An Interview with Dr. Evelyn Farkas, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia

by Forum Staff on April 3, 2013

Dr. Evelyn N. Farkas is Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia. She served previously as Senior Advisor to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe/Commander, U.S. European Command, and as Special Advisor for the Secretary of Defense for the NATO Summit. Prior to that, she was a Senior Fellow at the American Security Project. She received her PhD from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1999.

In an interview with The Fletcher Forum, Dr. Evelyn Farkas discusses the successes of the U.S.-Russia “reset” policy, the sticking points in our missile defense strategy, the challenge of Russian involvement in Syria, and her expectations of future Sino-Russian relations. She addresses U.S. policy on Ukraine and Eurasia, as well as provides shrewd advice to young professionals aspiring to careers in public service.


FLETCHER FORUM: The Obama administration sought to renew relations with Russia, recognizing that the US and Russia shared a variety of common interests. What have been some of the successes of the “reset” policy? Why did the early momentum of the “reset” policy stall and what can be done to advance our bilateral relationship?

FARKAS: At the end of the Bush administration there wasn’t much of a relationship with Russia. There were a lot of reasons for that, but the most significant was the Russian war with Georgia during which the U.S. government essentially froze relations with Russia. Since then, the Obama administration readjusted its policy in acknowledgement of our overlapping interests with Russia, which has the largest nuclear arsenal, commands a large area of strategic territory, and they are, after all, Europeans. Consequently, the Obama administration developed a robust bilateral agenda, of which we have achieved important elements, and now we’ve entered the next phase. Our accomplishments to date include the New START Treaty, obtaining Russian support for UN sanctions against Iran, and securing Russia’s help in the UN Security Council with regard to intervention in Libya. On Afghanistan, the Russians contribute to our effort to transport troops and materiel into Afghanistan, and now, of course, out of Afghanistan, through the Northern Distribution Network’s most northern route, which runs through Russia to the Baltics.

What remains to be accomplished from the first ambitious agenda into the second term of the Obama administration is some kind of agreement on missile defense, as well as working with Russia on a post-2014 Afghanistan. At the moment we aren’t on the same track with Russia vis-à-vis Syria and the Russians talk about the Arab Spring in very different terms from the way we talk about it. The administration has been very clear with the Russians that we are committed to missile defense cooperation, which would enhance the security of NATO and Russia. We have put an offer on the table for cooperation and more transparency by setting up two centers with NATO and Russian officers working side-by-side 24/7: one would be a data fusion center and the second would be a planning and operations center. The data fusion center would create and maintain a common operating picture while the planning and operations center would formulate rules of engagement, pre-planned responses, and during times of crisis, would monitor the status of respective MD assets, and coordinate operations to ensure optimal effectiveness of intercepts. The Russians have stated that before practical cooperation they must have specific legally binding guarantees, which would limit our capability to respond to dynamic ballistic missile threats from countries such as Iran; something President Obama has said we will not do. The reality is that we may or may not come to an agreement with Russia on missile defense. We have a very different perception of threat—sadly the Russians perceive us as threatening them—and the missile defense discussion has become enveloped in that threat perception. The United States of course doesn’t see it this way, and we go to great efforts to provide explanations to convince Russia otherwise. However, to date, Russia does not agree with our assessments and explanations.

There are other elements on the bilateral agenda which are not usually discussed publically. We have a robust bilateral defense relationship with Russia through which we are negotiating a joint-training program, and efforts to assist in reforming and professionalizing the Russian military. As Russia moves away from a heavily conscript military, they are interested in setting up a NCO corps and military police corps. We are working with them on this initiative because we believe it is in our interest for Russia to have a professional conventional military, one that will decrease the need to rely on nuclear weapons.

FLETCHER FORUM: The Department of Defense has continued work on the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, but this past Fall, Russia expressed some concerns about continuing with CTR. Has there been any progress to collaboratively advance the program and do they seem inclined to continue with CTR, or do they no longer see the benefits of the program? How is your office, and the U.S. government as a whole, addressing this issue?

