The Pentagon's policy chief, Under Secretary of Defense Jim Miller, argued on Wednesday that the Obama administration is not being naïve toward Russia when it comes to national security. In an exclusive interview with the FP National Security channel, Miller claimed the so-called "reset" has helped win Moscow's support for two of the U.S. military's top priorities: war supply routes into Afghanistan and the toughest-ever economic sanctions on Iran.
The administration's open hand to Russia has been a target of Mitt Romney's and of other conservatives, like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz).
Obama cancelled plans for a missile defense site in Poland that Moscow opposed, and the Pentagon has asked Russia to join NATO radar nets that are part of a proposed system to defend against Iranian missiles.
But with anti-U.S. bluster continuing to emanate from President Vladimir Putin's government, Romney has called Russia the "number one geopolitical foe" of the United States. In trying to draw contrast with Obama's willingness to deal with Putin, however, Romney's comment also has drawn sharp criticism from a host of national security leaders as being too Cold War-focused -- a misfire in an attempt to look strong on defense.
"I would make the case that our relationship with Russia and our ability to work with them has been absolutely critical to sustain progress, to make progress and sustain it in Afghanistan and to the P5+1 process to increase pressure on Iran," said Miller, on Wednesday. "And so, for two of our most important issues we have been able to make good progress with them."
The P5+1 refers to the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (U.S., Russia, China, France, United Kingdom) and Germany.
Miller said the Pentagon has a "strong interest" in cooperating with Russia "in every area that it makes sense to do so."
"Look at what we have been able to achieve and, really, needed to achieve through the Northern Distribution Network," he said. "If we didn't have partnership with Russia, where that was in the cards, then we would have had some enormous challenges, when the ground lines of communication closed down in Pakistan."
For other areas, he conceded, Russia has not warmed to Obama's advances. Russia has rebuked the U.S. offer for Moscow to join in NATO radar net aimed at Iran, which was first proposed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
"I've led our discussions over the past several years for a number of sessions, over the course of the last two years, in particular with the Deputy Defense Minister [Anatoly] Antonov on missile defense cooperation," Miller said. "I don't think we're naïve about that."
"They have not made a political calculation that they want to move forward with missile defense cooperation. We continue to believe and make the case that it's in both of our interests and it's in NATO's interest, as well, to do so. And I don't see any -- I see evidence that that's right and I think we ought to and we will continue to work on that with Russia."
Miller is not totally removed from the campaign froth over Romney's Russia stance. Miller assumed his position as acting undersecretary in February, and was confirmed in May, from his former boss Michele Flournoy, who is now the Obama campaign's co-chair for national security. Miller also worked under Flournoy at the Center for a New American Security.
In foreign policy circles, one of the most notable lines in Romney's Republican National Convention speech was, "Under my administration, our friends will see more loyalty, and Putin will see a little less flexibility and more backbone."
Romney has not acknowledged the extensive U.S.-Russian military relationship. In fact, the week of Romney's speech, the U.S. military was hosting Russian generals at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) headquarters for a joint airline hijacking response exercise.
Democrats have hit back hard, culminating with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) saying in his Democratic National Convention speech, "Mitt Romney talks like he's only seen Russia by watching ‘Rocky IV.'"
This week, Putin reportedly said he was "grateful" Romney was a straight-talker. "That Mr. Romney considers us enemy number one and apparently has bad feelings about Russia is a minus, but, considering that he expresses himself bluntly, openly, and clearly, means that he is an open and sincere man, which is a plus."
For Miller, it's a simple calculation: work together wherever possible.
"We know that President Putin and his administration are going to pursue their interests," Miller said, "and what we need to be able to do is to find the areas where we can work together, build those out, and be able to have the conversations on those areas where we have different perspectives or where we have different interests."