he was inclined to provide defensive arms to Ukraine, but has qualified this position by saying that economic sanctions should be the primary focus for exerting pressure on Moscow. Gen. Dunford’s existential threat remarks lead to an interesting exchange with the State Department spokesman: Question: What about the fact that, as General Dunford specified during his confirmation hearing, that Russia is a fundamental existential threat because it has a nuclear arsenal? By the same argument, why isn’t India an existential threat? Why isn’t Pakistan an existential threat? Why isn’t France an existential threat? All three of these countries are nuclear powers.

Toner: Again, that was General Dunford’s assessment. And we said we don’t - that’s his job: to give that assessment, a frank analysis, a candid analysis of how he views the world and the security situation and the security threats. And he did that. I’m just pointing out that we don’t necessarily disagree - or we don’t necessarily agree with his assessment of Russia as an existential threat.

Question: Have you heard from the Russians about General Dunford’s characterisation? What was your response, the US response, to any concerns the Russians may have raised about this description? Toner: That’s a fair question. I’m not aware that we’ve had any - that they’ve raised those remarks with us in particular. I can check, but I don’t have any - yeah.