Russian President Vladimir Putin “will not reverse course in Ukraine and the Crimea, and there’s not much the West can do about it. It’s one more example of how the world gets more unstable and dangerous every day,” said Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
Gates was the keynote speaker for the opening day of the 95th Annual Convention of the Associated General Contractors of America in Las Vegas.
Gates told a crowd of several hundred AGC members and guests on Monday that Ukraine is central to Russia’s strategy in the region and that Putin may even risk civil war to maintain a foothold there. “But it remains to be seen,” he said, “what the longer-term political and economic consequences are for Russia and Putin, whom he called an “old-school Russian autocrat.”
Gates said that the U.S. may face even greater danger from other countries, such as China, whose “defense build-up has been far smarter than that of the old Soviet Union,” he said. He cited China’s development of cyber and satellite weapons and long-range missiles that can strike aircraft carriers. But China has its own problems, Gates said, because it “must create at least 20 million new jobs per year and sustain at least 9% annual growth” for its economy to survive.
But Gates—known for being outspoken since he retired from the Defense Dept. and public service in 2011, and sharply critical of President Obama and Congress in his new book, “Duty”—saved his most pointed criticism for the political situation in the Middle East. “In the West, we tend to overestimate our ability to shape outcomes in the Middle East. We badly misjudged the Arab Spring,” he said. Gates characterizes that as a series of revolutions. “And few of those in history, other than ours, have turned out well,” he said. He warned about the ongoing, and “very real,” threat of a nuclear-armed Iran and the destabilizing impact of the sectarian war in Syria.
Staying true to the tone his book, Gates finished his speech with several potshots at Congress. “The old moderate center is not holding there,” he said, “and that means a loss of compromise, which is required for government to function.”
He lamented the “serious consequences of the sequestration” last year on federal services and on the military but said that he is relieved to be away from Washington. “My wars are over,” he said.