Robert Gates is one of our country’s great leaders. I first met him when he spoke at my nephew’s graduation from the United States Naval Academy in 2007. His speech that day was so thoughtful and compelling that I stood in line for an hour in the sweltering heat so that I could shake his hand and meet him. I have since followed his career closely, and have been amazed to watch him navigate the job of Secretary of Defense under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama during some extremely challenging times for our armed forces. I have just finished his outstanding book Duty Memoirs of a Secretary at War. Although it is a lengthy read, it is a profoundly honest and straightforward account of his service under these two presidents. His insights as a leader are invaluable and I imagine will be the basis for future classes on leadership at many of our country’s finest universities.
In a recent Op-Ed published in the Wall Street Journal, Gates offers a clear-eyed, unblinking analysis of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent annexation of Crimea, as well as a warning to Western leaders that responding to his naked aggression with weakness and division will have dire consequences down the road.
Gates met with Putin a number of times during his career in public service, and in his view Putin is playing a grudge match and a long game against the West, seeking to redress his nation’s loss of the Cold War. In particular, Putin blames the United States for the collapse of the Soviet Union, an event he calls the “worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” While he does not aspire to recreate the old Soviet Union, he does want to bring certain now-independent states back into Moscow’s orbit and restore Russia’s global power and influence. Because of its size and because of Kiev’s historic role as the birthplace of the Russian Empire more than a thousand years ago, Ukraine is key to Putin’s vision of a pro-Russian bloc.
Western response to Putin’s land grab in Crimea has so far been “anemic.” Seizing the assets of a few of Putin’s oligarch cronies and restricting their travel will do little to change the overall game plan. According to Gates, the message now seems to be that if Russia does not move troops into eastern Ukraine, Putin’s seizure of Crimea will stand. If this comes to pass, Gates expects Putin to continue to threaten and dominate other neighboring states on an opportunistic basis and with utter ruthlessness.
Gates outlines a number of steps needed to counter Putin’s ambitions, including reduction of Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas; meaningful economic sanctions, including ones that will cost the West; and strengthening and reinforcing NATO allies bordering Russia.
Above all else, “[t]he aggressive, arrogant actions of Vladimir Putin require from Western leaders strategic thinking, bold leadership and steely resolve—now.”
Gates is one of the great leaders in the world today. When he speaks, we should all listen.
Read Robert Gates’ op ed here: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303725404579460183854574284 (Subscription required.)