Russia Is Beefing Up Its Air Defenses, Top U.S. Air Force General Says
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Here are a few different ways to look at Russia. You can see some of the grandiose moves they've made on the world stage. Several months ago, Russia began a military intervention into Syria. This came after Russia's hostile takeover of Crimea, territory belonging to Ukraine. That prompted a strong warning from President Obama at the U.N. General Assembly last September.
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BARACK OBAMA: Consider Russia's annexation of Crimea and further aggression in eastern Ukraine. America has few economic interests in Ukraine. We recognize the deep and complex history between Russia and Ukraine. But we cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated.
GREENE: But it is also worth watching what Russia is doing more quietly. For one thing, U.S. military officials say Russia has been building up a complex missile defense in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania. This has General Frank Gorenc worried. He's the commander of the U.S. Air Force in Europe and Africa, and I asked him what Russia's military looks like right now.
FRANK GORENC: What we see now is a modernized air force - an air force with pretty good capability, pretty good capacity, and in the end, people that are much better trained, it appears.
GREENE: General, let me just make sure I understand this. If you see Russia doing this kind of building up in places like Crimea, which, you know, of course was part of Ukraine and is now Russian territory, you mentioned Kaliningrad, which is sort of an enclave of Russia very close to Germany and Poland - in what way does that start to hamper what, you know, the United States is doing with its European allies?
GORENC: Well, I think since the Ukraine, obviously, NATO has felt the need to move on a program to increase the readiness and responsiveness of their forces. And of course we would have to be concerned about it.
GREENE: But don't the U.S. and Russian militaries talk to each other right now? I mean, we've certainly reported on that in Syria. I guess I just wonder, why would you fear a shootdown of an American plane near Kaliningrad, for example, if these militaries communicate with one another?
GORENC: My area of command is not in Syria, but we are communicating in that, you know, we're attempting to de-conflict operations. But there's no kind of operation where we're doing things together. We're just de-conflicting in that case.
GREENE: OK, so there would still be, I mean, enough fear of sort of, you know, an accident happening if you were to fly near surface-to-air missiles that Russia had set up in a place like Kaliningrad, right in the center of Europe.
GORENC: Yeah, of course. I mean, that's always an issue. I mean, there's plenty of examples where there were mistakes made.
GREENE: What do you think Russia's doing? Why are they building up in places like this?
GORENC: Well, I mean, it's hard to tell. I mean, from my point of view, the Russians see themselves as a global power. And in order to maintain that great power status, apparently, you know, they are demonstrating that they can be on the global stage, I guess, for lack of a better word.
GREENE: For Americans who might hear you describing this situation - you know, the U.S. military sort of worrying about where Russia has surface-to-air missiles and changing its behavior and hear that as kind of a sign of weakness and backing away from Russian power - what would you tell Americans to reassure them?
GORENC: Well, I mean, you know, in the end, Russia has no reason really to consider us a threat. And certainly we're not looking for any kind of conflict with Russia. But the facts around the Ukraine and Crimea are simple. I mean, for the first time in a long time in Europe, there's been a changing of international borders through the use of force. The fact of the matter is many of our allies, particularly on the eastern side of NATO, feel threatened. And there's been many good unintended consequences of Russian actions as far as alliance solidarity and the very reason for NATO.
GREENE: If an American hears you and hears you saying, you know, gosh, I have to sort of change where I might order planes to go because of where Russia has put the surface-to-air missiles, that might strike an American as sort of worrisome - feeling like it has sort of the echoes of the Cold War.
GORENC: It shouldn't be worrisome. I think it's just reflective of recent history. I mean, I always tell everybody, in 2014 - the beginning of 2014 - in January, the biggest thing on the plate of the United States and all of our allies, at least in the European side, was the transition of the mission in Afghanistan from combat operations to train, advise and assist. Interestingly enough, by April of that year, the United States and the NATO alliance were dealing with Crimea, were dealing with the stand-up of Daesh...
GREENE: This is what the government calls ISIS, right?
GORENC: ISIS, yes. And then in Africa, the Ebola crisis happened. And all three of those things happened in a single month, and all three of those things required, you know, a response from not just the United States military, but the NATO alliance. I think it's just reflective of history. Things change; the environment changes, you know, and I think it's just a matter of course.
GREENE: General, thanks very much for your time. We really appreciate it.
GORENC: Thank you.
GREENE: That's General Frank Gorenc. He's commander of the U.S. Air Force in Europe and Africa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.