SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASHTON CARTER: So the purpose of this trip, the focus of it, this particular trip to Europe, is NATO. And as to take it from the top again, we’ll be going now to Germany, and talking about — to the German defense minister and other officials there, particularly about the strong and forward-looking role that Germany is taking in Europe these days.
It’s obviously one that’s very welcome by the — to the United States, and one that we’re partnering with them in. Then to a few stops that signify the new playbook in effect that NATO is devising to deal with its two principal challenges today, that it has identified.
This, again, the NATO that took us through the Cold War. The NATO that dealt with the Balkan situation, the NATO that participated with us in Afghanistan, lots of other places now looking to its future, and to two challenges that are rather different, but coincided in time, and that both need to be dealt with at the same time.
Namely, to Europe’s southern and southeastern flank, the dangers that begin with extremism in the Middle East and lead to both terrorist threats and also people displaced from and seeking refuge in Europe from ungoverned or poorly governed parts of North Africa and elsewhere. And, of course, the Russia of Vladimir Putin.
And in both of those areas NATO needs to and is adapting. These are challenges that are different in kind from the old Fulda Gap Cold War challenge. They’re different in their own ways from Afghanistan and the kinds of things that we’ve been doing there.
So it’s new but NATO being NATO and always adaptive, is adapting for both of them.
In particular, since I’ll be going to Estonia as well as Germany and Belgium. Russia will be a focus of the trip, and also of those aspects of NATO’s new playbook that are particularly intended to deal with Russia’s aggressive behavior to-date, and the need to have a strong but balanced approach.
And I’m going to be sharing with leaders I meet with there, the American approach to dealing with Russia. They are always interested in that, which is a strategic approach to Russia that is strong, but also balanced.
And I’ll explain what that means. It’s strong, in the sense that we are cognizant of the needs to deter and be prepared to respond to Russian aggression, if it occurs, around the world, but also especially in NATO and with NATO.
And preparing that deterrent and response capability with respect to NATO is what the new playbook is about. And you’ll get to see parts of that, the Very High Readiness Task Force preparations and other elements of that in the course of the next few days.
And another part of that is helping the states, both NATO members and non-NATO members, at the periphery of Russia, or surrounding Russia, to harden themselves to malign influence or destabilization of the kind that Russia has fomented in eastern Ukraine. And that’s important too.
And then to get to the balanced part, the United States continues to work with Russia on those issues, and there are some, the P5+1 negotiations is one, countering terrorism is another, where Russia’s leaders do understand and perceive that their interests in the long run are really aligned with ours.
And that in those respects, it’s important for them — they do recognize that they should be moving forward in time with us, and the rest of the world, and not backward in time all alone, which is the tendency that we regret very much, but also is the reason to be strong prepared.
And also on that latter note, in addition to working with them where they today understand that their interests align with the future and with the rest of — marching forward, so to speak, with the rest of the world, the United States, at least, continues to hold out the prospect that Russia, maybe not under Vladimir Putin, but maybe some time in the future, will return to a forward-moving course rather than a backward-looking course.
And I can’t say whether or when that will occur. But it is the U.S. intention to keep the door open for that. We’ve seen that before in the past. I remember being at Fort Riley, Kansas, 20 years ago, discussing joint activity — joint deployments into Bosnia with the Russians, where they actually operated with, next to, and together with NATO to meet a European contingency.
That was forward motion by Russia. So I’ve seen Russia try to act forward in history rather than act backward in history. And I think we still remain open to that. But whether Russia, whether President Putin will move in that direction, I can’t say.
But anyway, we do try to have a balanced approach with respect to Russia. And laying out that strategic approach for our friends and allies is something I’ll be prepared to do on this trip.
And that I think it’s important to do in view of the concerning behavior by Russia, which is concerning to all of Europe, both NATO and non-NATO.
And with that, we’ll open up for questions.
STAFF: Great. Thank you.
If you could remember to give your name and outlet, especially because we have a couple of new folks with us on this trip. So, questions?
Q: Lita Baldor with the AP.
Mr. Secretary, you talked a little bit the last time we saw you about Russia, just after you had that summit. And you talked about the need to adapt and NATO needing to adapt.
And I’m wondering particularly with your comments now about Russia and with or without Putin needing to change, do you believe that change in Russia will only come without Vladimir Putin at the head?
