NATO Supreme Allied Commander: ‘This Changes Everything’

Gen. Philip Breedlove says Russian aggression has the U.S. and NATO rethinking their assumptions about the world.

Air Force General Philip M. Breedlove, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe and Commander of U.S. European Command. 
National Journal
May 15, 2014, 5 p.m.

Gen. Philip Breed­love, com­mand­er of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, sees re­newed Rus­si­an ag­gres­sion as a rap­idly grow­ing chal­lenge that is for­cing the al­li­ance to change its risk as­sess­ments, and po­ten­tially its mil­it­ary pos­ture. In an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al, Breed­love dis­cusses Vladi­mir Putin’s im­pact on Europe’s will­ing­ness and read­i­ness to face a new set of facts. Ed­ited ex­cerpts fol­low.

Is Rus­sia still plan­ning to in­vade Ukraine?

I don’t take that op­tion off the table — [Putin] can still use it; his force is em­in­ently pre­pared to do that. But he may be able to ac­com­plish his ob­ject­ives with simply the un­rest his forces are caus­ing in east­ern Ukraine right now. He may nev­er now have to come across the bor­der with the lar­ger land ele­ments.

How does this change NATO’s cal­cu­lus? Is Rus­sia a threat to Europe?

We were in a peri­od of time where we ab­so­lutely thought mil­it­ary ag­gres­sion to change an in­ter­na­tion­al bor­der was over. But we have seen a na­tion amass troops on a bor­der, go across an in­ter­na­tion­ally re­cog­nized bor­der, im­pose mil­it­ary will, and an­nex a sov­er­eign na­tion. This changes everything.

Was this a wake-up call to the NATO coun­tries that have not lived up to their agreed tar­get of spend­ing 2 per­cent of their gross do­mest­ic product on de­fense?

We have been in a peri­od where we saw Rus­sia as a part­ner. That has changed. And so, already, some of the na­tions have an­nounced they will now meet the 2 per­cent goal. Oth­er na­tions will make their own in­tern­al de­lib­er­a­tions, and those will come out. Clearly, the na­tions now have to re­con­sider what they do with their budgets. I think that this will be a cent­ral part of our fu­ture con­ver­sa­tion. I be­lieve that right now we have all the tools that we need — we have the forces, the headquar­ters, the [NATO Re­sponse Force], and oth­ers. We need to look at us­ing those tools dif­fer­ently so that they can meet a more rap­idly build­ing chal­lenge than we have looked at in the past.

Is NATO pre­pared to counter a newly ag­gress­ive Rus­sia?

The [NATO Re­sponse Force] is ab­so­lutely able to do what we have asked of it. That was built over this peri­od of time where we have been see­ing Rus­sia as a part­ner, and now we have a dif­fer­ent paradigm. The NRF is ab­so­lutely able to re­spond at the speeds and read­i­ness we have giv­en it; I think we need to ree­valu­ate the re­spons­ive­ness, primar­ily. Rather than two weeks, months, 60 days — we need to be talk­ing two days, a week, maybe two weeks, in or­der to be able to re­spond to these massive buildups on the bor­der.

NATO and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion have said an at­tack on one mem­ber is an at­tack on all. If such an at­tack were to take place, would every­one be on board with col­lect­ive de­fense?

We came out of the for­eign min­is­teri­al [meet­ings] with an ab­so­lutely iron­clad com­mit­ment to Art­icle 5 col­lect­ive de­fense. There was no waff­ling. Just look at what’s hap­pen­ing in these re­as­sur­ance meas­ures. Im­me­di­ately, we got air as­sets brought to the table; we got nav­al as­sets brought to the table; and the hard ones for NATO are now start­ing to hap­pen. We have ground as­sets brought to the table, offered not only by the United States, not only by those threatened na­tions, but by oth­er NATO na­tions com­ing aboard to show that solid­ar­ity. I think that’s a demon­stra­tion of that in­tent.

Call­ing Rus­sia more of an ad­versary than a part­ner is a shift. Is this now the start of something big­ger, with some pun­dits call­ing this the be­gin­ning of a new Cold War?

It is not con­struct­ive to think of it as a new Cold War. No one wants to go to an­oth­er Cold War. We are so in­ter­mingled eco­nom­ic­ally and oth­er places. That would be hurt­ful to all parties in­volved. What we’ve got to do in the short term is re­ori­ent ourselves as just one of our tools in the na­tion — the mil­it­ary tool — to be bet­ter pre­pared to do our mis­sion if called on, and then we enter in­to try­ing to fig­ure out how all these na­tions and na­tion-states re­late in the fu­ture. Im­port­ant to me as the su­preme al­lied com­mand­er of Europe is that I have to give the 28 na­tions of NATO a com­plete un­der­stand­ing that we are ready and com­mit­ted, and that gives them the will to move for­ward.

There’s already been a sus­pen­sion of mil­it­ary co­oper­a­tion with Rus­sia, which is un­happy about can­celing cer­tain pro­grams that have to do with coun­ter­ing ter­ror­ism and pir­acy. What does it mean for glob­al se­cur­ity if NATO of­fi­cially con­siders Rus­sia an ad­versary?

We need to be work­ing to­geth­er [to] counter nar­cot­ics. The poppy in Afgh­anistan is a prob­lem to every­body; it’s a huge prob­lem to Rus­sia. We’ve made great strides [to] counter pir­acy in the past, and I think that we’re go­ing to lose some of that co­oper­a­tion. There are places where we have had good co­oper­a­tion, like Syr­ia and re­mov­al of chem­ic­als. These will be cas­u­al­ties of this un­for­tu­nate ac­tion, but we need to get past these lar­ger prob­lems so we can get back to do­ing these things we really need to do — it’s a cheap word, but — for the great­er good.

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