As US pivots to Asia, Britain warns not to forget Russia

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As the United States pivots its military might toward Asia, Washington and its allies should not forget that Russia remains an unpredictable global player, Britain's defense minister cautioned Thursday.

Calling it "perhaps the single most important strategic challenge" facing Europe, British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond voiced concern about Russia shortly before President Barack Obama announced a major realignment of US strategy.

Driven by plans for a $487 billion cut in American defense spending over the next decade, the new strategy will cut back US ground forces and shift military resources to meet a rising China, continuing a trend of de-emphasizing Europe.

"If the US is going to see its focus drawn increasingly to the Asia Pacific region, how does it secure the backyard?" Hammond asked an audience at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.

"How does it ensure that Russia is locked into a system of global governance and collaboration, which means we can coexist peacefully and resolve our differences through structures that do not lead to conflict?

"I am not sure we have an answer to that yet," he said. "That is going to be one of the big challenges: how that relationship is managed forward."

Despite Obama's attempt to "reset" relations with Russia after its brief war with Georgia in 2008, they have remained rocky, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin threatening to boycott a May NATO summit in Chicago over US missile defense plans.

Hammond said it was not known whether the differences over missile defenses were insurmountable or whether Putin would go through with his threat to stay away from Chicago.

Political discontent in Russia also has sharpened the tensions, with Putin recently accusing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of instigating mass protests against the outcome of last month's Russian parliamentary elections.

"We should not forget that although the threat of Soviet Communism has passed, Russia as a nation still exists," Hammond said. "It is still an important global player, the intentions of which are not entirely clear or predictable at this stage."

"Certainly some of our NATO allies, the Baltic states, would urge us not to take our eye off of that potential set of future challenges as we reconfigure our security and defense posture to deal with challenges we are immediately facing," he said.

The US strategy review hints at reducing the military's footprint in Europe, without offering any details. "In keeping with this evolving strategic landscape, our posture in Europe must also evolve," it said.

Hammond, who has been defense secretary for only about 10 weeks, acknowledged that sharply reduced defense budgets, both in the United States and Europe, are a fact of life for the foreseeable future.

He said the Europeans should respond to the prospects of large-scale US cuts, including the possibility of troop reductions in Europe, "in a mature way, not in a histrionic way."

"We need to understand why the United States needs to do what it is doing, and we need to make the case... for continuing the Atlantic Alliance even while recognizing that some of the new strategic challenges are elsewhere in the world," Hammond said.

At the same time, he observed that the biggest security challenges over the past decade have come from "failing states, chaotic sub-regions."

"And the truth is most of those failing states, potential failing states, chaotic sub-regions are in our backyard, not yours. But they threaten you at least as much as they threaten us."

The United States found after invading Iraq in 2003 that it had insufficient troops for the drawn out conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The new strategy said US forces will no longer be sized for prolonged, counter-insurgency warfare.

© 2012 AFP

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