BERLIN — Defense Secretary Ash Carter called on Germany and other NATO allies to stand together in the face of Russian aggression and other security threats in the region, but insisted no one is looking for another Cold War or new hot conflict with Moscow.
Speaking not far from Berlin's iconic Brandenburg Gate, Carter pointed to the progress that Europe has made since the end of the Cold War, and said Russia must not be allowed to turn back the clock.
"We do not seek a cold, let alone a hot war with Russia," Carter said in prepared remarks at Atlantik Brucke, a Berlin think tank that focuses on the German-U.S. relationship. "We do not seek to make Russia an enemy. But make no mistake: we will defend our allies, the rules-based international order, and the positive future it affords us. We will stand up to Russia's actions and their attempts to re-establish a Soviet-era sphere of influence."
Carter's stop in Berlin is the first of several in Europe, where a key theme is how the United States, NATO and other partners can best deal with the Kremlin in the wake of Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and its military backing of separatists battling Ukraine's government on the eastern border.
But part of the calculous, Carter said, will be a new playbook for NATO that deals with Russia's aggression while also recognizing its important role in the nuclear talks with Iran and the fight against Islamic State militants.
He said that as Russia modernizes its military, it also is trying to undermine NATO and threatening to erode economic and security stability with its recent nuclear saber-rattling.
His stop in Germany underscores the ongoing efforts of the two nations to work together, despite differences. And he said the U.S. and Germany must find new ways to enhance military ties, training and exercises.
Carter lauded German leaders for playing a leading role in the effort to defuse the Russia-Ukraine crisis, and sending military support and observers to the mission in Ukraine.
He also continued to urge Germany and others to adhere to promises made at the NATO summit in Wales last year and increase defense spending. He warned that there is an undeniable tendency to turn inward and everyone must guard against that temptation.
As part of that effort Carter said that he and German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen will visit NATO's new very high readiness joint task force, which has been put together to better prepare European and NATO allies to respond to threats more quickly.
His stop in Berlin will be followed by a visit to Estonia, in Russia's backyard, and Brussels, where he will attend a meeting of defense ministers.
His overall message is that the U.S. and NATO need to have a "strong but balanced" approach to Russia.
Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Carter questioned whether Moscow's "backward-looking" aggressive behavior will change while President Vladimir Putin remains at the helm. Carter said he can't be certain Putin will change direction, so allies must use a two-pronged approach that works with Russia on some issues while also girding to deter and respond to Moscow's aggression.
The Pentagon chief, who will attend his first NATO meeting as secretary of defense this week, said he wants to lay out America's balanced approach, which involves bolstering Europe's military ability to deter Russia's military actions. At the same time, allies need Moscow as they fight terrorism and hammer out a nuclear agreement with Iran.
Carter's trip comes as the European Union is expected to extend economic sanctions against Russia until January to keep pressure on Moscow over the conflict in eastern Ukraine. And it follows Putin's announcement that he will add more than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles that are capable of piercing any missile defenses.
Putin's remarks about the missiles were deemed "nuclear saber-rattling" by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Carter called it inappropriate behavior.
In other comments during a question and answer session, Carter said the U.S. is already supporting Ukraine through training and other equipment, and that "we provide weapons to Ukraine." Officials clarified that the U.S. has still not decided to provide lethal weapons, but continues to provide defensive equipment such as radars.