Tag Archives: Robert Gates

Cablegate on the Mistral Sale

In case you missed it in Wikileaks, the U.S. Defense Secretary discussed many important topics with his French counterpart in early 2010, and France’s plan to sell the Mistral to Russia among them, though it may have been one of the less urgent issues.

What you read is the dialogue of allies respectfully sharing differing views of the situation and its significance.  It’s interesting for Defense Secretary Robert Gates to say it’s not Russia’s capability the U.S. worries about, but about sending the wrong signal to new allies on Moscow’s doorstep.  His French counterpart argues for Mistral as a tangible sign of the benefits of Russian partnership with the Western allies.  He concedes the ship is intended for power projection, but argues this single ship [well, two plus the plans for two more] won’t change Russia’s capabilities much given the poor condition of its naval production infrastructure.

————–Russia/Mistral                                                                                                                           ————–

18. (S/NF) SecDef expressed U.S. concerns about the Mistral sale to Russia.  He told Morin that because of Sarkozy’s involvement in brokering a ceasefire in Georgia, which Russia was not fully honoring, the sale would send the wrong message to Russia and to our Allies in Central and East Europe.

 19. (S/NF) Morin told SecDef pointedly that he had pushed hard for the sale.  He conceded that it was indeed a warship for power projection.  But Morin asked rhetorically how we can tell Russia we desire partnership but then not trust them.  Morin told SecDef that he understood the U.S. position on considering Central and East European Allies’ concerns about the perceived threat from Russia.  Morin argued, however, that this single ship would not make any difference with respect to Russian capabilities, as Russia’s naval production ability was severely degraded.

 20. (S/NF) SecDef replied that U.S. concerns were not about military capacity but about messaging.  Some allies, because of their past experiences, are still very concerned with Russia and are not sure how much to trust the West.  SecDef observed that Russian democracy has disappeared and the government was an oligarchy run by the security services.  President Medvedev has a more pragmatic vision for Russia than PM Putin, but there has been little real change.

Serdyukov and Gates ‘Reload’

Gates and Serdyukov (photo: Reuters / Larry Downing)

Defense Minister Serdyukov and Defense Secretary Gates signed two documents yesterday.  RIA Novosti covered the event.  The first document was a memorandum of understanding on bilateral military cooperation replacing an old one from 1993.  The second, more important one established a ministerial-level working group on defense relations under the aegis of the U.S.-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission established in July 2009.

A joint statement from the two defense chiefs said:

“The following issues will be at the center of attention of the U.S.-Russian working group on defense relations:  armed forces reform and transformation, high-priority defense and national security policy issues, transparency and strengthening trust to improve mutual understanding, regional and global security, new challenges and threats, and cooperation in areas of mutual interest.”  

The document apparently says, as co-chairmen of the working group, the Defense Minister and Defense Secretary will meet at least once a year.  And Serdyukov has invited Gates to Moscow.

In his remarks on their talks yesterday, Serdyukov said:

“The transformations occurring in the Russian and U.S. armies are very large-scale and very painful.  But they are absolutely necessary to create a modern army, a 21st century army.”

Gates said both men face similar problems in reforming their armed forces:

“Mr. Serdyukov and I are making great efforts to implement broad reforms which are painful but necessary.”

An unnamed U.S. official explained:

“The Minister and Secretary are trying to introduce new thinking into the military system.  The visit of the Russian minister was a chance to learn more about Russian military reform, and understand issues on which we can be useful.  So the first session of the talks concerned only military reform.”

However, Kommersant picked the pithy winner of the day when it quoted former NSC staffer Steven Pifer: 

“Yesterday Robert Gates presented his plan for reducing military expenditures under which the budget of the Defense Department will be cut by $100 billion over five years.  It’s possible this experience will be interesting to Defense Minister Serdyukov, but I’m not sure it applies to reforming the Russian Armed Forces.”

