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NATO Commander: Russia’s use of force in Europe is a major threat

July 29, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, joins Gwen Ifill to discuss the alliance with Turkey against the Islamic State and why Russia poses a major threat in Europe today.

GWEN IFILL: General Breedlove, thank you so much for joining us.

GEN. PHILIP BREEDLOVE, NATO Supreme Allied Commander: Oh, thanks for having me.

GWEN IFILL: I want to start by talking about Turkey. How significant is it that Turkey has allowed us to start using Incirlik for a basing to attack ISIS?

GEN. PHILIP BREEDLOVE: Those things that we are working at now to use bases like Incirlik and Diyarbakir, those will be very important to our ability to prosecute a joint campaign with Turkey as a part of our coalition.

GWEN IFILL: How far does that buffer zone go and how far do we go into it?

GEN. PHILIP BREEDLOVE: We’re not creating any specific zone.

What we’re talking about is bringing Turkey into an arrangement where, as a part of the coalition, they cooperate in our counter-ISIL campaign in the north. And that’s the real key to this.

GWEN IFILL: So, it’s not a no-fly zone, per se, is what you are saying?

GEN. PHILIP BREEDLOVE: That’s correct.

GWEN IFILL: I want to take you to Ukraine, especially Russia’s role. The new incoming nominee to be — for Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joe Dunford, said at a congressional hearing last week that he saw Russia as our chief global threat. Is that something you agree with?

GEN. PHILIP BREEDLOVE: I have testified to the same thing in the past.


GEN. PHILIP BREEDLOVE: Well, clearly, there are lots of threats out there, for instance, ISIL.

But I think what you hear from numerous leaders is that Russia is a different case. This is a nation that for 20 years we have tried to make a partner. And in the last few years, we have seen that they’re on a different path. So now we have a nation that has used force to change internationally recognized boundaries. Russia continues to occupy Crimea.

Russian forces now are in the Donbass in Eastern Ukraine. So this nation has used force to change international boundaries. And this is a nation that possesses a pretty vast nuclear inventory, and talks about the use of that inventory very openly in the past. And so what I think you see being reflected is that we see a revanchist Russia that has taken a new path towards what the security arrangements in Europe are like and how they are employed.

And they talk about using, as a matter of course, nuclear weapons. For that reason, these senior leaders, I believe, see that as a major threat.

GWEN IFILL: Secretary Kerry has not said that. And I wonder if the distinction there is between the diplomatic approach to dealing with Russia on things like Iran and the military concerns.

GEN. PHILIP BREEDLOVE: So, Russia can and we hope in the future will be a great partner. There are many places where our needs and requirements match.

But, again, in Europe, they have established a pattern now, Georgia, Transnistria, Crimea, Donbass, where force is a matter of course. And that’s not what we look for in partners in Europe.

GWEN IFILL: So NATO has talked about providing training and artillery and some sort of support against this force you describe, this Russian bear on the border. Is that enough?

Well, NATO nations are offering some assistance to Ukraine, as is the United States. Many nations now are coming along to be a part of helping Ukraine to defend themselves. They have the right to defend themselves.

But is it enough?

GEN. PHILIP BREEDLOVE: I think that question is yet to be determined.

We believe that there is a diplomatic and a political solution. So when you ask, is it enough, the question is, is it enough to set the conditions so that we can get to a political and a diplomatic solution?

What about the Baltics? There is a lot of nervousness that Russia is going to expand its view of aggression in that direction as well, and they will be entirely unable to defend themselves.

Both NATO, as an alliance, and the United States have come to great measures of assurance for our Baltic nations.

We have U.S. soldiers alongside British and other soldiers inside of these countries now, exercising, doing training, to assure those allies that NATO is there and will be there. I was privileged to sit in the room at Wales when the leaders of 28 nations, including our president, were rock-solid on Article V, collective defense. And that includes the Baltics.

And I think that Mr. Putin understands that NATO is different.

GWEN IFILL: There is a lot of nervousness, however, that this option, if this doesn’t take hold, is war.

GEN. PHILIP BREEDLOVE: Well, the best way not to have a war is to be prepared for war. So, we’re in there now, training their soldiers.

As you know, we are looking at and have decided to preposition stops forward. We have heavy equipment that we train with in these nations now. And so we need to be prepared, so that we can avoid.

GWEN IFILL: Is there a line between preparation and provocation?

Absolutely. I believe there is.

We do defensive measures, and in, I think, very easily defined defensive stances in our forward bases. We’re not putting big forces into the Baltics. Right now, there is a company of U.S. soldiers in each of the three Baltic states. That is well below a proportional issue.

If it is possible for there to be a diplomatic or a political solution to head off any future conflict, what would that look like?

GEN. PHILIP BREEDLOVE: We always talk about a European land mass whole, free, and at peace.

To get to that, we need to have a partner in Russia, not someone that we are competing with. The Russian energy…

GWEN IFILL: Do you see a partnership that I don’t see?

GEN. PHILIP BREEDLOVE: No, no, I’m saying we have to have one in the future.


GEN. PHILIP BREEDLOVE: If we really believe we’re going to get to whole, free, and at peace and prosperous, then we need a partner in Russia.

Well, give me an example of one way to get there, especially if the person who has to be your partner is Vladimir Putin, who doesn’t show any indication, other than being helpful at the Iran nuclear talks, of being the partner you envision.

GEN. PHILIP BREEDLOVE: So first, it’s communication. We need to reestablish those lines of communication.

You have seen our secretary of state, undersecretary of state reaching out in several forums. Mil-to-mil communications need to become routine again. They are not routine now, where they were once before, communication first.

GWEN IFILL: I guess I hear what you are saying, but I don’t see how you get there.

GEN. PHILIP BREEDLOVE: Its’ not going to be an easy road. And it’s not going to happen quickly. This business with Russia is a long-term thing.

I have said in testimony in other places that this is global, not regional. And it is long-term, not short-term. But we have to start down the path.

GWEN IFILL: Assuming for a moment there is a diplomatic-to-diplomatic impasse or president-to-president impasse, is there a military-to-military way of forging that kind of agreement?

There is.

It is important also that, even if our countries are not getting along, when you are flying airplanes in close vicinity, when you are sailing ships in close vicinity, when you have soldiers on the ground exercising sometimes just on the other side of borders, military men and women have to be able to communicate in a very matter-of-fact way to preclude anything ugly from happening.

GWEN IFILL: Well, and we hope nothing further ugly happens.

NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Philip Breedlove, thank you very much.

No, thank you very much.