US hopes Russia may change direction when Vladimir Putin is gone
US defence secretary Ash Carter said the US and Nato needed a “strong but balanced” approach to Russia, and he questioned whether Moscow’s “backward-looking” aggressive behaviour would change while President remains at the helm.
Speaking to reporters traveling with him to on Sunday, Carter said he couldn’t be certain Putin would change direction, so allies must use a two-pronged approach that works with Russia on some issues while also girding to deter and respond to Moscow’s aggression.
“The United States at least continues to hold out the prospect that , maybe not under Vladimir Putin, but maybe sometime in the future, will return to a forward-moving course, rather than a backward-looking course,” said Carter, just before arriving in Berlin.
The Pentagon chief, who will attend his first meeting as defence secretary this week, said he wanted to lay out America’s balanced approach, which involved bolstering Europe’s military ability to deter Russia’s military actions. At the same time, allies need Moscow as they fight terrorism and hammer out a nuclear agreement with Iran.
Carter’s trip comes as the European Union is expected to extend economic sanctions against Russia until January to keep pressure on Moscow over the conflict in eastern Ukraine. And it follows Putin’s announcement that he will add more than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles that are capable of piercing any missile defences.
Putin’s remarks about the missiles were deemed “nuclear sabre-rattling” by Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg. Carter called it inappropriate behaviour.
Carter is expected to give a speech in Berlin, travel to Estonia, and attend a Nato defence ministers’ meeting this week.
A key theme at all his stops will be how the United States, Nato and other partners can best deal with the Kremlin in the wake of Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and its military backing of separatists battling Ukraine’s government on the eastern border.
But part of the calculus, Carter said, will be a new playbook for Nato that deals with Russia’s aggression while also recognising its important role in the nuclear talks with Iran, the fight against Islamic State militants and a peaceful political transition in Syria.
Officials said Carter, who left Washington on Sunday, plans to encourage allied ministers to better work together in countering threats facing Europe. His talks are sure to draw Putin’s ire as Moscow chafes under the prospect of continued sanctions.
Carter also intends to talk with his counterparts about a US proposal to send to Eastern Europe enough tanks, Humvees and other military equipment to outfit one brigade.
The equipment would be used for exercises and other training programs, but more importantly would allow a faster Nato response to a crisis in the region. The idea of placing it in Eastern Europe as part of military measures to reassure allies has been under discussion for months; Carter has yet to give his final approval.
Generally, a brigade has roughly 3,500 troops.
Officials have not said where the equipment would go, but there are indications that Poland, which borders Russia, might be one location.
Poland’s defence minister, Tomasz Siemoniak, said last week that he has been in talks with Carter about putting the equipment in Poland and in four other eastern Nato nations.
Just two weeks ago, Carter convened a meeting of American defence and diplomatic leaders from across Europe, and concluded that the US needed to strengthen its military exercises and training with nations in the region and bolster Nato’s intelligence-sharing to better counter Russia.
He also acknowledged that the current international economic penalties against Russia have not stopped Moscow’s military support for separatists in Ukraine. He said that the US and allies worry that Russia may use similar tactics and aggression against other nations in the region.
Western leaders say Moscow is supplying the rebels with manpower and powerful weapons, and have detailed Russian troop movements along Ukraine’s eastern border, including convoys of supplies, troops and weapons moving to bolster the separatists. Russia rejects those claims as unfounded.
A fragile cease fire in Ukraine that was worked out in February has been broken repeatedly, and each side blames the other for the spikes in violence.
At an investment conference on Friday in Russia, Putin blamed the US and the European Union for triggering the Ukrainian crisis by refusing to take into account what he described as Russia’s legitimate interests.
“They have pushed us back to the line beyond which we can’t retreat,” he said. “Russia isn’t seeking hegemony or some ephemeral superpower status.”
While Russia may dominate much of the talks, the allies also will discuss how Nato can provide more assistance to Iraq, including plans to involve the alliance more officially in the fight against Islamic State militants.
According to US officials, Nato leaders will consider providing ministry-level advice and other training assistance in Iraq, with a possible decision approving the plan expected around July.
Some allies are participating individually in the fight against Isis, but Nato has not agreed on how it should weigh in as an alliance.