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Kuznetsov Naval Academy

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, St Petersburg, Russia, Monday, March 21, 2011

Thank you, Admiral. It’s a great honor to be speaking in a city founded by one of history’s most notable military reformers, Peter the Great, and to address the officers who now lead his beloved navy. 

I take great pleasure and satisfaction in this visit and today’s speaking opportunity.  As you may know, I earned my doctoral degree in Russian and Soviet Studies nearly 40 years ago, and intended to teach at a university. At age 23, however, my path was diverted and I have spent the decades since working on issues related to your country, and mine -- at the Central Intelligence Agency, the U.S. National Security Council, and now, finally, at the U.S. Department of Defense.

Although I’ve made several visits to Moscow as Secretary of Defense, my last visit to St. Petersburg was as Director of CIA in the fall of 1992.  Speaking to you naval officers here today, I am reminded of a special presentation I made to President Yeltsin on the Moscow portion of that trip.  During the mid-1970s, in the hope of finding an intelligence treasure trove, the United States made a billion dollar effort to recover a Soviet ballistic missile submarine that had sunk deep in the Pacific Ocean several years before. We did recover part of the Golf-II submarine, including the remains of six Soviet sailors.  We had prepared for this possibility, and nearly twenty five years later, I presented to President Yeltsin the Soviet naval flag with which we had shrouded the coffins of the six Soviet sailors, along with a video tape of their burial at sea, complete with prayers in Russian for the dead and the playing of the Soviet national anthem – at the height of the Cold War, a dignified and respectful burial at sea of six brave adversaries.  That video was shown on Russian television several months later.

The broader purpose of my 1992 visit, the first by a CIA Director to Russia, was to explore with my Russian counterpart – the head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Evgeniy Primakov – opportunities for the American and Russian intelligence services to begin to work together in addressing common threats in a post Cold War world: terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, global organized crime, narcotics trafficking, and more.  No longer enemies, we began to look for ways in which we could cooperate and be partners. 

Nearly twenty years later, that cooperation to address common security challenges is real, and increasingly involves our two militaries working together.  Today, I would like to discuss the nature of these challenges, our deepening military-to-military relationship – and, how, with leadership and farsighted thinking from both nations, we can expand that cooperation.  

One of the true pleasures of being Secretary of Defense has been the opportunity to engage with younger military officers – whether on the front lines or in the professional military schools, whether at home or abroad, American or international.   In preparation for today’s event, I was struck by the fact that both you and your American counterparts entered military institutions that were essentially shaped in response to each other.  And, even though twenty years have passed since the end of the Cold War, the American and Russian defense establishments are still working hard to reform and transform themselves to meet the evolving threats and opportunities of the 21st Century, not the 20th Century.  These are the challenges that will shape your professional lives – and those of your American counterparts – as surely as our differences once shaped mine.

Military organizations in the 21st century must be agile and adaptable enough to face threats along an entire spectrum of conflict.  These might be countering terrorism, piracy, and responding to natural disasters.  They might be battling unpredictable insurgents in failing states as well as providing the training to help those states defend themselves.  They might be threats from a rogue nation or terrorists who do not attack though conventional channels or obey the laws of war, or care about innocent lives, enemies such as those who so recently struck at a Moscow airport.

In my view, this broadening spectrum of conflict means that military leaders must think harder about the entire range of missions they will need to perform, and how to achieve the right balance of capabilities.  Over the course of my tenure as Secretary of Defense, I have pushed all of the military services to institutionalize the asymmetric and unconventional warfare capabilities developed in Iraq and Afghanistan, because I am concerned that once these conflicts end -- and they will -- the tendency of any military bureaucracy – indeed any big organization – is to return to old and comfortable habits.

I know that for the Russian military, adapting to these similar external threats has required somewhat similar internal adjustments.  Minister Serdyukov and I have had a number of conversations about the challenges of leading large, proud, and tradition-bound military institutions.  We’re both striving to invest limited funds wisely on truly critical capabilities while doing right by our troops and their families.  In this fight to modernize, our common enemy is now what your Minister of Defense Serdyukov called the “two diseases of military bureaucracy” – the constantly rising costs of weapons systems combined with contractual deadlines that are never met. 

We have also discussed the common challenges to reshaping each of our militaries, the U.S. experience in the 1970s of transitioning to an all-volunteer force, and Russia’s current efforts to seek the right mix of conscripts and volunteers, the force that you will command in the not too distant future.  I have followed with interest the efforts of your Defense Minister and General Staff in reorganizing Russia’s six military districts into the four new Joint Strategic Commands, with the aim of improving joint operations, as well as achieving manpower and infrastructure savings. 

