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Gen. Philip Breedlove On How NATO Should Deal With Russia


Let's listen to an American general whose job is to keep an eye on Russia. Philip Breedlove is the supreme allied commander Europe, the head of NATO forces. His job has existed since the aftermath of the Second World War.

I'm remembering things that I have read about General Eisenhower, the first man to hold the job that you now hold.

PHILIP BREEDLOVE: I still sit in his desk, by the way. Ergonomically, it's a horrible desk. But it is really a privilege to sit in the very same desk that he sat in.

INSKEEP: Same chair as well?

BREEDLOVE: No, the chair is different. In fact, I keep banging my knees because of the chair.

INSKEEP: The job was created to coordinate Europe's defenses against the Soviet Union. When the Soviets collapsed, many people asked what the point of NATO was. But few ask that now, as Russia demands General Breedlove's full attention. Breedlove has watched Russia's seizure of Crimea, then its aid to Ukrainian separatists and then its intervention in Syria. And in the general's mind, it's all connected. Breedlove says Russian warplanes went to Syria partly as a distraction.

BREEDLOVE: I think that the - Russia is there to take the vision away from Ukraine. Look at what we're doing in Syria. Never mind what's happening over here in Ukraine, much like they wanted people to forget talking about Crimea and the fact that they occupied a Ukrainian peninsula. And so I think, partially, this is to deflect attention of what continues to go on in Ukraine.

INSKEEP: General Breedlove sees many reasons that Russian President Vladimir Putin sent forces to Syria, in fact. And fighting ISIS is at the bottom of the list. Of course, that's the priority the United States cares about the most.

Do you think you understand, in a broad sense, what Putin wants?

BREEDLOVE: So I have said several times before - and I'm sure that some learned folks would challenge my concept - but I really don't think anyone truly understands what Mr. Putin is about. And I'm suspect when someone walks up to me and says, Mr. Putin wants this or Mr. Putin wants that. We watch the capabilities and the capacities that he builds in these places. And from those capabilities and capacities, we can deduce what he might want to do. And so we looked at the force he built up when he went into Crimea. We look at the force that he has built up in Syria. And we take a look at that and deduce that he can take the following actions or make the following influence. And that's how I try to determine where Mr. Putin might be headed.

INSKEEP: So when you try to figure out what Russia's doing in Syria, you start with several dozen warplanes and work out from there, in effect.

BREEDLOVE: Right. Well, and it's - as you know, it's more than several dozen warplanes. He did a pretty good job of laying in the infrastructure in order to support that effort - housing, putting in air defense capabilities and building up the capability to try to sustain that effort.

INSKEEP: Meaning they intend to be there for a while.

BREEDLOVE: At least now it looks like they do because they are continuing to resupply the effort.

INSKEEP: So on what level is Russia really cooperating with the United States right now?

BREEDLOVE: Cooperation is not the word that I would use. I would not use that word. We are not cooperating. We have developed a safety regime with them to ensure the de-confliction of our aircraft, et cetera, in the sky. But cooperation is not the word.

INSKEEP: OK, so safety regime, that is some way - although the details have not been released - of keeping each other informed of where each other's planes are so that you don't accidentally shoot somebody down.

BREEDLOVE: What I would say is that we have developed the regimens and the procedures to allow us not to come into contact and when we do, how we handle that, how we communicate, how we operate, the things that we do and don't do to be - so as to not look bellicose.

INSKEEP: Once you get past that problem, there is the question of where each side's bombs are landing and missiles are landing and whether that makes sense or they're at cross purposes. Are you remotely close to agreeing on who you should be attacking in Syria and who you should be leaving alone?

BREEDLOVE: Well, we clearly know who we're attacking. We're attacking ISIL. As you know, Russia announced when they went in that they were attacking ISIL. But we saw that their rhetoric was not matching their actions. I have seen Russia's own publicly categorized data on this. One could derive that they're hitting about 80 percent non-ISIL targets. I actually think the number is higher than that. But the bottom line is that clearly their main effort is not against ISIL. Their main effort is against the moderate opposition. And in effect, that provides a little bit of de-confliction in the area anyway. We are bombing ISIL where ISIL is. And they're bombing the moderate opposition where the moderate opposition is.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to suppress a cynical laugh. That actually sounds rather horrible. I mean, it's dismaying. What is the worst-case scenario that you feel you have to be prepared for?

BREEDLOVE: The thing that worries me is a snap exercise or an exercise that turns into an invasion. Remember that for almost two decades, we have been trying to make partners out of Russia. And what we realize now is that we do not have a partner in Russia. And so now we have to refocus our intelligence and redevelop those indications and warnings that make sure we don't get surprised.

INSKEEP: General Breedlove, thanks very much.

BREEDLOVE: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: General Philip Breedlove is the head of the U.S. European Command and NATO's supreme allied commander. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.