The E-Ring

Friendly Foes: U.S.-Russia military relations soaring

As the final two presidential debates turn toward foreign policy, starting tonight, one major divergent point between President Obama and Mitt Romney still not fully explored by the candidates is Romney’s claim that Russia is America’s “number one geopolitical foe.”   So the E-Ring reached out to the top U.S. military officer in charge of ...

Ensign Carissa Guthrie/Released
Ensign Carissa Guthrie/Released

As the final two presidential debates turn toward foreign policy, starting tonight, one major divergent point between President Obama and Mitt Romney still not fully explored by the candidates is Romney’s claim that Russia is America’s “number one geopolitical foe.”
So the E-Ring reached out to the top U.S. military officer in charge of the vast majority of U.S.-Russian military interactions, Rear Admiral Mark C. Montgomery, deputy director for plans, policy, and strategy at U.S. European Command (EUCOM), to see what he thinks.
As it turns out, the U.S. military interacts almost daily with Russian forces — in training, exercising, building personal relationships, and performing real-world national security missions side-by-side. According to Montgomery, things have never been better between the old Cold War foes.
“We did about 50 events last year, and this year we’ve already accomplished more than that. I imagine we’ll be somewhere north of 70 events by the end of the year. So, a very robust, cooperative effort between our militaries,” Montgomery said.
Beyond those specific events, Montgomery said Russia is cooperating extensively with the U.S. in other tangible ways that benefit U.S. security, including allowing war supplies into Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network and joining counterterrorism efforts and counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa.
And that’s just in European Command. Other regional commands have their own events and relationships, including Pacific Command, North American Aerospace Defense Command, and Northern Command.
Montgomery has a decent idea of how far the U.S.-Russian relationship has come. His father was the U.S. naval attaché to Moscow in the early 1980s and Montgomery has lived there.
“I find that the relationship is significantly improved since 1981,” he said, tongue-in-cheek.
So does the rhetoric from President Vladimir Putin, American politicians or candidates resonate amid the actual ongoing military relations between Russia and the United States?
“Generally at our level it’s all business,” Montgomery said.

Indeed, the week of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, as Mitt Romney was again hitting hard on Russia, Russian officers were encamped in NORAD headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo., training for an airline hostage scenario over Russian and U.S. airspace.

So much of Montgomery’s job is about promoting what military folks call “key leader engagement.” From the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on down the ranks, officers regularly meet with Russian counterparts, he said, “because this is personal.”
“One of the reasons we have our combatant commands like EUCOM forward deployed is so we can build and maintain these relationships, and it allows these kind of military-to-military engagements to operate — I wouldn’t say below the radar, but it operates on a constant drumbeat.”
Montgomery has seen a “strong personal relationship” between Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey and his counterpart, Gen. Nikolay Makarov.
In the last two and half years, as Obama pressed the “reset” button with Russia and conservatives have sounded alarms at Putin’s less-than-receptive response, the number of military-to-military engagements has increased steadily, if quietly.  More importantly, Montgomery argued, so has their depth.
“The maritime ones tend to be fairly deep in their level of technical engagement,” he said, reflecting the long Cold War history of naval relations, “where say, the ground ones and [special operations forces] ones are still fairly young exercises that do a lot more walk-thru than detailed exercising. But as they go year to year, they get more complicated.”
Despite the rhetoric out of Moscow indicating less cooperation than Washington wants on Iran, Syria, nuclear weapons, or missile defense, Montgomery said he has seen no intent from either side to slow down military exercises.
Not all exercises are they same. They can range from six officers in a schoolhouse, table-top war game to a full-scale naval drill involving 5,000 sailors and officers from several countries, in which hundreds of U.S. officers get face-to-face time with Russian counterparts.
Most recently, the exercise “Northern Eagle” involved Russia, Norway, and the U.S., including some arctic cooperation and basic naval skills, maritime intercepts, and search and rescue exercises. Another event, called “Atlas Vision” is considered “a building block” tabletop exercise for military staffers planning how U.S. and Russian forces can work together. The U.S. special operations command at EUCOM also recently conducted an airborne exercise in Colorado this year, and Russia is expected to reciprocate by hosting a similar event next year.
Where the rhetoric could affect reality is if the U.S. or Russia decided to pull out of some engagements.
“The principle behind a lot of these exercises is building our interoperability and our ability to rapidly deploy together to do a mission,” Montgomery said. “So if you were to have a significant reduction in your interaction, your ability when you decide to do something for a global security purpose, such as a counter-piracy patrol or a counterterrorism event, you’ll have reduced your ability to rapidly integrate forces and demonstrate your interoperability in a combat or operational environment.”
Montgomery said the ability to work with the Russian navy on the counter-piracy mission off of Africa directly traces back to years of performing six or seven exercises a year and more events of other kinds.
“My experience is that our both day-to-day and exercise interactions with the Russians led to a much more fluid and effective integration of the Russians into the counter-piracy efforts,” he said.
Pentagon officials declined several E-Ring requests to interview the Defense Department’s top Russia policy official, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Evelyn Farkas, for this article.

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron