There’s a bracing wind headed toward Russia from a surprising front. President-elect Donald Trump’s Pentagon and CIA picks issued a united warning to Moscow: Back off.
“Russia… has chosen to be a strategic competitor. They are an adversary in key areas,” said retired Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s nominee to lead the Pentagon at his confirmation hearing Thursday.
“This was an aggressive action taken by the senior leaders inside Russia,” said Rep. Mike Pompeo, at his Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, of Russia’s attempts to influence U.S. voters through hacking—though his boss took weeks to come to the same conclusion.
The verbal pushback against Russia comes in stark contrast to the warm repartee that has played out in public between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. It may spell future policy rifts within the incoming administration, but Trump met with these nominees and knows their positions. It could be that we’re witnessing an evolving policy of Trump playing the public good cop with the Kremlin, while his national security team stands ready to teach Russia a lesson.
“If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability,” Trump had said at his Wednesday news conference.
But he also added that he might not get along with Putin. “I hope I do. But there’s a good chance I won’t,” he said.
Trump’s State Department nominee Rex Tillerson was more diffident about Russia, refusing to condemn its military action in Syria, when Sen. Marco Rubio tried to get the former Exxon chief to condemn Putin as a war criminal for allegedly targeting civilians and reducing much of Aleppo to ruins, and for killing dissidents within his own country.
“I do not have sufficient information,” Tillerson told the Florida Republican, regarding those allegedly assassinated by the Russian regime.
“Tillerson’s views were troubling,” said Mieke Eoyang, of the Democratic-leaning think tank Third Way. “In the absence of a shooting war, the secretary of State is the primary person who will be holding Russia accountable for undermining democracy, violating human rights, and violating the laws of war.”
But those who would be doing the shooting, or gathering the intelligence to hold Russia accountable were more direct.
“Since [World War II’s conference at] Yalta, we have a long list of times we’ve tried to engage positively with Russia. We have a relatively short list of successes,” said Mattis, who dealt with Russian interference when he led the U.S. military’s Central Command, directing operations across the Middle East. “The most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with, with Mr. Putin, and we recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance.”
The retired Marine known for his knowledge of history noted that international world order “is under biggest attack since World War II… that’s from Russia, from terrorist groups, and with what China is doing in the South China Sea.”
His likely intelligence counterpart, in a different Senate hearing room in simultaneous hearings, delivered a similar message.
“Russia has reasserted itself aggressively, invading and occupying Ukraine, threatening Europe and doing nothing to aid in the defeat of ISIS [the so-called Islamic State],” Pompeo said.
He said he believed the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia had tried to influence the U.S. elections.
“It’s pretty clear about what took place here, about Russian involvement in efforts to hack information and to have an impact on American democracy,” said the Kansas Republican and former Army officer who serves on the House Intelligence Committee.
That’s a very different tone for Trump and his aides, who were denying Russian involvement a little more than a week ago. On Jan. 4, the president-elect repeated WikiLeaks boss Julian Assange’s claims that “a 14 year old could have hacked” Clinton campaign allies—and the Russians most certainly did not.
But Team Trump has always intended to get tough on Russia, according to ret. Col. Tony Shaffer, of the New York-based London Center for Policy Research. He briefed Trump’s incoming National Security Adviser, ret. Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, on a plan to beef up NATO to make it more of a challenge to Russia. Shaffer says Flynn was a senior fellow at the center before being tapped for leading roles in the Trump administration.
“The concept is a NATO 2.0 to not only strengthen NATO but to reinvent it,” Shaffer told The Daily Beast. “How do we build a NATO that is persuasive and effective to prevent Russian plans to re-expand through the region… to prevent the reinsertion of Putin and the Russians in a Soviet Union-like manner into world affairs.
“Mike [Flynn]’s response has been very positive to the idea. He encouraged me to continue to work on the issue,” said Shaffer, who briefed Congressional staffers on the concept Thursday.
Flynn’s transition office did not respond to requests for comment on the issue.
Washington’s think tank community is reserving judgment on Trump’s Russia stance, for now. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that Trump was complaining that NATO was “costing us a fortune,” and that America’s iron-clad treaty obligations to its NATO allies might have to be reconsidered.
“Rather than just see a competition of soundbites and a posturing about Russia, I’d rather see the Trump team start thinking about big ideas that could offer promise of a less… rivalrous relationship with Russia,” said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. “What kind of peace accord in Syria would be consistent with our interests and theirs?”
“I think the sanity and the responsibility are setting in,” said Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
He said Trump’s fight to protect the legitimacy of his election by denying Russian interference is giving way to his incoming team’s need to check Russia on the global chessboard. “These people have a totally different mission… not to protect Trump’s reputation but to protect America.”
This story was corrected on 1/17/17 at the request of Gen. (ret.) Mattis’ spokesperson who says he had no association with the London Center.