On Monday, September 28, 2015, the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) hosted NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Europe and Commander of U.S. European Command General Philip Breedlove for the ninth installment of its Transatlantic Talk series to discuss the upcoming NATO Summit in Warsaw. GMF President Karen Donfried began the discussion by welcoming General Breedlove, as well as The New York Times Pentagon correspondent Helene Cooper, who moderated the event.
— Phil Breedlove (@PMBreedlove) September 28, 2015
Breedlove reflected on the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales, praising the “quick and firm commitment” of all 28 nations to solidarity and ensuring a collective defense. He also highlighted all of the changes that have begun and come to fruition since Wales, including changes to the “readiness and responsiveness” of NATO, as well as the command and control structure, in light of an aggressive Russia. He noted that these changes, however, are only “step one of several steps to get to the final adaptation of our force structure.” Given this, Breedlove stressed that the road of change and adaptation does not end at the upcoming NATO Summit in Warsaw, but will rather continue the conversation “through Warsaw” and beyond.
Breedlove indicated that while NATO still focuses on the threat Russia poses to Europe’s East and challenges emanating from Europe’s South, the organization has also begun to consider Europe’s North and Russia’s militarization of the Arctic. In anticipation of the bilateral talk between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin that occurred the same day, Breedlove also emphasized the importance of dialogue with Russia to ensure a Europe that is whole, free, at peace, “and prosperous,” he added. Stressing the affect that Russian natural resources and energy reserves have on these objectives, Breedlove maintained the only way forward was for Russia to “rejoin a community of norms,” where it respects Ukraine’s international borders and national sovereignty.
Speaking on the recent uptick in Russian involvement in Syria, Breedlove explained that he personally thinks Russia’s motivation to get involves stems from Russia’s desire to be seen as an equal power on the world stage. The General argued Russia’s involvement in Syria would take the world’s eyes off of the conflict in Ukraine, allow it to maintain his capabilities in the Mediterranean, slow the advance of opposition to Assad, and, after all this, counter ISIL as a means to legitimize its involvement in the first place. Breedlove went on to warn against believing anyone who claims to understand the mind of the Russian President, explaining the pragmatic course of action was to first consider capabilities and capacities of what Russia could do. Given that combatting ISIL has not required sophisticated air defenses, Breedlove reiterated his belief that Russian involvement in Syria is about something else.
— Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) September 28, 2015
Breedlove stated that while he was not sure he could guess what Putin wants with Ukraine, Putin’s ability to maintain “a warm conflict” in Ukraine, effectively “allowing the conflict to simmer,” demonstrates Russia’s ability to destabilize Ukraine, stalls much-needed economic progress and anti-corruption efforts in Kyiv, and, in the eyes of the Ukrainian people, demonstrates the Ukrainian government’s inability to control that area. When asked if he believes the Minsk Agreement will come to fruition in the coming months, Breedlove said that the Minsk Agreement is a “long-term proposition.” Breedlove maintained that he did not foresee a permanent presence of U.S. forces and bases in Eastern Europe, but rather the “new normal” would most likely include further development of air, land, and sea forces in the North, Center, and South of Europe to continue to develop “assurance measures” in the region. When asked about providing “lethal aid” to Ukrainian forces, Breedlove commented that “lethal weapons may be seen as provocative,” especially in light of the recent Minsk Agreement, but that personally, he believes that “we should not take any options off the table.”
Regarding NATO’s role in combatting crises emanating from the South, specifically pertaining to migration, Breedlove expressed that while he will not speak for all 28 nations, NATO is willing to act in concert with other governmental entities. Recognizing that many problems of unconventional warfare have non-military solutions, Breedlove also stressed that these partnerships would establish the best possible chance for a successful outcome.
Questions and comments from the audience focused the conversation on the growing threat of Russian Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2AD) capabilities in Kaliningrad. Reiterating that every nation has the right to practice military operations, Breedlove stressed that these operations should be conducted in a transparent manner that reduces the risk for any possible miscommunication in congested air spaces, while also declaring that these zones are not for exclusive use but are “internationally open areas of water and air.” Other questions focused on how eastern European countries can increase defense spending in light of massive cuts in other internal government programs, how NATO should respond to Russia “Take 2,” and how NATO can adapt to modern unconventional warfare.