During the US Senate confirmation hearing for the Supreme Commander of NATO in 2013, Philip Breedlove said he saw Russia as only the sixth most important challenge for his job. In the two years since, all that changed.
Deutsche Welle's Tim Sebastian flew to NATO headquarters in Mons, Belgium, to quiz the US Air Force General about NATO involvement in the Ukraine crisis (or lack thereof) and intelligence failures with regards to Russia.
Sebastian got right to the point: "How do you have critical gaps where Russia is concerned?"
"I think it's actually very easy to understand," Breedlove responded. "Remember that… for 14 to 20 years, we've been trying to make a partner out of Russia, and all this time, trying to bring them into a family of values and morals that we can understand."
“"Mistakenly, as it turned out," quipped Sebastian.
NATO is dealing with major security challenges on multiple fronts. There are more than 13,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan; a quick-response force of 5,000 was activated last year while military was built up in Eastern European nations “to respond to challenges posed by Russia"; and just days before the interview, Russian jets flew into NATO airspace over Turkey.
In charge is Philip Mark Breedlove, the current NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and a four-star General in the US Air Force. Based in Mons, Belgium, Breedlove was born in 1955 in Atlanta, Georgia. He studied civil engineering, aeronautical technology and security studies and flew F-16s in the Air Force.
Russian intervention in Syria
NATO and the Americans were taken by surprise when Russia launched a military intervention in Syria on September 30, 2015. Since the civil war started in 2011, 250,000 people have been killed and more than half of Syria's population were displaced.
"The impression seems to be that the Russians are calling - literally calling - the shots at the moment," said Tim Sebastian during the interview. "They tell Washington and they tell the Coalition that they are just putting in a few men and supplies into Syria. Next thing you know they are engaged in the largest military intervention in the Middle East in decades."
"Correct," Breedlove responded.
"And they just didn’t happen to mention it to you?" Sebastian asked.
"No," said Breedlove.
Hospital bombing in Kunduz
Breedlove also gave surprising answers to questions about a controversial attack by an American military plane of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in northeast Afghanistan on October 3. Fighting in Kunduz followed a Taliban offensive that overran the city of Kunduz and the strike by the US plane left 22 dead. Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French acronym MSF, called for an independent war crimes probe.
US President Barack Obama apologized for the Kunduz attack, but high-ranking US officials have not previously supported an independent investigation. Immediately after the incident, investigations were opened by NATO, the US Department of Justice, the Pentagon and a combined American-Afghan group.
Breedlove told Deutsche Welle that he supports the investigation called for by Doctors Without Borders, through the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC).
When Sebastian asked about an investigation, "using a fact-finding body set up under the Geneva Conventions, which is what Medecins Sans Frontiers are talking about," General Breedlove responded, “I think this is their absolute right to ask for this investigation."
"And you'd support that?" Sebastian asked.
"We will support it," Breedlove responded, "We're going to support it."
Breedlove added that such an investigation would also receive his personal support.
So does NATO need to change direction in Afghanistan, Ukraine and Syria? Is General Breedlove doing a good job? Watch him answer the toughest questions during the full interview on dw.com on October 14.