Right on, brother.  Mr. Gates surely knows the $20 billion of chump change he wants to trim each year is not a lot less than what annual Russian defense budgets have been, give or take some, in recent years.  That $20 billion isn’t far off what the Russian government initially proposed to spend for arms procurement each year until 2020.   

Saying the U.S. and Russian militaries are in the same boat when it comes to their reform efforts certainly makes for good feelings and good press in the midst of an important high-level visit.  But it’s a great exaggeration that doesn’t really help anyone in the longer run.

The U.S. already has full-fledged, albeit overstretched, 21st century military forces; ones that are constantly and painfully reinvented to meet the threats and demands of the future.  It’s painful all right.

Russia, on the other hand, is 18 years into attempts to reshape its Soviet-era Armed Forces into a modern military.  It still has a fundamentally 20th century force, and not a late 20th one at that.  It’s true to say that Serdyukov has ushered in Russia’s first comprehensive reform effort, and it’s very painful.  But he’s hurt more by the fact that his predecessors didn’t do enough, fast enough. However, he may be doing too much, too fast.  And the ultimate results may not be what Putin, Medvedev, and Serdyukov intended.

But the main point remains it’s naïve to suggest the two military establishments are in anything like the same place.

Similarly, it wouldn’t pay to get excited about the new framework for defense consultations and cooperation.  We’ve been here several times.  Like U.S.-Russian relations as a whole, over time these frameworks are driven off-track by Russian actions and U.S. overreactions.  But they never die.  They just get reloaded.

Serdyukov Meets Gates at Pentagon

Mr. Serdyukov Goes to Washington (photo: ITAR-TASS)

ITAR-TASS reports Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov and his U.S. counterpart Robert Gates will meet for a total of 5 hours today.  And the Russian press service concludes: 

“This is highly unusual and attests to the great significance the U.S. Defense Department attaches to the visit.” 

Aside from all the customary ceremonies, there will be three sets of talks today.  The morning session is dedicated to discussing military reform plans and defense spending on both sides.  ITAR-TASS says the Americans consider this the most important topic from their viewpoint. 

The press service quotes The New York Times saying the two men “simultaneously declared war on longstanding and ineffective bureaucratic organizations,” adding that they’ll find a common language as they compare their efforts. 

A working lunch will be devoted to nuclear arms control and missile defense.  RIA Novosti quoted a Defense Department spokesman who said you can’t meet Russians without discussing missile defense, but it won’t be the main topic of the visit.  Today’s afternoon session will cover a variety of regional and global security problems.  Serdyukov will visit an unspecified U.S. Army base as well as the Naval Academy. 

In an interview published in today’s Kommersant, Gates said: 

“I’ve attentively followed Defense Minister Serdyukov’s reform efforts.  I have the impression that the scale and depth of the reforms he’s conducting correspond to what I’m trying to do in the U.S.  The thing is in the coming years we don’t expect significant budget increases.  Therefore, we have to decide how best to use the resources we have.” 

“I know the Russian Defense Minister has an interest in how to select highly professional soldiers and how to keep them in the armed forces, how to exert command and control of the armed forces in order to strengthen national security.  This is especially complicated in the face of economic problems standing before each of our countries.” 

Apparently, Gates doesn’t understand precisely.  The Defense Ministry already has an answer — to jettison its failed professional contract service program, return to reliance on conscripted soldiers, and see if they can train and retain some professional NCOs. 

Asked if Russia’s a threat to the U.S. and about its new ballistic missiles, Gates replied:  

“No.  I don’t view Russia as a threat.  We are partners in some areas and competitors in others.  But we cooperate on important issues.” 

Good answer. 

“From the viewpoint of our program modernization the new SOA agreement is a great achievement.  Just as the agreements which preceded it.  They establish rules of the game which provide transparency and predictability.  Modernization programs within the bounds of the new SOA agreement are absolutely normal.  We’ll conduct our own modernization. 

Asked about cooperation on missile defense and the Gabala radar specifically, Gates said the U.S. is interested in Gabala and in the possibility of establishing a missile launch data exchange center [JDEC] in Moscow.