Gen. Joseph Votel spoke about the cease fire in Syria
He says he is "realistic" about working with the Russians
Strains in the US-Russia relationship were on full display Wednesday as officials across Washington aired their concerns about Moscow – a partner on some fronts, a problem on others, perhaps best described as a US “frenemy.”
White House officials, cabinet members and military officials raised questions about how committed Russia is to a nascent Syrian ceasefire agreement, pointed to its invasion of Ukraine as a violation of the international order, spoke about their distrust of Moscow and flatly labeled it a “bad actor” in cyberspace.
“The Russia relationship is extraordinarily complex,” said Vice Adm. Frank Pandolfe, assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“It’s a country that counts and we are working to fashion a relationship that works with them,” Pandolfe said at a security conference arranged by the Institute for the Study of War. He cited areas where Washington and Moscow have cooperated – on the Iran nuclear deal, on sanctioning North Korea and most recently on the ceasefire arrangement in Syria.
“And yet,” Pandolfe said, “there’s another side to this relationship and that’s the transgressions.”
Lisa Monaco, President Barack Obama’s assistant for Homeland Security, on Wednesday addressed one of the most recent suspected transgressions – the apparent role of Russian hackers in a breach of Democratic National Committee emails.
“Look, we know Russia is a bad actor in cyber space, just as China has been, just as Iran has been,” Monaco said in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She said that “folks will have to stay tuned” as to whether Russia would be “named and shamed” for the attacks.
She added a warning: “Nobody should think that there is a free pass when you are conducting malicious cyber activity, just like they shouldn’t think there is a free pass on terrorists.”
Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who has repeatedly expressed skepticism about Russia’s intent in Syria, offered a measured response when asked about the ceasefire plan Wednesday in Austin, Texas.
“We’ve got a ways to go to see whether it will be implemented,” Carter said, “but if it is, it will mean that the suffering of the Syrian people is eased. It will mean that Russia gets on the right side of things in Syria, not on the wrong side, and that’s good news.”
Some of the military’s highest-ranking officers, speaking at the Institute of War’s security conference, were less circumspect about Russia’s role in the ceasefire, a deal reached Friday between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
Under that agreement, if calm holds until Monday, the US and Russia would establish a joint operations center to target ISIS fighters in Syria. It would require the US military to share information with Russian forces and has drawn some resistance from the Pentagon.
Asked about the agreement, Pandolfe responded, “This isn’t an agreement of trust. There is a deficit of trust. And I think we all understand why that is.”
The top US military commander in the Middle East, Gen. Joseph Votel, described himself as “very realistic” about the prospects of US-Russian cooperation and also pointed to “a trust deficit.”
“It is not clear to us what their objectives are,” said Votel, commander of US Central Command, who praised the agreement for providing an opportunity to reduce the violence in Syria. The Russians “say one thing and then they don’t necessarily follow up on that.”
The Centcom commander explained that the arrangement was taking the military into relatively new territory.
“We don’t have lot of experience with this,” he said, adding that they would have to start very deliberately, establishing a process and “ways of passing information back and forth.”
It remains to be seen whether the cooperative effort will work, he said. “I trust that our political leadership will do the right things and make the right calls about whether we should continue to do this or whether we should step away,” Votel said.