Having served in Korea and Afghanistan, NATO’s new military chief Curtis Scaparrotti is well prepared for the role. He is a thoughtful person, said a former comrade, but that shouldn’t lead Russia to underestimate him.
Handling an unstable dictator who repeatedly threatens to push the red button and launch nuclear strikes against neighboring states in a volatile region is probably as good a primer on managing NATO's complex military affairs with a resurgent Russia as one can get these days.
In the past two and half years, Curtis Scaparrotti, as the commander of US forces on the Korean peninsula, had to carefully try to square US interests in the region with the interests of his host country, South Korea, but also with the often diverging views of major players, like China and Japan; all against the backdrop of an increasingly unpredictable North Korean regime situated across a heavily armed border.
"I would say dealing with the Koreans and the Chinese and the Japanese and others in that region is quite complex," said Guy Swan, a retired military officer who studied with Scaparrotti at West Point, the US army's military academy. "And because of that I think he will readily understand the complexity of the European environment, especially with regard to the Russians."
Equally important for his new position is Scaparrotti's experience in Afghanistan where he headed the joint command of ISAF, the NATO-led international mission tasked with stabilizing the country, from 2011 to 2012. "So he is not a newcomer to the NATO environment," said Swan.
Given his previous posts in Korea and Afghanistan, NATO's new Supreme Allied Commander is well suited to manage the two key challenges facing the transatlantic military alliance, said Carlo Masala, professor for international politics at Germany's Armed Forces University in Munich:
"How do we organize deterrence vis-a-vis Russia? And how do we organize NATO's forces in a way that they have the continued capabilities to conduct out-of-area operations?"
Balancing NATO's renewed focus on Russia with the ability to operate outside the alliance's territory to counter terrorist threats or provide assistance in the refugee crisis will be the most important task for Scaparrotti, noted Masala.
Advancing these two goals simultaneously within a 28-member alliance is inherently difficult. But the task is further complicated by what Masala calls the internal "rift" among NATO countries on how to handle Russia. While the countries close to Russia view a strong military deterrence, preferably evidenced by a permanent NATO presence in the Baltic countries, as the only means of dealing with Moscow, others favor a mix of deterrence and continued dialogue with Russia, said Masala.
"Under these circumstances it will be an extremely delicate military-political task for Scaparratti to maintain the unity of the alliance," said Masala.
If anyone is prepared to handle the diverging views on how to deal with Russia it is Scaparratti, said his former US army comrade Swan. "He is a very thoughtful individual," he said. "People in the NATO community will appreciate him as an inclusive leader meaning that he listens to all sides, wants and seeks input from all parties, before making decisions."
But, added Swan, the Kremlin - which in his view has repeatedly tried to cause fractures in the alliance in recent years - should not mistake Scaparrotti's consensus-building for timidness. "They are not going to find a leader in General Scaparratti that plays along with that. They will find a leader who is committed to a united alliance, and because of that, they should not underestimate him."