Pen­tagon pick op­poses Putin po­si­tion

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY ROWAN SCARBOROUGH

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.

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