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.
"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."
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."
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."
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.