Pentagon pick opposes Putin position
President-elect Donald Trump and his incoming defense secretary hold decidedly different views on Russian President Vladimir Putin, potentially creating a policy breach on how to handle an iron ruler who laments the passing of the Soviet empire.
While Mr. Trump has praised Mr. Putin as a “strong” leader in an exchange of compliments, retired Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis said in May 2015 that among world threats “in the near term, I think the most dangerous might be Russia.”
“I would just tell you that as you look at the Russia situation, I think it is much more severe and much more serious than we have acknowledged,” the defense secretarydesignate told a gathering at The Heritage Foundation, a hub of conservative thought in Washington.
His rare public lecture as a civilian featured some of his most expansive views on global security since his retirement in 2013 after leading U.S. Central Command. At the time of his talk, Russia had annexed parts of Ukraine and was months away from sending combat aircraft and troops into Syria, changing the Middle East balance of power.
“There is the potential, I believe, that Putin has unleashed forces that he will be personally unable to control,” the former four-star general said.
He raised the possibility that Mr. Putin is “delusional” and “breaks all the rules” by, in just one instance, sending heavy nuclearcapable bombers off the U.S. coast.
“The person who threatened on their national news one night to turn America to radioactive ash was promptly promoted by Putin and put into the government ministry of information,” said Mr. Mattis, who would have a critical role in checking Mr. Putin’s military moves. “So this is where miscalculations can happen.”
He painted a bleak picture of Russia economically, demographically and socially under Mr. Putin’s long rule, only matched in modern times by Josef Stalin.
“There is nothing Russia can do to reverse its demographic decline. It’s arithmetic at this point,” Mr. Mattis said. “They do not see having democratic nations on their borders as a good thing. They want security through instability.”
That stark assessment aligns Mr. Mattis with the dominant view among the U.S. military’s top brass. As he was stepping down as America’s NATO commander earlier this year, now-retired Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove said Mr. Putin’s forces were deliberately bombing civilians in Syria to drive more refugees into Europe in a bid to destabilize the West.
Mr. Putin’s jet fighters do not use precision weapons, and human rights groups have blamed Russia for striking Syrian schools, medical facilities and civilian neighborhoods.
The Obama administration’s approach to Russia has been rocky. President Obama in the 2012 election ridiculed Republican Mitt Romney for saying Mr. Putin’s regime was our No. 1 adversary. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as one of her first actions, traveled to Moscow to announce a “reset” in relations. She brought along a reset button.
But Mr. Putin embarked on an anti-West expansionist military campaign by invading Ukraine, rattling former Soviet republics with waves of propaganda and sending ground and air forces into Syria to bolster President Bashar Assad. Mr. Obama countered by ordering more American troops into Europe to stage exercises with former Soviet puppet states.
While Mr. Mattis’ frank assessment of Mr. Putin puts him in the Washington mainstream, his views do not dovetail with Mr. Trump’s.
Candidate Trump lavished praise on the former KGB intelligence officer, to the chagrin of Republicans and Democrats.
“Certainly, in that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader,” Mr. Trump said in September. “We have a divided country.”
Mr. Trump revealed that he can be flattered by strongman Putin.
“Well, I think when he calls me brilliant, I think I’ll take the compliment, OK?” he said.
He also said, “If [Mr. Putin] says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him. I’ve already said he is really very much of a leader.”
‘Hard and soft power’
Mr. Mattis presented a starkly different view while speaking at The Heritage Foundation. He depicted Mr. Putin as leading his country down the wrong path from which it may never recover, citing Russian poverty, disease rates and declining life expectancy.
“It is very, very hard to pull back from some of the statements he’s made about the West, and I think that right now there are people questioning, ‘Has Putin gone crazy? Is he delusional?’ And I think that what we have to look at is that we have a Russia problem, not just a Putin problem,” he said. “People say when Putin leaves, it’ll all get better. I think that’s a pipe dream. Russia has the longest borders in the world. It’s in a terrible strategic position.”
Calling Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine a “war,” Mr. Mattis said: “Putin goes to bed at night knowing he can break all the rules and the West will try to follow the rules. That is a very dangerous dichotomy in the way the world is.
“Basically, Russia’s trying to create a sphere of influence of unstable states along its periphery intimidated [by] the state systems under attack there,” he said.
His lecture touched on a point where he and Mr. Trump likely agree: NATO allies are not spending enough on defense.
“You have the largely unilateral disarmament of most or [the] downsizing [of] the militaries of most Western democracies, then you understand that you’ve got a lot of things starting to line up to tell you it’s going in the wrong direction,” he said.