U.S. Wants to Avoid Second Cold War - or Hot War - With Russia

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter Testifies On Middle East Middle East Policy

U.S. secretary of defense Ashton Carter.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
  • Carter warns of Russian aggression, Chinese ambitions
  • Defense chief cites deep concerns over South China Sea

The U.S. is taking steps to counter Russian “aggression” and provocations in Europe and the Middle East, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in a speech that also focused on China’s “more ambitious” objectives.

Carter, speaking at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California, on Saturday, listed ways that Russia has been acting as a “spoiler” on the world stage, including violating the sovereignty of Ukraine, trying to intimidate Baltic countries and sending troops to Syria.

“We do not seek a cold, let alone a hot, war with Russia,” Carter said. “We do not seek to make Russia an enemy. But make no mistake, the United States will defend our interests, our allies, the principled international order and the positive future it affords us all.”

“At sea, in the air, and in cyberspace,” Carter said, “Russia has engaged in challenging activities.”

The U.S. and its allies are also concerned about the pace and scope of China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea, Carter said. The area being reclaimed is the site of almost 30 percent of the world’s maritime trade, including about $1.2 trillion in ship-borne trade headed to the U.S. 

Of concern, Carter said, is the “prospect of further militarization, as well as the potential for these activities to increase the risk of miscalculation or conflict among claimant states.” Carter added that he plans in 2016 to make his first visit to China since becoming the top U.S. defense official in February.

Reducing Vulnerabilities

Carter said the U.S. and Russia have cooperated where their interests converge, such as the Iran nuclear talks, and said that Russia may yet play a positive role in Syria. Even so, the U.S. is taking a series of steps, he said, to reduce the vulnerability of allies and partners. Not all of those steps could be described publicly, he said.

The U.S. is modernizing its nuclear arsenal and investing in technologies that “are most relevant to Russia’s provocations,” including unmanned systems and a new long-range bomber. Carter said he couldn’t talk about some technologies the U.S. is pursuing, describing them as “really surprising.”

He cited innovations such as the “electromagnetic rail-gun, lasers, and new systems for electronic warfare, space and cyberspace.” The U.S. is also pursuing more old-fashioned methods of countering opponents, including “information campaigns to ensure the truth gets through” and focused sanctions of the sort the U.S. and international community levied against Moscow after its invasion of Crimea.

The Cold War approach to Russia is “not suited for the 21st century,” Carter said, and as a result, the U.S. is changing its posture in Europe to emphasize agility and speed. Tanks and infantry-fighting vehicles will be pre-positioned in Eastern Europe, Ukrainian troops will continue to receive equipment, training and aid, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s new Very High Readiness Joint Task Force will be strengthened, he said.

Subsurface Warfare

In Asia, the U.S. is putting its best and newest assets and making heavy investments in subsurface warfare, electronic warfare, space, cyber, missile defense and more, Carter said.

“The single most influential factor in shaping the region’s future is how China rises and relates to the principled order that has undergirded regional peace, stability and security,” Carter said.

In that region, the U.S. is adjusting operational plans to deter aggression, fulfill obligations to Taiwan, and undertaking contingency planning for potential natural disasters. It is also promoting “shared rules of the road” and habits of cooperation, Carter said, by participating in exercises across the region.