And do you think that this adapting, does this mean acceptance of what Russia is doing at this point? Or does there have to be more tangible consequences?
SEC. CARTER: Well, the adaptations I was talking about are specifically in anticipation that Russia might not change under Vladimir Putin or even thereafter. So the adaptations I’m talking about are to the alliance’s capabilities to deter and respond.
That’s what the Very High Readiness Task Force is about. That’s what this concept of agility and how we train and operate — it goes to the countering hybrid warfare of the kind I was talking about both in — which actually applies not just to NATO countries, but around Russia’s periphery and other areas like cyber.
So all the ways that the adaption of NATO is taking place in anticipation that that may not change.
Now you asked, do I expect it to change? I certainly would hope that under President Putin, who will be the leader of that country for some time in their system, or perhaps later, that Russia will — and the Russian people will recognize that going backward in time is not good for Russia, and will once again try to move forward as a respected and strong but rule-abiding member of the international community, solving problems that are common and not creating problems.
But I can’t be sure, Lita, that that will occur. And that’s why we have this balanced approach, which leaves open that possibility and makes it clear to the Russian people, at least, as well as the Russian leadership that that still is our preference, and actually our belief that that’s what’s best for the Russian people.
But at the same time, we need to be prepared to have deterrence and response capabilities.
Q: Thank you. Margaret Brennan, from CBS News.
Vladimir Putin this week said he was adding ICBMs, about 40 of them, to the nuclear arsenal. Can you give us some perspective on whether you think that is posturing? Do you take him at his word?
And can you explain why we’re not going to Ukraine, since that’s sort of ground zero for the sort of activity you’re describing?
SEC. CARTER: Well, the Ukraine part, I just didn’t have time on this trip. This is a NATO-focused trip.
I will be seeing the Ukrainian defense minister, who will be coming to the NATO ministerial. And actually there’s a meeting that coincides with my being there and I’ll attend part of, of the NATO-Ukraine council, which was established — I was actually part of this also long ago.
So we will be meeting there as well. And I’m sure a lot of the discussion will be around Ukraine.
Of course, the main event about — regarding Ukraine this week is not about us or about NATO, it’s about the E.U. and sanctions. And that will be the principal development with respect to Ukraine next — this coming week.
With respect to Putin’s comments about nuclear weapons, the only thing I’d say about that is that I think you used the word “posturing,” but nuclear weapons are not something that should be the subject of loose rhetoric by world leadership.
We all understand the gravity of nuclear dangers. We all understand that Russia is a long-established nuclear power. There’s no need for Vladimir Putin to make that point.
And so I obviously can’t explain for you why he would posture in that way, but it’s not appropriate behavior, in my judgment, for leaders to be speaking that way about something as grave as nuclear weapons and their nuclear responsibilities as responsible and longstanding nuclear powers.
Q: Phil Stewart from Reuters. Thanks, Mr. Secretary, for doing this.
I want to push you a little bit on that last comment on Putin, and your earlier comments that change may not happen under Putin. Could you — you say he shouldn’t use that rhetoric, but he is using that rhetoric.
You know, NATO is posturing in a way that is meant to deter, him but he doesn’t sound like he’s being deterred. It sounds like he’s ramping up his rhetoric. And it sounds like he’s ready to match NATO with whatever steps it takes.
And I’m wondering, do you think that Putin is ready to keep escalating? Do you think NATO is ready to keep pace with that? Thank you.
SEC. CARTER: Well, again, this is as before, I can’t speak for Vladimir Putin, I can only speak for what we’re doing, which is where we continue to deter, to have a strong deterrent, and prepare to respond.
Nothing that the United States or NATO is doing is causing the behavior you’re referring to. As I said earlier, I can’t say when or if Russian policy will change, but our policy is quite clear, which is we are going to continue to deter and prepare to respond. And we’ll continue to adapt those preparations so that they remain a strong deterrent to Russia.
Q: David Lynch with Bloomberg.
Mr. Secretary, I’m curious, given some of your phrasing about Mr. Putin and the fact that you had long experience in and out of the Pentagon during the Cold War, how you’d compare the challenge of deterring Putin’s Russia to the Cold War-era challenge.
How different is it? And is it easier, harder? And what is this new — how different is the new playbook, I guess?
SEC. CARTER: Well, that’s a very good question. And the new playbook is to respond to the new security situation in Europe, including the situation opposed by Russian — Russia’s own behavior.
