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.