(Note: This interview was conducted Jan. 25, 2016. Adm. Ferguson was relieved by Adm. Michelle Howard on June 7, 2016.)
Edward Lundquist: There are many ways a nation can act so as to increase regional stability and reduce ambiguity. It would appear that Russia’s strident language and their threats and dangerous actions aren’t contributing to that stability.
Adm. Mark Ferguson: Certainly they’re not. We see it in their support for the Assad regime in Syria, and the bombing of civilians in that area which contributes to the refugee crisis that Europe, Turkey and Jordon are dealing with. It’s making the situation more unstable by the effects that it’s creating.
Lundquist: So how do we responsibly counter that influence or those actions?
Ferguson: First, we need to offer our allies a measure of assurance. We do that in many ways. We hold exercises such as BALTOPS in the Baltic. Last year, we had 49 ships from many nations. We conducted the theater ballistic missile shot last fall off of the UK, with nine nations, the first time outside the United States. We’re bringing back major U.S. and NATO ASW exercises in the Mediterranean this year to rebuild our proficiency at the high end of ASW. I’m seeing a desire to return to the high end of proficiency in warfighting which is a direct result of the view of the Russian actions in Europe. The other piece is our operations in the Black Sea and the Baltic, and not ceding maritime space in the maritime flanks. We send ships into the Black Sea routinely and we exercise the NATO maritime groups up there. The second piece is what the alliance calls adaptability – how do we transform the alliance. The challenges on NATO’s flanks are maritime challenges. I am seeing a renewed emphasis in nations investing in their navies. We are also seeing nations express interest in the ballistic missile defense systems, including the sensors, the software, and the interceptors.
You have to look at it in terms of their strategic goals including the re-establishment of Russia as a global player, both in the Middle East and in Europe. They’re on a timeline because of the impact of sanctions, of the diplomatic and economic isolation, and their own demographic issues and economic issues.
We had a high level of Russian submarine activity in the North Atlantic this year, as well as the Baltic, Mediterranean and Black Sea. We’ve had the Russian Kilos transit through the Mediterranean, that’s been very public. They have stated their goal of putting six in the Black Sea. We think those boats will operate in the Med, so we see their activity increasing here.
We have had contributions from France, the UK, Norway, and Canada, working together as part of various ASW task organizations. We also held Incidents at Sea agreement talks with the Russians here last June, and those were done in a very professional way.
Lundquist: Have we had the opportunity to use those procedures in any encounters with the Russian navy at sea?
Ferguson: Yes, we have used the procedures, signals and communications in the Black Sea and the Eastern Med.
Lundquist: So what do you think the Russians are trying to tell us?
Ferguson: You have to look at it in terms of their strategic goals including the re-establishment of Russia as a global player, both in the Middle East and in Europe. They’re on a timeline because of the impact of sanctions, of the diplomatic and economic isolation, and their own demographic issues and economic issues. They look to the West and they see unity, they see liberal democracies, the rule of law and constitutional governments and they see this value system that is perceived as an existential threat to their government. They write their military doctrine as a reflection of viewing the European Union and NATO as a threat to them. Their investments in the militarization of the Arctic with bases, then all the way down through Kaliningrad on the Baltic, Crimea in the Black Sea, and on their border, are following their doctrine and their grand strategy.
Lundquist: You mentioned Crimea. Did the annexation catch everyone by surprise? Did anybody see that coming?
Ferguson: Russia has used non-political means, disinformation, use of populations to rise up against the government, and the use of military forces as a deceptive backup to non-attributable actions. Crimea followed that playbook where the use of Special Forces units without identification or uniform badges and were not readily identifiable, blended in with local resistance movements, creating ambiguity. Their very intense information campaign goes after the ability of someone to understand they’re under attack and the need to move very quickly. So it did catch people by surprise because of their ambiguity. This happened in Ukraine, where the resistance in Donetsk and Luhansk were trained by and integrated with those Russian forces. They brought Russian troops in; used logistic supplies from Russia; with the infrastructure and communications all supported by Russia. In that case, I think Russia was a bit surprised in that the West did not roll over – it stiffened its backbone and the Ukrainians have stopped them and are holding them along that line.
They are basically putting up a military stop sign, almost denying the ability of NATO to move within its own territory. All these actions have this underlying theme of halting the advance of the EU and NATO into these border countries that Russia views as their buffer to the west.
Lundquist: It is a stalemate right now?
Ferguson: At the present it’s a frozen conflict. But if Russia views the EU and NATO as a threat, then their goal would be to tie us down, create these frozen conflicts, and demonstrate strength, by putting these advanced air defense systems and advanced cruise missile systems in areas along the border. They are basically putting up a military stop sign, almost denying the ability of NATO to move within its own territory. All these actions have this underlying theme of halting the advance of the EU and NATO into these border countries that Russia views as their buffer to the west.
Lundquist: I imagine Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia are concerned.
Ferguson: The countries are concerned because they’re right on the border with Russia. Estonia and Latvia and have a significant percentage of Russian or Russian speaking people that has some affinity to Russia. So we are putting the NATO force integration units there, we’re exercising in those countries, and we’re placing pre-positioned equipment in certain countries. It’s really about how we show resolve, and how we show our commitment to be ready to respond. Crimea taught us about the Russian emphasis on speed and creating ambiguity, and then shrouding these things in an information ops campaign that tries to slow down decision-making. We need to examine how we can speed up our decision-making, and how we put things forward. If we do get into heightened tensions with Russia, there will be a massive cyber campaign, an information campaign, and activity in areas other than the pure military sense.
Lundquist: How can our allies participate in ballistic missile defense (BMD), and what does the European Phased Adaptive mean for region?
Ferguson: We’re integrating the system at Deveselu in Romania into the BMD architecture within Europe. On the U.S. side, we’re integrating Aegis Ashore with U.S. Air Forces Europe at Ramstein in Germany and our forward deployed DDGs based at Rota. On the NATO side, we’re integrating with Strike Forces NATO and AIRCOM. And for the first time, the Surface Navy has a strategic mission that is on-call for the defense of Europe. Our sailors rotate from the states to man Aegis Ashore. When the site reports to NATO, there will be NATO officers in the command and control aspects of that operation.