Ashton Carter has clearly thought to end debate among US top brass on ranking Russia in hierarchy of threats and crafting the U.S. military's new strategy toward Russia in his August 20 remarks.In those remarks Carter calls Russia an “existential threat,” but notes that this threat is not new because Russia has had nukes for decades. What’s new, according to Carter, is Putin’s antagonistic behavior and US is responding to that by adoping a new “strong, but balanced” strategy of being prepared to confront Russia’s aggressive behavior, but also cooperating on issues of common vital interest. I believe Carter’s formulation of strategy is in line the approach advocated by the realist school of American thought and is more sound than the neocons’ calls for full-blown containment. Note, how deft he is. On one hand, Carter avoids publicly overruling those of outgoing and ingoing top military commanders and officials who have described Russia as an existential threat, but on the other hand he puts the threat into perspective by noting that it has been always of existential nature ever since Russia acquired enough nukes to destroy U.S. Also note how he avoids calling Russia the main threat. By doing so, he implicitly shows he doesn't necessarily agree with those of his subordinates (such as Secretary of Air Force), who have referred to Russia as the "main threat.":
Q: Generals Dunford, Milley and Breedlove have said recently that Russia is the number one threat to the United States, not ISIL. Do you agree with that assessment? And if so, why? And if that is the case, are we doing enough to deal with that threat?
SEC. CARTER: Well, it is a very, very significant threat, and it is — and I think a point that they’ve made, but I would certainly make, it — Russia poses a existential threat to the United States by virtue simply of the size of the nuclear arsenal that it’s had.
Now, that’s not new. What’s new — and I think also that they were pointing to and where I agree with them — is that for a quarter century or so, since the end of the Cold War, we have not regarded Russia as an antagonist. Vladimir Putin’s Russia behaves, in many respects, as — in some respects and in very important respects, as an antagonist. That is new. That is something, therefore, that we need to adjust to and counter. And we’re doing that in an approach that I’ve called strong and balanced. And let me take the strong part first.
The strong part means we are adjusting our capabilities qualitative and in terms of their deployments, to take account of this behavior of Russia. We are also working with NATO in new ways, a new playbook, so to speak, for NATO, which has been preoccupied with Afghanistan for the last decade or so, more oriented towards deterrence on its eastern border and with hardening countries at the — on the borders of Russia, NATO members and non-NATO members, to the kind of hybrid warfare influence or little green man kind of influence that we see associated with Russia in Ukraine. So that’s the strong part.
And the balanced part is we continue to work with Russia because you can’t paint all their behavior with one brush. There are places where they are working with us: in counterterrorism in many important respects, in some respects, with respect to North Korea, in some respects with respect to Iran and elsewhere.
So where Russia sees its interests as aligned with ours, we can work with them and will continue to do that. And then we’ll continue to hold open the door so that if either under Vladimir Putin or some successor of his in the future, there’s a leadership that wants to take Russia in the direction that, I believe, is best for Russia, which is not one of confrontation with the rest of the world and self- isolation, which is the path they’re on now, but better economic and political integration with the rest of the world in a way that still keeps the wonderful history and culture and so forth and greatness of Russia in tact that that leadership do so.
So that’s our strategy with respect to Russia. And, you know, it’s not something, Tom — and I think this is what they were reflecting in their testimony — that for a quarter century, we thought we’d have to do, but it is. And so we are. And so they’re absolutely right. That’s an adjustment that we need to make.