Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said U.S. and European sanctions aren’t enough to force Russia to back down in Ukraine and must be bolstered, including with more allied military exercises.
Despite battering the Russian economy, sanctions haven’t altered Russian President Vladimir Putin’s confrontational stance, Carter told reporters on Friday. Russia’s economy is succumbing to its first recession since 2009 amid the sanctions and weak oil prices. Its currency lost about half of its value against the dollar in 2014, although the Russian central bank has taken steps this year to bolster the ruble.
“What’s clear is that sanctions are working on the Russian economy,” Carter said. “What’s not apparent is that that effect on his economy is deterring Putin from following the course that was evidenced last year in the Crimea.” Russia annexed Crimea in eastern Ukraine in 2004.
To deter further Russian moves, the U.S. should expand to additional countries its training and exercise program in Europe and increase spending on non-traditional capabilities such as cybersecurity, Carter said.
The comments occurred aboard Carter’s E-4B aircraft en route to the U.S. after a conference lasting more than four hours with top U.S. diplomats and military brass in Stuttgart, Germany.
The meeting came amid renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine this week between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces. Artillery duels centered on the town of Marinka have fanned concern among the U.S. and allies that a wider rebel offensive may be coming within months.
Russia gained control of the Crimea and portions of eastern Ukraine after sending soldiers with no identifying insignia into the country and denying involvement in the conflict. Carter said the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “absolutely” are worried that Russia may employ similar tactics elsewhere, such as in the Baltic nations, NATO members that the U.S. is obligated to defend.
If that happens, analysts have said, Russian forces could occupy a U.S. treaty ally before NATO’s new “rapid reaction” force mobilizes.
Officials at the Stuttgart meeting discussed an expanded U.S. role in NATO’s rapid reaction force, probably involving intelligence, transport and logistics help.
With NATO facing new threats on its eastern and southern borders, officials have concluded the more than six-decade-old alliance requires an internal makeover. Its traditional crisis decision-making is too slow and procedures for sharing intelligence about shadowy threats such as Islamic State are too sluggish.
President Barack Obama has resisted calls from lawmakers and members of his own national security team, including Carter, to send lethal weapons to Ukrainian government forces.
The U.S. has provided other forms of military aid as well as economic assistance. In April, about 300 U.S. soldiers from the Army’s 173rd airborne brigade arrived in Ukraine on a six-month assignment to train members of the country’s new National Guard.
Attendees at Carter’s strategy session included General Phil Breedlove, commander of European Command; General Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command; General David Rodriguez, African Command chief; senior Pentagon civilians and 13 U.S. ambassadors to European nations.
Around the World
Carter’s conference, which capped an 11-day around-the-world trip, came ahead of this weekend’s G-7 leaders’ summit in Germany, where the Ukraine situation is high on the agenda. Obama spoke Friday with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, with both leaders expressing “their deep concern” about the latest clashes in eastern Ukraine, according to a White House statement.
Obama underscored the U.S. commitment to supporting a diplomatic resolution and “the need to maintain costs on Russia and the separatists until they fulfill all provisions of the Minsk agreements” for a political resolution of the conflict, according to the statement.
Later this month, Carter is scheduled to attend a NATO defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels shortly before the European Union will debate an extension of its sanctions, which expire June 30.
The Pentagon chief called Friday’s meeting to discuss European security challenges, including policy toward Russia and Islamic State. The classified discussion followed a similar meeting in Kuwait on U.S. strategy for combating the terrorist group shortly after Carter took office.
While no specific decisions emerged, Carter said that future defense budgets would reflect the need to better deal with threats that fall short of full-scale war.
He also repeated long-standing U.S. calls for its European partners to spend more on defense.
“There are other things we need to be doing in recognition of the fact that, at the moment at least, Vladimir Putin does not seem to be reversing course nor does he give any sign in what he says of an intention to do so,” said Carter. “Therefore, we need to adapt in a long-term sense to that reality.”
While the U.S. still seeks better relations with Russia, the former superpower’s actions are putting that warming beyond reach, he said. Carter said Putin is “heedless” of the suffering that sanctions were inflicting on Russians.
“Russia is positioning itself, in its rhetoric and in its actions -- and it’s not like they’re hiding this -- to be adversarial,” Carter said. “So we have to clearly recognize that fact.”