WASHINGTON — Unless the next US president makes it a priority to sit down with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, the two nations could find themselves drawn into a Cold War-style buildup.
That’s the warning from Chuck Hagel, the former secretary of defense and longtime US senator, who told reporters Tuesday that whomever the next US leader is, they need to swallow their pride and sit down personally with Putin in order to deescalate tensions in both Europe and Syria.
"Now that might be distasteful, but we know enough about Ppresident Putin to know he deals leader to leader," Hagel said at the Atlantic Council. "Russia has immense internal problems. We know that. We understand that. And they’re not going to be able to sustain a lot of what’s going on now.
"But in the meantime there is a lot of damage that can be done [around the world], and until that leader-to-leader dialogue begins, 'what you need, what we need, and let's start sorting this out,' then you will consider a proxy war."
Asked about a NATO plan for about posting four battalions of troops in the Baltic states closest to Russia — – which in turn led to a Russian official promising to move significant numbers of troops onto its western border — – Hagel said there was nothing inherently wrong with that troop deployment in particular.
But, he warned, "I'd be very careful with this. Because the centrifugal force of this is so subtle it take you right down into the middle of a situation that you didn't want to be in."
Specifically, the former secretary predicted a situation where each side slowly adds more pieces to the region to try and one-up each other, and find themselves "very quickly in another Cold War buildup here that makes sense for neither side."
US and NATO officials, including Hagel’s successor, Ddefense Ssecretary Ash Carter, have been very careful to state that there is no Cold War-style buildup planned. Instead, the watchword has been "strategic deterrence," a phrase that will see expanded use in the leadup to the next major NATO meeting, to be held in Warsaw in July.
Adam Thomson, UK Permanent Representative to NATO, underlined that point in a May 2 interview with Defense News.
"I think modern deterrence is referred to in order to emphasize this is not a return to the Cold War," Thomson said. "Basic concepts of deterrence haven't changed, but the way we choose to implement it in order to dissuade potential adversaries from doing bad things, persuade them that the costs outweigh the benefits, are going to be, and you'll see this at Warsaw, really quite innovative — light, mobile, responsive, heavy emphasis on situational awareness, a recognition of the enduring importance of clear messaging."
"But not heavy divisions standing toe to toe as they did in the Cold War," he added.
Hagel, however, sees the battalion buildup as a sign that heavy forces may be coming back into the region, without much long-term strategic thought.
"We continue to build up the eastern flank of NATO with more battalions, more exercises, and more ships and ore platforms, and the Russians will respond," Hagel predicted. "Not sure where that takes you, either. I'm not sure there's some real strategic thinking here. It's a reaction. It's a tactical kind of ricocheting from crisis to crisis."
Hagel also indicated his support for the American plan to use rotational armored brigade combat teams, rather than station those forces permanently in one place.
"Those forces are far more agile and ready. When you have stationary troops you have overhead you have a lot of different dynamics," Hagel said. "I just think its smarter today, for the kind of world we live in."
During April 21 testimony Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the newly minted head of US European Command, said he thought a permanent brigade is something that should be looked at in the future.
"A permanent brigade gives you a brigade that establishes relationships with the supporting elements from all forces in the United States, as well as a more permanent relationship and lasting relationship with our allies," Scaparrotti said. "That can be done over time better than with a rotational force. … It gives you a little more substance, a little more strength and relationship building."