Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday that Vladimir Putin remains a powerful, geopolitical force but also suggested the Russian president's recent military forays might be "doing us a favor."
Gates, speaking on Capitol Hill, cast Moscow's actions as a needed wake-up call. He said Putin's recent airstrikes in Syria and perhaps more importantly his intervention in eastern Ukraine should alert America's European allies to increase military spending "because the world has not gone on to broad sunny uplands where there's peace and tranquility all the time."
The Senate Armed Services Committee asked the former Bush and Obama Cabinet member to offer expertise and advice in large part on defense budgets during an era of congressional spending austerity -- including the recent, across-the-board cuts known as sequestration.
However, committee members were equally interested in asking Gates about what to do about Putin -- one day after a Gates op-ed on the issue in The Washington Post with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Gates argued that NATO countries committed many years ago to spending 2 percent of their Gross Domestic Product. However, just five of the 28 countries were complying when he left the department in 2011.
And he suggested that Putin annexing Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, sending in his military to oppose that country's new, pro-democracy government and propping up the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad should be a wake-up call to European leaders.
"What Putin has been most impacted by ... is the collapse of the Russian empire," Gates said. "Putin is all about lost power, lost glory, lost empire. He is not crazy. He is very much an opportunist."
He also said Putin's two basic objectives are to "restore Russia to great power status" so that his country becomes an integral part of every international situation and to "build a buffer of friendly states."
When asked what the United States should do about Putin, Gates said he was "not a madman" and would "hesitate" and "pull back" when faced with resistance.
Gates suggested that Putin has too much of a logistical and military advantage in Ukraine.
However, he said the United States has opportunities to challenge in the Middle East where it has some "real assets" and where Russia's supply lines end.
Gates said the U.S. should "draw some lines in Syria," if only to declare a safe haven in an area that doesn't challenge Assad's hold on power.
"We should decide what we want to do in Syria and basically ... just tell the Russians, 'This is what we're going to do. Just stay out of the way.'"
Gates made a strong plea for congressional lawmakers to work together to give the Pentagon enough money to end years of budget cutting, particularly with sequestration.
He said U.S. is spending on defense roughly the same amount it did 30 years ago.
"The primary question right now before the Congress and [President Obama] is the priority you give to defense, which is the lowest percentage of the federal budget since before World War II," he said.
"It is hard to quantify the cost of the budgetary turmoil of the past five years -- the cuts, the continuing resolutions, sequestration, gimmicks, furloughs, shutdowns, unpredictability and more," he continued. "The failure of the Congress ... because of the partisan divide to pass timely and predictable defense budgets has not only greatly increased the cost of defense, it has contributed to weakening our military capabilities."