And that’s why — and so it’s not like it was in the old days. We are looking at NATO responses that are much more mobile, much more agile, able to respond on short time lines, because that’s how events today unfold, unlike a quarter let alone a half a century ago.
That’s why we’re attentive to the hybrid aspects of potential contingencies. Hybrid meaning — I assume you know what the expression means. But so paying attention hybrid warfare, and the ability to deter that.
And, also I said earlier, to harden our friends and allies against subversive or malign influence. That’s an important part of it. And then there are new domains like cyber and so forth that certainly were not part of things back in the Cold War.
So all of this is a very different playbook. And that’s why NATO is, as always, adapting its playbook.
Q: Just a quick follow. Do you consider him a rational actor?
SEC. CARTER: I have no particular insight into Vladimir Putin. I always take the leaders of other countries to be — I observe their behavior, what they say. He’s quite clear in what he says. He leaves you no doubt about his views.
And as I said earlier, one of his stated views is a longing for the past. And I — that’s where, you know, we have a different perspective on the world. And even on Russia’s future, we would like to see us all moving forward, Europe moving forward.
And that does not seem to be his stated perspective. So we look at what he says, very importantly, at what he does.
STAFF: We have a couple of things we have to get done with the secretary here with 90 minutes left in the flight. So time for two more.
We’ll go, you two.
Q: Hi. Gordon Lubold with The Wall Street Journal.
Mr. Secretary, you mentioned two weeks some of the things that you would like to see happen with NATO to counter the behavior, you know, more intel-sharing, more exercises, that kind of thing. Do you expect that to take any more form here this week while you’re visiting?
But also, how do you characterize — how do you assess the risk the U.S. takes and NATO takes in kind of coordinating this military resolve and not potentially getting into a situation with Russia that you are seeking obviously to avoid?
SEC. CARTER: Well, with respect to the first point, the answer to that is, yes, you will see that what I’m calling the new playbook is exactly a topic of the NATO ministerial. And so very much a focus of this week.
With respect to the second part of your question, Gordon, I’m not quite sure I caught the drift of that one.
Q: Sure. I guess I’m just wondering, as you kind of attempt to coordinate military assurances here in the region to give other countries the confidence to respond, how do you make sure you’re not pushing him, Mr. Putin too far to get into something you’re to avoid?
SEC. CARTER: Well, a couple of things. One is that, as I mentioned earlier, our policy and posture is a balanced one. And it continues to offer to Vladimir Putin’s Russia the possibility of greater cooperation.
But the other thing I’d say is — I mean, obviously I’m going to a defense ministerial as a defense minister. But the main event — in Russia’s relations with Europe, the main events are economic and political, not just military.
So those are dimensions of the relationship. And I think dimensions in which Russia is heading backwards is detrimental to the Russian people that are not — don’t have anything to do with military activities on the part of the United States or NATO.
Although, as I said, they are adapting to be firm deterrents and an ability to respond. But there are these other dimensions to the policy, and really, other dimensions to taking Russia backward.
And those are the dimensions that are so regrettable, I think, for the Russian people — or will be in the long run. And, of course, that’s a real focus of activity, not U.S. activity per se, but of E.U. activity this week.
STAFF: This will be our last question.
Q: Thomas Gibbons-Neff from The Washington Post.
You were talking about the task force, the Spearhead Task Force’s participation kind of dealing with countering hybrid warfare. And you were talking about these border states that are kind of hardening themselves to subversion near Russia.
And that kind of brings to mind Crimea and, you know, what happened there with the little green men, no patches on their uniforms. Do you think that the task force or any kind of — do you think that there is a military solution to a situation like Crimea?
SEC. CARTER: Well, nothing has changed in terms of our view of Crimea. It was the annexation of a piece of another sovereign — of a neighboring country’s sovereign territory, which goes against all of the rules of international law, plain and simple.
I think what you’re getting at is, is part of adaption of our posture, U.S. posture, but also as I said, the NATO playbook, one that anticipates, you mentioned little green men. I think you’re getting into the concept of hybrid warfare.
And very definitely it is. That’s one, not the only, but one of the dimensions of our adaption, but very importantly also of countries that are surrounding Russia that don’t want to be susceptible to the kind of thing that happened in Crimea.
STAFF: Okay. Thank you, guys. If you have any other follow-up questions, please grab me or Eileen, and we’ll be talking to you many more times over the next five days.