FARKAS: The media has misrepresented, or over-simplified, the issue of CTR. They’ve wrapped it up with the Magnitsky Act and the decision to kick USAID out of Russia as a reflection of anti-Americanism. While there is a strand of anti-Americanism in the Russian political environment today that is stronger than before, unfortunately, the root issue here has more to do with Russia’s desire to have parity and be an equal partner. In that vein, the Russian government has asserted that the current CTR Agreement has not kept pace with the changing relationship between our countries. In addition to updating our agreement, Russia proposed we use our CTR relationship to support work in third countries. The United States sees value in continuing and completing its current cooperation and is also interested in possible cooperation related to third countries. From our perspective, the United States supports this approach as long as Russia remains committed to maintaining and improving the same security standards that we were working toward together within Russia. Frankly, we’ve invested a lot in the program and we don’t want Russia to stop the maintenance, training, or security work because that would be a waste of our efforts and of the money we’ve invested on this program in Russia. The bottom line is that we’ll have to come up with a new legal arrangement with the Russian government. I think that we can reach an agreement. To be honest, a lot of those CTR programs were ramping down anyway, so we weren’t surprised. But the manner in which the Russians announced cessation of the program was counterproductive because they didn’t come to us first to explain it before they publically announced it. Russian officials have since explained to me that they were forced to go public with it due to a leak in the Russian media, but in any event it didn’t play very well in the United States and became wrapped up in the storyline of anti-Americanism.

FLETCHER FORUM: Can you address the major sticking points when it comes to missile defense, specifically in relation to the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA)?

FARKAS: When the Obama administration came into office, they reassessed the strategic environment and determined that we needed to refocus our efforts; the reality is that we are most vulnerable, first and foremost, in the allied countries where we have U.S. troops and interests. The result was a collaborative effort with our European allies to build the Phased Adaptive Approach in phases, where our missile defenses would expand as new technologies became available and as the threat expanded. In Lisbon, our Allies agreed to participate in a territorial defense of Europe and contribute what they could on a voluntary basis. In fact, NATO Allies agreed to develop NATO missile defense capability and the EPAA was welcomed as the U.S. national contribution. At the NATO Summit in Chicago this past May, NATO MD became operational so Admiral Stravridis, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, now has missile defense as a NATO capability. Turkey, Spain, Poland, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, and Romania have been very much engaged in terms of contributing their forces and hosting infrastructure. We are pleased to say that EPAA Phases 1-3 are proceeding apace, but to respond to North Korea’s recent nuclear tests, advances in ballistic missile technology, and increasingly hostile rhetoric, President Obama decided to alter our missile defense program.

We will strengthen homeland missile defense by deploying fourteen additional Ground-Based Interceptors (GBIs) in Ft. Greely, Alaska. With the support of the Japanese government, we are planning to deploy an additional radar in Japan. We are restructuring the SM-3 IIB interceptor program into a research and development program and ending our planning for Phase 4 of the European Phased Adaptive Approach. We had planned to deploy SM-3 IIB interceptors to Poland as part of Phase 4, but the timeline for deploying this program had been delayed to at least 2022 due to cuts in congressional funding. The additional GBIs in Alaska will be in place sooner and able to counter the maturing threats from North Korea and Iran. We informed Russia of our decisions after the announcement on March 15. They said they have many questions in order to fully understand the practical effects of our decision. We will continue to work with Russia to answer their questions and hopefully convince them that our plans for Phases 1-3 do not threaten them. As former Secretary of Defense Gates stated, it would be prohibitively expensive to try to build missile defenses to counter Russia’s strategic deterrent.

FLETCHER FORUM: It is critical that the U.S. government and its Russian counterparts keep open lines of communication. With the change of U.S. Secretaries of Defense and State under the second Obama administration, or how has our relationship with Russia evolved, or how do you expect it to change?

FARKAS: Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel know Russia. Some of my interlocutors in the Russian Defense Ministry know Secretary Hagel and expressed their expectations of a very good relationship developing between Secretary Hagel and Minister Shoygu. Secretary Hagel is pragmatic. The Russians that I have dealt with are very pragmatic, especially in the national security and defense lane, so they will share a similar approach. Secretary Kerry also knows Russia and he has a lot of confidence dealing with prickly foreign policy issues. Secretary Kerry’s remarkable ability in that kind of scenario was demonstrated when he went to counsel President Karzai, when he did not prevail in the first round of Afghan elections in 2009. I think Secretary Kerry will be effective as our senior statesman in dealing with Russia.

FLETCHER FORUM: In late December, Vladimir Putin signed a bill banning American adoptions of Russian orphans. This bill is explicitly framed as retaliation against the U.S. Senate’s Magnitsky Act, which bars certain Russian officials accused of human rights abuses from entering the United States. What have been the political ramifications of Russia’s adoption ban and in your opinion how can we resolve this impasse?

