NATO’s 18th Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), General Curtis M Scaparrotti assumed command of Allied Command Operations (ACO) from General Philip M Breedlove at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) on May 4.
The General comes to Europe after leading US forces in South Korea. His service record includes the position of the Director of the Joint Staff. Prior to his tour with the Joint Staff, General Scaparrotti served as Commander, International Security Assistance Force Joint Command and Deputy Commander, US Forces – Afghanistan, the Commanding General of I Corps and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and the Commanding General of the 82nd Airborne Division.
He has commanded forces during Operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), Support Hope (Zaire/Rwanda), Joint Endeavour (Bosnia-Herzegovina), and Assured Response (Liberia). Now he will lead the armed forces of 28 nations on the continent, where tensions are running high enough to make a spark start a fire.
During the ceremony at EUCOM headquarters Mr Scaparrotti said that he would «strengthen» the alliance’s stance in Eastern Europe «against a resurgent Russia».
As the General put it, one of NATO’s biggest challenges was «a resurgent Russia striving to project itself as a world power».
The SACEUR said he expected to have only «limited» communications with the top Russian brass until Moscow begins «adhering again to international norms and laws». According to him, one of his first actions as NATO's commander will be to review the rules of engagement for US and allied forces regarding when to respond with force to safeguard their security.
His comments were made as Russia’s Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that Moscow will set up three new divisions in the west and south by the end of the year to counter NATO forces build-up close to its border.
At a handover ceremony from his predecessor Philip Breedlove, he also said, NATO should consider whether to provide Ukraine with weaponry as it battles self-proclaimed republics in the eastern part of the country. «Having to do with weaponry, I do believe we should support the Ukrainians with what they need to successfully defend their territory and their sovereignty», Scaparrotti noted, adding «I need to assess what weapons are best, what capabilities they can use».
During his nomination hearing before the Senate Committee on Armed Services in April, he also stated, Russia presents the greatest military threat to the United States.
He supported proposals to increase the size of the Army’s permanent deployment in Europe beyond the current two brigades to enhance US military presence near the Russian borders. Mr Scaparrotti told lawmakers that force should be used against Russian aircraft overflying US ships and coming close to aircraft in the proximity of the country’s borders. The General also said he wanted an aircraft carrier strike group to be permanently stationed in the Mediterranean.
Though the General was critical of Russia in his congressional testimony, some officials say they think he will prove to be less outspoken than General Breedlove.
Indeed, his predecessor was evidently too outspoken, often making statements that would fit more a political official than a military leader. General Breedlove believed that Russia «has become an adversary of the West and presents an «existential threat» to the United States and its allies».
His words about NATO being prepared to «fight and win» against Russia «if necessary», attracted public attention.
Breedlove ordered U-2 spy planes start patrolling Russia’s borders in late March.
He told congressmen that that Russia was helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turn the refugee crisis into a «weapon» against the West.
Some of his statements were not greeted with enthusiasm even by major European allies.
It should be noted that the former EUCOM commander has gone much farther than his seniors, for instance Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Perhaps, Mr Breedlove spoke so freely being a lame duck preparing for a political career after retirement. Former head of European Command Wesley Clark unsuccessfully tried that.
Now, what to expect from Mr Scaparrotti? He’ll have to talk with Russian officials, including military leaders. He’ll have to be involved in the talks on Incidents at Sea (1972) Agreement, the 1989 Agreement on the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities, the OSCE Vienna document and lots of other issues related to European security. The General may not take part in contacts with Russian military himself, but he’ll lead the process and give instructions. He’ll be one of the key figures to determine the development of Russia-NATO relationship in the near future. As NATO's new Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Scaparrotti will need to navigate a complicated political environment. The rhetoric has been tough so far. But it hardly serves practical purposes. The General has great responsibility. The US European Command officials always say their mission is to prevent a Cold War and make unthinkable a hypothetical «hot war». On the very same day the General assumed office, Russian and US military made a deal to prevent incidents in the Syrian province of Aleppo. A dialogue between the militaries has stood them in good stead as they conducted operations in that country. If it can be done in Syria, it can be done in Europe. Mr Scaparrotti’s position requires diplomatic skills. His previous assignments make him possess the needed experience. And he has people by his side who are dry behind the ears in dealings with Russia. Ambassador Susan M Elliott, the Civilian Deputy to the Commander and Foreign Policy Advisor (assigned in November 2015). Her previous overseas assignments include Minister Counselor for Political Affairs in Moscow, Russia. She took part in talks with Russian military officials and knows some of them personally. Earlier in her career she reported on conflicts in the countries of the former Soviet Union when she worked in the Office of the Coordinator for Regional Conflicts in the New Independent States. She can use her professional skills to play a positive role.
Rhetoric aside, Mr Scaparrotti does not have to be a warmonger. Major European NATO allies are not chomping at the bit to aggravate the tensions in the regions. He can make a contribution into making Europe a safer place. He has this chance that must not be let slip away.