LONDON — Russia’s provocative actions have many western countries on edge, few more so than the Nordic countries of Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Iceland. To sound out those nations, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work traveled earlier this month to the region and met with his counterparts from all five countries. He also met with UK and US military officials and, throughout the trip, discussed and listened to reports about what the Russians have been doing.
But the primary questions remain: What are Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goals? How far will Russia go? After Putin’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, are other countries and regions next?
Defense News spoke with Work here at the end of his Nordic and UK visits, just before returning to the US on Sept. 12.
Q. What's your assessment right now of where the Russians could be going? Is it just Ukraine? What's their potential to expand into other theaters?
A. Well, first of all, what I believe that Russia wants is to be treated as a great power with global interests. It is manifesting that in a number of ways, many of them, we think, are very unhelpful. It started off with the illegal annexation of Crimea and then the destabilization of Ukraine. A major, major effort in the Arctic to reestablish its Cold War bases, and then a lot of sea and air activity in the Baltic states and then the high north. Most recently he's making noise that he wants to help his ally [President Bashar al-]Assad in Syria.
I think that Russia understands the rip line of a NATO Article 5 trigger. [The NATO treaty’s Article 5 provides that if a member or ally is the victim of an armed attack, the attack is considered as an attack upon all members.] In other words, if they tried to invade a NATO country, I think they absolutely understand that that would evoke an extremely powerful response. I do not personally believe that they are contemplating that, but it's also clear that they are signaling that they have interests in this area and they are going to aggressively protect them as they see fit.
As [US Defense] Secretary [Ash] Carter has said, we want to respond to this in a strong and balanced way. The strong part of it is to the European reassurance initiative, with all of the different exercises and equipment and activity sets. All of the things that we have done to demonstrate that, look, this type of behavior we believe is destabilizing. What we're really seeking is a peaceful region. The balance part is we still want to cooperate with Russia, and there are mutual interests. Space is one in which we continue to cooperate, and the International Space Station. We cooperate on counter-terrorism matters sometimes.
The strong part is to demonstrate to Russia that their activity we find to be unacceptable — quite alarming to many of the nations along the eastern NATO flank and alarming to our NATO allies and our friends and partners of the northern flank. This strong and balanced part is trying to say, Russia, let's find a way in which we can tamp down the possibility of miscalculation and let's work to find things that we can do together and come back to a, for lack of a better word, a détente. It's a Cold War word that I don't like to use, but it's a place where we can operate together without having so much tension.
Q. The rise of China as a military power coupled with Russian resurgence has reset the global strategic laydown. What is that situation?
A. As Secretary Carter likes to say, we now worry about four contingencies and one condition. The four contingencies being a contingency in the Western Pacific involving either North Korea or China, a contingency in Europe involving Russia, a contingency in the Middle East involving Iran, and then the condition of fighting against ISIL [the Islamic State group]. In the 1990s the United States was unquestionably the sole super power, but 15 years into the 21st century we have two large states that have very, very advanced capabilities. It's important for us to work our way through the rising China and the resurgent Russia, so that we maintain peace and stability in both the Western Pacific and in Europe.
Q. During the Cold War the US provided major military assistance to its allies. Is there any thought to reconstituting some of those assistance programs, or has the economic and political situation changed so much that you don't need them anymore?
A. Our bedrock policy is that we would like every NATO member to spend 2 percent of their gross national product on national defense. Only four NATO members now do so. The remaining have pledged to do so. Europe is economically sound. They should be able to spend, we think, 2 percent on their national defense given the three challenges on their flanks, to the south with the mass migration caused by the disruption of ISIL, to the east and to the north to aggressive Russian activities. We believe that it's in the interest of NATO in the military aspects of that alliance to be able to confront those three threats, so we would like to see all of our allies meet their commitment that they made [at the NATO 2014 summit conference in] in Wales.
Building partnership capacity has always been a part of our strategy. It always will be. So in cases where countries don't have the wherewithal to build certain capabilities, we are going to help in that regard, but in terms of large grants of money, that I don't see right now in the near term. We want to work with NATO for them to build up their own defenses and then for us to build partnership capacity, and of course exercising with them all of the time and grooming interoperability.
Q. The Chinese and the Russians seem to be getting back together in a number of ways. They've started to cooperate on specific programs. There was just an amphibious exercise in the Sea of Japan, and a Chinese squadron entered the Bering Sea. How do you see that Russo-Chinese cooperation affecting the strategic situation?
A. I think at varying levels of discussion there's been a longtime, strategic dialogue between the two nations. Both of them object to what they see as hegemony by the United States. Both of them are UN Security Council members. Both have nuclear arsenals. Both have national interests on the global stage. It is natural for them to bump up against the United States sometimes. We disagree on some things, we agree on others. At some places where they disagree with the United States, they have a common disagreement, and they sometimes come together to talk. I don't see any type of a formal alliance on the horizon, but I would not be surprised by informal cooperation, exchange of technologies, exercises. I would expect to see that.
Q. Chinese President Xi Jinping is coming this month to the US. He is not, however, the personification of the Chinese resurgence and growth — the Chinese government has been acting out a long, planned and thought-out rise. The Russian rise seems to be tied purely to the personality of Mr. Putin, that without him this might not be happening. Would that be a fair assessment?
A.I think that the biggest part of Russian resurgence was the rise in oil prices, and this settled their economy that went through such a wrenching disruption in the 1990s — began to settle, so that there was economic stability and a growth in Russia they had not seen in the '90s. Now that was coupled by President Putin who believed, rightly or wrongly, that NATO and the United States were disregarding Russian vital interests. He said, I don't want to tolerate this anymore. I want to regain the prestige that Russia had as a world power in the Cold War. Now some people believe that it is really focused on Putin. I believe there is as likely a case that Putin merely reflects what many of the Russian itelligencia and public believe. If you take a look at his strong approval ratings, it seems to me that the Russia people say we want to be a strong nation again, we want to be taken seriously on the world stage, and we like what President Putin is doing. I just don’t think it's one person. Would Russia behave differently if President Putin was thrown out of office? I think that's an open question. I'm not willing to say that, if President Putin went away, the antagonism we are now faced with by Russia would automatically go away with it.
[Political scientist] John Mearsheimer describes a great power as a state that could take on the leading global power conventionally and has a nuclear deterrent that is survivable from a first attack. In that very narrow definition, what we have in the 21st century is a rise of great power politics where the United States is dealing with two large states with interests that they're going to jealously guard. It's up to the United States and those two countries to work together. We are never going to agree on everything, but we all have a vested interest in maintaining peace and stability because the contemplation of having a major disruptive conventional war that has the danger of becoming nuclear is just too terrible for any of us to think about. It's important for all three of our leaders to continue to talk together and work together, cooperate in those areas where we have mutual interest, and in areas where we don’t to make sure that we don't miscalculate and threaten the peace.
Whenever you have these large states, I believe that this is unfortunately kind of the natural way of going about things, the jostling. I still believe that the United States is the leading world power, but you have a rising China and resurgent Russia, and they're flexing their muscles. Over the next several decades those relationships are going to be very, very important.