HomeNews Article View

NATO Commander Discusses Ukraine, Syria, Russian Engagement

By Cheryl Pellerin DoD News, Defense Media Activity

PRINT  |  E-MAIL

WASHINGTON, September 30, 2015 — The situations in Ukraine and Syria and the need for the United States and European nations to engage with top officials in Russia highlighted remarks here Sept. 28 by NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe.

Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, who also serves as commander of U.S. European Command, spoke at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a group whose aim is to strengthen trans-Atlantic cooperation on regional, national and global challenges and opportunities.

Moderator Helene Cooper of the New York Times spoke with him about the next NATO summit, scheduled to be held in July in Warsaw, Poland, and the two discussed Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and in the fight in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

NATO Summit

At the last NATO summit in Wales in September 2014, Breedlove said, the alliance’s 28 nations agreed to “make probably the most substantive changes to our alliance in the history of the alliance.”

The changes, some of which are completed, include changes in the readiness and responsiveness of elements of the NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, or VJTF -- a spearhead force within the NATO Response Force -- and changes to parts of the command-and-control structure to address issues related to a revanchist Russia, Breedlove said.

Also, the general said, NATO force integration units have stood up. Multinational Corps Northeast was given the mission of being ready every day, all day, for an Article 5 contingency, and the interim VJTF has been tested and has begun to exercise. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty states that an attack on one NATO ally constitutes an attack on all.

“It is just Step 1 of several steps to get to the final adaptation of our force structure, but it’s good to see that on the tasks the leaders of our nations gave us in the military at Wales, we have made great progress,” Breedlove said.

The general said he sees next year’s Warsaw summit as “the next set of agreed-to adaptations that we have to make to continue to prepare ourselves and better position ourselves for the challenges we see.”

The road to Warsaw and beyond “is about looking at the readiness and responsiveness of the entire NATO force structure,” he added.

Stabilizing Ukraine

Breedlove said, Russian President Vladimir Putin -- with troops on the ground and arms and combat equipment moving nearby -- is allowing the conflict to simmer in southeastern Ukraine.

The Russian president has demonstrated that he can destabilize and maintain that instability in the southeast, Breedlove said, discouraging foreign investment, keeping Ukrainian forces in the field, and showing the people of greater Ukraine that their government can't retain control of the area.

What is important, he added, “is that the nations of the West -- more than NATO, the European Union and others -- continue to see what is happening in eastern Ukraine.”

Breedlove said Russia has moved more than 1,500 armored vehicles into eastern Ukraine, along with air defenses, Russian command-and-control structures and immense stockpiles of equipment to support its forces in the east.

“Getting all that out to re-establish the sovereign border of Ukraine will take months and months,” the general said. “What about a good show of faith [from Russia] -- begin the retrograde and show that we have a responsible way forward?”

Russia and ISIL

On Russia’s role in the ISIL fight in Syria, Breedlove -- emphasizing that he was speaking for himself as the military commander of NATO -- said Russia very much wants to be seen as a great power on the world stage.

“I think Russia very much wants to take the world's eyes off what they continue to do in Ukraine … and [that it] wants to maintain warm-water ports and airfield capabilities in the eastern Mediterranean, and they saw that possibly being challenged by progress on the ground of those opposing the [Bashar al-]Assad regime,” the general said.

Russia wants to enable and prolong the Assad regime “because that is their legitimate door to their ports and airfields in Syria,” Breedlove added.

“I think that Russia wants to be able to slow the advance of the opposition to Mr. Assad in Syria, and then after all of that, I think they will do some counter-ISIL work in order to legitimize their approach to Syria,” he said.

Breedlove said what concerns him about Russia fighting ISIL in Syria is that some sophisticated Russian air defenses and aircraft are going into Syrian airfields.

“I have not seen ISIL flying any airplanes that require … sophisticated air-to-air capabilities,” the general said. “So I look at the capabilities being created and determine from that what might be their intent. These sophisticated air-defense capabilities are not about ISIL.” High on Putin’s list in Syria is preserving the Assad regime against those who put pressure on it, he added.

Engaging Russia

Breedlove said President Barack Obama’s 95-minute meeting with Putin yesterday -- their first face-to-face meeting since 2013 -- was critically important.

And today, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook announced that following on the Obama-Putin meeting, Defense Secretary Ash Carter directed his staff to open lines of communication with Russia on de-conflicting Russian and ongoing coalition airstrikes in the fight against ISIL in Syria.

 “We have said, and many nations have said, that we need to have a dialogue -- we need to be able to communicate with and engage with Russia,” Breedlove said.

If Europe is to be whole, free, at peace and prosperous, Breedlove added, it will need to engage Russia, a nation with vast energy reserves, a vast energy infrastructure, and substantial rail and road capability.

“Any way that we can begin to have a conversation is a step toward where we need to be,” the general said. “I think that if truly Russia wants to rejoin the world of norms and reason in Syria, a great first step would be to begin in Ukraine, showing that they are ready to rejoin the world of norms and Western values in Ukraine.”

(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter: @PellerinDoDNews)