The evolving security challenges of the 21st century have not only put our militaries on a similar trajectory of reform, they have also created new opportunities for cooperation.  In recent years, both our militaries have accepted that most of these contingencies are not zero-sum threats – for example, terrorism that weakens one nation does not provide opportunity for another, but rather increases the danger for everyone.  It is this realization that has led Russia and the United States to work together across a number of key areas.  These include:

  • Coordinating and expanding the operation of the Northern Distribution Network into Afghanistan, as well as the offer of Russian aid to the Afghan government in developing its helicopter fleet, efforts which we see as a very welcome recognition of the fact that a stable, strong, independent Afghanistan that ceases to export dangerous drugs is in all our interests;
  • Working together through both negotiations and sanctions to persuade the Iranian regime to renounce the pursuit of nuclear weapons and other destabilizing activities. Russia’s restriction of arms sales and backing of the United Nations’ expanded efforts is a strong statement to the world about your seriousness on counter-proliferation; and
  • Ratifying the New START treaty, a continuation and expansion of arms control efforts we worked toward even during the darkest days of the Cold War.  I was involved in various earlier treaty negotiations with the Soviet Union on strategic arms beginning 40 years ago, and I’m cheered by our relatively rapid progress on this one – the first START treaty took nearly a decade to sign. Through New START, the United States and Russia both maintain the strategic balance between our nuclear deterrent forces, but will use verification and transparency mechanisms to greatly reduce the odds of misunderstanding or miscommunication between our nations, or of proliferation beyond them.

Beyond these specific areas of cooperation, there is also an increasing recognition that by sharing knowledge, we can resolve common problems.  Our militaries have never hesitated to learn from one another before, even in much less friendly times.  I clearly remember, beginning in the 1970s, the “Military Technical Revolution”, where Soviet thinkers conceived of new ways to bring the most advanced technologies of the day onto the battlefield, strategies the U.S. military studied when developing  our own doctrines.  Nowadays, we can simply learn directly from one another, and our two defense ministries have established channels to further this collaboration.

Last September, during Minister Serdyukov’s visit to Washington, we established the U.S.- Russia Defense Relations Working Group.  Through this arrangement Minister Serdyukov and I, our deputies and specialists, and I hope our successors, will keep meeting on a regular basis to share expertise and exchange views across a range of subjects.  We’ll exchange best practices and strategies for:

  • Training, educating, caring for, and retaining our troops;
  • Certain defense technologies, such as approaches to dealing with improvised explosive devices;
  • Logistics, notably our efforts along the Northern Distribution Network;
  • Maritime cooperation, including counter-piracy efforts and the broader effort to maintain the freedom of the seas;

On the geo-strategic level, several of these working groups have and will continue to make sure that we have clarity about one another’s views, plans, and positions on global questions.  Discussing our intentions as well as our capabilities is a critical move forward.  It is a given that on some issues and in some arenas U.S. and Russian interests and goals will differ no matter how much we talk to one another.  However, one critical lesson we’ve learned from the mistakes of the past is to avoid dangerous circumstances that can emerge from mistrust and a lack of transparency about each other’s intentions.

One good example of this that also draws in other critical actors is the NATO-Russian decision to cooperate on defense against ballistic missiles.  We’ve disagreed before, and Russia still has uncertainties about the European Phased Adaptive Approach, a limited system that poses no challenge to the large Russian nuclear arsenal.  However, we’ve mutually committed to resolving these difficulties in order to develop a roadmap toward truly effective anti-ballistic missile collaboration.  This collaboration may include exchanging launch information, setting up a joint data fusion center, allowing greater transparency with respect to our missile defense plans and exercises, and conducting a joint analysis to determine areas of future cooperation.

As should become clear from recent years, so many of the most pressing threats to both of our nations are transnational in character, and require the cooperation of multiple countries – and in some cases multiple militaries.  The U.S. military has gained valuable expertise, including insights into the unique challenges attendant to any coalition operation, as a result of operating with international partners in a variety of missions and exercises – ranging from the Balkans in the 1990s, where the U.S. military worked with Russian forces, to the international military effort in Libya today.  So in addition to furthering ways to improve our bilateral defense cooperation, I would encourage you – and encourage your leadership – to think about ways that Russia’s military can work within multi-lateral coalitions to achieve common security objectives.

I’ll leave you with a final thought.  As committed as Minister Serdyukov and I are to defense reform and to a real expansion of our bilateral relationship, future progress is largely not up to us.  Real change in large organizations, and strong relationships between nations, always take sustained effort over many years.  If you’d told me when I joined the CIA in 1967 that I would end my career helping to forge a stronger defense relationship with the Russians, I’d have been more than a bit skeptical.  If you’d told me what the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines would be doing today around the world, I’d have been similarly amazed.  It will be up to you, the next generation of leaders, to make what you will of our efforts and decide what history you’ll be telling when it’s your turn to stand up here. 

Thank you, and I will be pleased to take your questions.

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