FARKAS: The political ramifications have been to further sour relations between the U.S. and Russia. The Russians retaliated not just with the adoption ban, but also with their own list of U.S. officials and former officials that will be banned from visiting Russia. Obviously the adoption issue was a bad decision, but it also led to a lot of ham-handedness politically speaking in Russia because there was no political consensus among Russian elites. Even President Putin wasn’t initially on board; he was reserving the right to decide after the Parliament had aired its grievances. Putin did eventually back the ban, but Prime Minister Medvedev almost came out against it in an interview and other senior Russian officials have made it clear, in words or in other ways, that this wasn’t a popular idea from the elite perspective. The Russian public is aware of the state of Russian orphanages—more children die every year in those facilities in Russia than in the care of adoptive families in the United States—it’s not even a valid comparison. If the Russian government wants to keep this ban, they will. Hopefully they will lift it one day, maybe due to pressure from adoption entities in Russia.

FLETCHER FORUM: The crisis in Syria made up the bulk of the conversation between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during talks in Berlin at the end of February. What are the points of agreement between the U.S. and Russia when it comes to how the international community ought to address the conflict in Syria? Where do our national priorities and strategic interests diverge?

FARKAS: It’s clear that we do not agree with Russia on Syria, first and foremost, over the question of Assad. I don’t know whether it’s bridgeable: President Obama said Assad has to go, and the Russians clearly are opposed to regime change from the outside. Our biggest concern is that Russia continues to send arms to Syria, which could be used by the Syrian government against its own people, or could potentially destabilize the region—as you know the media has reported that Israel purportedly targeted Syrian convoys transferring weapons out of the country. The Russians say they are concerned about arms being transferred out of Syria, yet they have continued to send them items that are very desirable to Hezbollah and other organizations.

FLETCHER FORUM: Do you see a strong Sino-Russian relationship forming?  Does an economically strong China create an incentive to foster a strong relationship with Russia?

FARKAS: The Russians are pragmatic and they recognize that they have some interests which overlap with China: Russia sells the Chinese weapons and fighter aircraft, they cooperate with China on defense projects, usually on terms that the Russians like, though I would say the Chinese have done quite well for themselves. I don’t see signs that either country is fully embracing the other. Neither have we seen Russia turn to the West in response to China’s emergence as an economic and military power. In our dialogue with Russia, we emphasize that their interests lie in Europe—everything in Russia is oriented toward Europe and the West regardless of what they may occasionally say with regard to Asia. So while Russia’s approach to the West and to Europe is not always productive and friendly, the logical response to China’s rise in power and influence would be for Russia to seek greater integration in Europe. But frankly I think they are still sorting out their reaction to China’s rise.

FLETCHER FORUM: The EU says democracy has taken a backward step since President Viktor Yanukovich came to power in Ukraine. What prospect does Ukraine have for EU membership, and what other mechanisms can the U.S. pursue to bring Ukraine closer to EU and US standards of transparency, rule of law, and justice?

FARKAS: Ukraine is at a crossroads. It is being pressured to join the Russian customs union and there is also the option of joining the EU. The European Union very much wants to offer Ukraine the option to become a part of the EU and to have economic ties, but the Ukrainian government needs to do more to combat corruption, it needs to further democratization, and it needs to change how it deals with Yulia Tymoshenko and other opposition leaders. The U.S. would like the Ukrainian people to have a choice in their future so we keep the door open in terms of full engagement with Ukraine. We do of course express our concern regarding their human rights abuses, but we have developed a very strong working relationship with Ukraine. Ukraine has one of the highest levels of International Military and Education Training (IMET) funding, which enables students to come to the U.S. to study at our defense institutions, as well as significant amounts of foreign military training—maritime, border security, and otherwise—and funding. So we aim to embrace Ukraine and help them to develop a stronger professional military.

FLETCHER FORUM: Ukraine has announced that it will cut Russian gas imports almost twofold in 2013 and there has been a recent growth in natural gas production in several European countries. How do you anticipate a reduction in reliance on Russian gas to affect Russia’s relationship with Eastern and Central Europe, and with Europe more broadly?

I think it’s clear that the Russians will lose influence and they know it. The question is how they will react to this, whether they will react defensively and unconstructively or whether they will look for other ways to be economically part of picture. Unfortunately, the Russian economy isn’t very diverse, they rely heavily on their natural resources, and I don’t foresee them developing other means of collaboration and innovation in order to become more integrated with the rest of Europe.

FLETCHER FORUM: Recent incidents of damage to Serb cemeteries in Kosovo indicate the continual potential for conflicts in Kosovo and they represent a security threat. What are the greatest challenges facing the NATO Kosovo Force (KFOR) and what is KFOR doing to diffuse current tensions?

