ARLINGTON, V.A. — With a military facing badly needed reforms amid massive cuts to its officer corps, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov arrived at the Pentagon on Wednesday for a long day and night of meetings with the man quickly becoming known as Washington’s unofficial minister of government efficiency: Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The first Pentagon visit by a Russian defense minister in five years came amid a season of converging U.S.-Russian security issues that are commanding the attention of President Barack Obama’s administration. But a Gates spokesman said Tuesday “the impetus of the visit” by Serdyukov is the daunting job of whittling down and honing two of the world’s largest defense apparatuses.
While Gates has announced intentions to cut 50 general officer positions amid a larger culling of civilian staffers and redundant commands, Serdyukov announced in 2007 when taking office that he would ax 200,000 field officers from Russia’s increasingly unsustainable force of roughly 1 million troops.
In their meetings, Gates expressed to Serdyukov his "admiration for what he is trying to do," a senior defense official told Pentagon reporters.
The Russian force is trying to right what was considered an imbalance of too many officers and too few enlisted men. To help, Gates said he would open to the Russians several U.S. military classrooms at the service academies and noncommissioned officer schools, said the spokesman, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell, but no details were provided.
"They are closing [military schools' down at an extraordinary rate," Morrell said, so Serdyukov was scheduled to visit nearby Fort Belvoir, Va., and the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
For Gates, a Cold War-era director of the Central Intelligence Agency and an adviser to several presidents who stared down the Kremlin, it must have seemed an improbable day.
"I don't see Russia as a threat," Gates said in an interview Tuesday with Russian news agency Interfax. "I see Russia -- Russia-U.S. relations being those of normal states now.
"We're partners in some areas and competitors in others. But on important things, we are cooperating," he said.
After Wednesday's meetings, the senior defense official said U.S.-Russian relations "clearly" had cooled during the last administration. But under Obama, cooperation with Moscow has grown — Vice President Joe Biden said last year they were pushing the “reset button” — and the Pentagon is pushing that momentum now to include military relations and greater cooperation down the chain of command.
On Wednesday, Gates thanked Serdyukov for Russia’s help in facilitating use of a key northern supply route that has fed the escalation of the Afghanistan war. Obama’s national security team in Washington is feverishly lobbying the Senate to ratify the renewed nuclear arms reduction treaty it brokered with Moscow. And Russia has not blocked key United Nations Security Council sanctions levied against Iran and North Korea.
Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have called for Russia to join NATO’s missile defense network by turning its radar 180 degrees to track for Iranian missiles. "There actually was not any detailed discussion" on that issue, the senior defense official said. But the official added that in their meetings Serdyukov said the Russian position on Gates' proposal was well known and there was "clear interest" from the Russian delegation in having experts further study the proposal.
Serdyukov, despite his position, is not considered a major player in Russian national security decision-making, and the Gates meeting produced no major bilateral developments. But the two defense chiefs updated a 1993 memorandum of understanding "to bring defense and military cooperation in line with the new level of relations" between the U.S. and Russia, the memo says.
To help his counterpart tackle defense reform, Gates discussed issues from military families to quality of life for troops. They also discussed arms control and regional security issues, particularly central Asia.
Gates told Serdyukov he wanted to make sure the Russian minister understood "the strategic dangers if we don't get the Iranians" to heed international pressure on its nuclear program, the official said. But the discussion of Iran "was quite brief."