Former Pentagon chief: US shares blame for poor relations with Russia

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The United States is as much to blame for the state of U.S.-Russia relations as the Kremlin, a former Defense secretary under former President Bill Clinton said Thursday.

“It’s as much our fault as it is the fault of the Russians, at least originally,” said William Perry, who served as Defense secretary from 1994 to 1997. “And it began when I was secretary.”

Perry, who was speaking to reporters at a roundtable hosted by the Defense Writers Group, also lamented the lack of military-to-military communications between the two countries and doubted the United States could work with Russia in Syria.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin has caused the recent rifts in relations by annexing Crimea and backing rebels in Ukraine, Perry said, the United States has done plenty over the last 20 years that caused Russia to feel disrespected.

“The problems today I think are mostly ... Russian actions,” he said. “Entering Ukraine, threatening the Baltic nations, threatening the use of nuclear weapons — all those I think I put on the scoreboard of the Russians as being errors and things that are aggravating this deteriorating relationship.

“But if you look over a 20-year period and put the scoreboard together, there are at least as many American mistakes as there were Russian.”

Specifically, Perry cited the expansion of NATO and the decision to send U.S.-led NATO forces to Bosnia in 1996 as the start of the downfall of U.S.-Russia relations.

Prior to that, he said, relations were going well, including four joint military exercises between Russia and NATO.

“We were on the way to forging a really positive and solid relationship between the U.S. troops, and then in 1996 we announced we were going to expand NATO, which, as I said, I’m not opposed to in general, but it was premature,” he said. “That was the first move down the slippery slope.”

Still, in Bosnia, the United States and Russia came to an agreement to operate under the same command, thereby avoiding any potential disastrous accidents between the two nations, Perry said.

He doubts that could happen in Syria today.

“You cannot imagine getting that decision today that we got back in 1997, '96,” he said.

Despite issues between the two countries, Perry said it’s “stupid” the United States cut off military-to-military communications after the crisis in Ukraine.

“It’s been true for decades — it’s still true today and true not just for Russia, but for China and others, as well — whenever there’s a political upset between the two countries, the first thing that goes is the military-to-military relations,” he said. “It’s a political statement, ‘We’re going to cut off a military-to-military relationship.’ It’s stupid, but that’s what we do. That’s the time when you need you’re military to military relations most of all.”