Monday, May 5, 2014

My Afternoon With SACEUR

I spent the latter part of the afternoon today at an event at the Canadian War Museum where the Supreme Allied Commander Europe [SACEUR], the military head of NATO, Gen. Phillip Breedlove gave a talk.  It was mostly Q&A as his talk was quite short.  He was quite willing to say stuff that was mildly controversial but stayed away from any topics that would get anybody's domestic politics in a twist (nothing on Canada's mil budget being waaaaay short of the 2% GDP NATO guideline, for instance).  He did suggest that the events of late indicate that countries need to change their budgeting assumptions.

The most significant points:
  • He said Russian special operations forces, unequivocally, are operating in Eastern Ukraine, just as they did in Crimea.  He did not say that the missiles that brought down Ukrainian helos were fired by these folks, but said instead that the weapons might have been taken from Ukrainian arsenals.
  • He very clearly called it all Russian aggression.  No mincing words on this.
  •  NATO's theme is strategic adaptation, just as NATO adapted in Afghanistan, it will have to adapt to a hostile Russia (no longer a partner) that uses unconventional strategies.
  • NATO must be responsive--meaning moving troops and planes quickly.  The problem, he admitted, is that responsiveness is expensive.  I was tempted to ask about the hollowing out of the Canadian Forces (that money is not being spent on readiness). 
  • Need to be transparent in our moves so that Russia is not provoked but still provide reassurance to our allies.
  • He did suffer from acronym disease--not everyone knows what the NRF is.  Same with various names for NATO operations.
  • Ukraine did benefit from partnership (even if no security guarantee) via training, working together in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
  • In response to question from Liberal Defence Critic Joyce Murray, Breedlove said that the lesson of World War One is tha tconflict does not go away, that folks will try to change borders.
  • Putin may not need to engage in conventional invasion, as subversion and proxies doing the job just fine.  Danger is for some NATO countries to return to status quo ante--treat relations with Russia as business as usual.
  • EU rep asked a question, and Breedlove was kind enough not to scoff at EU security and defense efforts (I can do so because I have tenure).
I got to hand Breedlove a copy of NATO in Afghanistan before he left.  Mission accomplished.

Otherwise, some networking, chatting, and a free beer.  I could have asked either really arcane questions about wearing double hats or pesky ones about intra-NATO spats.  Instead, I let others ask questions.  I kind of wish he did what General Craddock did about six years ago--have a meeting with the Canadian command staff and a few random academics (as long as it included me), as I learned a great deal from that experience.  Still, Breedlove was fairly blunt within certain limits.


Anonymous said...

If NRF is an example, people in the audience on a talk about NATO should have known what it is. It isn't his job to appeal to the lowest common denominator. If people listen to military types and are lost in acronyms, they can feel free to look them up. They'll be smarter for it.

Steve Saideman said...

Given that the NRF has not made news ... ever in terms of real deployments, he could have spelled it out the first time. The audience was a mix, as many audiences are. As someone who has researched NATO for the past seven years, I can honestly tell you the NRF never came up. There were a couple of other phrases that were not so clear that he could have mentioned just once. Overall, it was a good talk and very clear Q&A, but the audience was not one of NATO operatives in Brussels.