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Former Defense Secretary: Next president must "lay down a line" with Russia

"Day One" is a multi-part series in which CBS News' Margaret Brennan speaks with former U.S. government officials on the major foreign policy issues the next president will inherit on the first day of their presidency.


Whoever wins in November will face a world of trouble on day one of the presidency. Margaret Brennan spoke with former Defense Secretary Robert Gates about one of the biggest challenges -- America's strained relations with Russia.

ROBERT GATES: I think Putin is one of these leaders who will push forward as long as there's no significant resistance. But he's not suicidal, he's not delusional, he's not crazy. He's a very calculating person who is playing a very poor hand with great skill.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Is Putin gaining influence?

GATES: I think that Putin certainly has reasserted Russia's role. You know, we basically excluded them from the Middle East in the early 1970's and they've had no real influence or presence there ever since, until the intervention in Syria. Now it's pretty clear that any negotiation on Syria, if there ever is one, Russia will be at the table.

BRENNAN: So his bet is paying off?

GATES: I think it is. I think that he has gotten in there with a limited military intervention, you know? Everybody thought he was crazy. Everybody that he was going to get sucked in and just be more and more involved in this military conflict in Syria. And he's managed to limit their military intervention but maximize its influence in Syria in terms of propping up the Assad government.

BRENNAN: On day one, what does the next president encounter?

GATES: I think the next president needs to begin with, "What is Putin trying to do?" Putin is trying to reassert Russia as a great power player in the world. If he can do it politically, he will. If he needs to do it militarily, he will.

BRENNAN: What is the best-case scenario for where are headed?

GATES: I think the best case is a new president that has a lot of credibility, that Putin takes seriously and that begins to lay down some clear guidelines for our own government, but also for the Russians in terms of what we will tolerate and what we won't tolerate.

BRENNAN: So you think it's possible to have a better relationship?

GATES: I think it is but it begins with Putin understanding that the United States is not gonna be pushed around.

BRENNAN: What's the worst case scenario?

GATES: You could see a more confrontational approach in the Baltic Sea both with the aircraft and with warships. You could see much more aggressive Russian naval patrolling in the Mediterranean. I mean the real worst case is that these activities the Russians have been engaged in -- buzzing our ships, flying so close to our aircraft and so on -- that there's an accident and it escalates in a military sense. That for me is one of those areas where the new president has to lay down a line: "You don't do that with our ships or our planes anymore." It must begin with letting Putin know he's come to the end of the rope, that we are not going to put up with his meddling and there will be further consequences.

BRENNAN: You see the risk of military confrontation?

GATES: I'm talking about the risky behavior by the Russians creating an environment in which an accident or a mistake can be made that gets out of control. And that is a danger I think.

BRENNAN: And we're fairly close to that from what you've described?

GATES: I think the new president is going to have perhaps a tougher line toward Russia than has been the case recently. The notion that we just continue to let the relationship deteriorate, or that we tolerate whatever Putin wants to do, I think both of those are unacceptable alternatives. So I think the new president has to have it as a priority in terms of seeing if he or she can move this relationship to a different place.

Here's where the candidates stand:

  • Hillary Clinton has called Vladimir Putin a bully, and vowed to stop his meddling in Ukraine and Syria by punishing Russia with more financial sanctions.
  • Donald Trump has praised Putin, calling him a strong leader. He also wants to cut back on funding NATO and shift its focus away from countering Russia. He plans to leave Putin alone in the war in Syria.