DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Can you blame the NATO alliance for feeling a little jittery these days? Russia's military seems to be actively testing the United States and its allies. The Russians deployed a cruise missile that would violate an international arms treaty. Last week, Russian fighter jets buzzed a U.S. warship in the Black Sea. And Russia has a spy vessel that is sailing up near the Eastern Seaboard of the United States - all of this while the U.S. commitment to NATO seems in question. President Trump's defense secretary, James Mattis, told NATO countries if they don't pay a bigger share of defense spending, the United States might moderate its commitment.
Let's talk about this with retired Admiral James Stavridis. He led NATO as supreme allied commander in Europe from 2009 to 2013. Admiral, welcome back to the program.
JAMES STAVRIDIS: Great to be on the show, David.
GREENE: So first of all, what is Russia up to here?
STAVRIDIS: They're pushing. And their strategic objective, frankly, is to separate the United States from Europe, in other words, to break up the NATO alliance. This would be ideal from their perspective because it would give them much more geopolitical influence in Western Europe. So look for them to continue to test, both tactically and politically. That's tactically, what we just saw with the buzzing, with the exercises on the borders. And politically, you're going to see them pushing back on a lot of commentary coming out of the new administration.
GREENE: Why would sending fighter jets buzzing by a U.S. naval warship be an effort to divide the United States from its European allies?
STAVRIDIS: Because it forces the United States to continue to take a confrontational position with Russia, which many of our European allies don't favor. They would rather we lifted the sanctions, move back to a - if you will - a post-Cold War, relatively cooperative relationship with Russia. So anything that maintains tension is more likely to create separation inside the alliance. I think that's part of the Kremlin's strategy here.
GREENE: Now, this is a little different than the narrative we've been hearing. You're saying that Putin actually wants tension with the United States here?
STAVRIDIS: I think what Vladimir Putin wants, above all, is to appear strong inside his own country. Like all political actors, he wants to lead domestically, so that's No. 1. No. 2 is he wants to get out from under the sanctions which were imposed on Russia, which have real bite. So I think Putin would enjoy looking strong, looking like the dominant actor in the relationship. But at the same time, he's not going to ease back on his confrontational stance. He's hoping that President Trump will bend to that.
But I think that's unlikely as we saw just recently in the United Nations where the U.S. U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, gave a very strong statement on Russia. And all of this obviously, David, is in a cocked hat with the departure of the national security adviser, General Flynn, who appeared to be the strongest proponent of warming relations with Russia.
GREENE: So you actually have a replacement who appears to be in line to take that job at the White House, retired Admiral Robert Harward. Is - what are his views on Russia? And how could this change then?
STAVRIDIS: First of all, Bob Harward is someone I've known for over two decades. And there just is not a finer officer in the U.S. Navy. Much of his career, David, has been focused on the Central Command - Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan. In terms of Russia, he's a very clear-eyed observer. And I don't think he is going to be someone who will want to warm relations immediately with Russia.
GREENE: You know, Admiral, Russia is the backdrop to a report that's out this morning from The Wall Street Journal suggesting that U.S. intelligence agencies might not be sharing all of their intelligence and sources and methods with the president of the United States because they're concerned that there could be leaks from the White House to Russia. Is that a problem?
STAVRIDIS: It would be an enormous problem if it were true. But I just find it incredibly unlikely having spent a lifetime around all the U.S. intelligence agencies. I just do not find that credible. I could see where some of our allies might be concerned.
GREENE: Well, if some allies are concerned - if, say, European intelligence agencies don't want to share information with the White House, is that, in a way, what Putin has been hoping for, some kind of division in this alliance?
STAVRIDIS: Exactly right. His goal would be to separate the United States from the European allies. And he's going to use a multi-pronged strategy that at times will be confrontational and at times will appear co-operative.
GREENE: Admiral, let me just end with a simple question. Can you help our listeners understand how worried they should be about Russia right now? There's all this talk of, you know, a new Cold War, and these military provocations certainly seem to suggest that direction in a way.
STAVRIDIS: I don't think that we are going to stumble back into a full-blown Cold War, David. I'm old enough to remember the Cold War, which was millions of troops facing each other across the Fulda Gap in Europe, the two enormous battle fleets playing "Hunt For Red October" around the world. But I do worry about the possibility of cracks emerging in the U.S.-European alignment in general and in the NATO alliance specifically. That's what we need to guard against.
But are we facing some kind of apocalyptic confrontation with Russia? No. We can manage our way through this with a combination of diplomacy and deterrence, but we need to be mindful and clear-eyed about what Russia represents today.
GREENE: Admiral James Stavridis was supreme allied commander in Europe. He's now dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
Admiral, thanks as always.
STAVRIDIS: What a pleasure, David. Thank you.
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