FARKAS: The greatest issue is that the state of Kosovo is not able to assert control in the Northern part of the country. Until they can secure the North, KFOR has stepped in to provide freedom of movement and overall security for the people of Kosovo, whether ethnic Serb or ethnic Albanian. This is KFOR’s number one challenge. The United States is heartened to see the way in which the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue has unfolded, and not just the dialogue itself but also realities on the ground. There remains a lot to be done but, thus far, the EU-led dialogue has been quite fruitful. We are hopeful that ultimately Serbia, in its interest to be more integrated with Europe and get on track to EU membership, will understand that its future lies in tying up this messy business from the Milosevic era. Kosovo also needs to be restrained and responsible, politically-speaking, in terms of how they manage their transition.

The prospect of EU membership has played a very positive role in encouraging these nations to find constructive ways forward. It has been very helpful that Serbia sees a future for itself in the EU. Parenthetically, Croatia is on track to become a member of the EU this summer and that will affect Serbia’s calculus. I’m a little worried about the destabilizing effects that Croatia’s EU accession will have on neighboring countries in the short term. It will be particularly turbulent for Bosnia, but, on the other hand, having a neighbor like Croatia next door will hopefully provide some positive influence on Bosnia’s politicians. The negative impact on Bosnia’s economy will come from the fact that Bosnia is not up to EU standards and Croatia will be. The economic shock Bosnia will incur ought to incentivize them to come up to speed in the long run. Georgia is a good example of this where their response to the Russian embargo on their wine and mineral water led them to respond by rising to European standards and exporting to Europe instead. It was very clever and well done by the Saakashvili administration.

FLETCHER FORUM: Do you have any advice for Fletcher graduate students interested in pursuing a career in policy or, more broadly, public service especially at a time when it is so difficult to get into government?

FARKAS: My number one piece of advice is to be persistent because if you work hard enough for it, eventually someone will give you the break. My second piece of advice is to find a mentor or a boss who will give you the break, not just once but hopefully they are moving up as well, or are so influential that they can give you multiple breaks through your career. Lastly, always be open to unconventional or non-linear ways of getting to where you want to go, professionally. If you had asked me when I was a student here at Fletcher if I wanted a job like my current position as in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy, I probably would have said “Yes!” but it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone to say “Well, first you should get your doctorate and teach at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College.” That doesn’t seem like the logical route, but it helped me along my path to Capitol Hill, and on to lead the WMD Commission, to the U.S. European Command (working for fellow alum, ADM Stavridis) and eventually here. There is no tried and true route; you just have to be persistent, open-minded, and ideally supported by extraordinary mentors.

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1 Mitchel June 26, 2013

Since 1999 Russia has been building disguised dictatorship, not democracy. Russia tries to build a new Russian Empire (including by violent means) to subjugate and rule countries that in the past forcibly belonged to the highly oppressive Russian Empire (both tsarist and communist). Ukraine which lost over 20 million people in the 20th century alone is the biggest victim of historical Russian imperialism. Now Ukraine is again in enormous danger from disguised Russian neoimperialism that has intensified its efforts to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty since 1991 by interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs, to eventually eliminate Ukraine’s sovereignty, to dominate and to control Ukraine economically, politically, militarily and even linguistically and religiously through present continuation of preserved past Russification in Ukraine. Using common sense this neoimperialist policy of Russia is against International Law. The European Union and the USA do not oppose Russian expansionist neoimperialist policies and violations of International Law by Russia adequately and effectively which can lead to grave consequences for global security.

Ukraine is the largest European country, with significant natural and mineral resources and is of strategic significance for the EU in terms of security.
It would be very unreasonable and unwise for the EU to lose Ukraine and other East European countries (Moldova, Georgia, Belarus) to Russia which would strengthen Russia as an empire and only create more rivalry and threat/danger to the EU from Russia. The EU must not wait until Russia succeeds in domination over those countries. Further delay in bringing those countries into NATO and the EU may be very costly to the EU in the near future if Russian neoimperialism succeeds in its policies.

Russia is a disguised enemy and a rival of the EU, not a reliable partner. Only Russia is a real threat to the EU economically, militarily (with the largest arsenal of weapons of mass destruction) and in terms of security because Russia has expansionist domineering ambitions not only in Eastern Europe, but also globally. Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Belarus as European peaceful countries (unlike Russia) must belong to NATO and the EU to make the EU stronger and more prosperous so that they have a brighter future and do not get under oppressive Russian rule again which this time may be fatal to these nations.

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