WASHINGTON – The West assumed the best of Russia once the Cold War ended, but Russian President Vladimir Putin had other plans and NATO must remain strong in face of the threat from the East, Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove said here yesterday.
Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe and commander of U.S. European Command, told the Atlantic Council that freedom is being challenged by “a revanchist Russia embarked on a reaching revision of what once were shared hopes for a stable and mutually beneficial partnership.”
Breedlove yesterday received the Distinguished Military Leadership award from the council.
The general said that when the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended, the United States fundamentally changed the way it dealt with Russia. The United States believed there was a genuine hope for a new friendship, a new partnership and the prospect of a Europe whole, free, at peace and prosperous, he said.
“We broke with confrontation and pursued a policy of cooperation, and for a long time many of us believed Russia would also embrace that cooperation,” Breedlove said. “But as we look back, there were clear signs that Russia was on a different path.”
In the early 1990s, Russia stoked separatist tensions in Georgia and Moldova, Breedlove said. In 2007, Russia suspended observance of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. In 2008, Russian forces invaded Georgia. Through it all Russian leaders clamped down on freedoms the Russian people had only recently won, the general said.
“All of these were signals of a changing Russia, breaking with the principles and the values of the West,” he said.
But the United States and its NATO allies remained optimistic and continued to treat Russia as a valued and trusted partner, Breedlove said.
But last year, with the illegal annexation of Crimea and movement into Eastern Ukraine the West’s optimism faded, the general said. Russia’s actions against Ukraine since last year have signaled “a clear end of what I see as two decades of clear Russian struggle over security policy,” Breedlove said.
Russia is now on a far different course, he said, one that shifts the relationship between Russia and the West from strategic cooperation to one of strategic competition. This is not a temporary aberration, but the new norm, Breedlove said.
“This is a Russia that recognizes strength and sees weakness as an opportunity,” he said.
This strategic competition requires a new mindset and a new approach, the general said.
“The U.S. and NATO must adapt,” he said. “And we are. The stakes are high but we must not shy away from that because, frankly, Russia is not.”
There still must be a dialogue with Russia, but conversations with the country must be done from a position of strength, the general said.
“We must embrace cooperation wherever our mutual interests align, but we must also ensure that we are ready to compete,” Breedlove said.
NATO is strong and it gives the West the ability to compete successfully against current and future challenges, he said.
Breedlove said NATO must challenge Russia’s current policies and demonstrate that Putin’s current approach will not be allowed to damage security.
The alliance also must deter Russia “by carefully shaping Moscow’s choices and managing Putin’s confidence,” the general said.
He added, “And it means continuing to lead courageously, as an alliance and as a nation.”
NATO is rock solid, Breedlove said.
“We are standing together,” he said.