President-elect Donald Trump’s Secretary of Defense nominee, James Mattis, doesn’t see eye-to-eye with him on Russia. During his confirmation hearing on Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mattis took a confrontational position on Russia that sharply differed from the president-elect’s affable courtship of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.
Referring to Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in Ukraine, and the Russian government’s atrocities in Syria, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) asked Mattis what should be done.
“What do you think we ought to do about Russia, General Mattis? Do you think we ought to maybe have sanctions against Russia or basically sit by as we have for the last couple years and watched their aggression?” McCain asked. “Should we ignore the lessons of history in our relationship with Vladimir Putin, and what should we be doing?”
Mattis replied that he believed it was important for the United States to “defend ourselves” against Russian attempts to break up the NATO alliance.
“History is not a straight jacket, but I’ve never found a better guide for the way ahead than studying the history,” Mattis said. “Since Yalta, we have a long list of times we’ve tried to engage positively with Russia. We have a relatively short list of successes in that regard. And I think right now, 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, and that we take the steps, the integrated steps, diplomatic, economic, and military and the alliance steps, the working with our allies, to defend ourselves where we must.”
You can watch the full exchange below:
Mattis’ views on Russia seem to go against the president-elect’s, as well as other members of his team. Trump has bragged that he would “get along very well with Putin” and called Russian President Vladimir Putin “very smart.
During the campaign, he told Russian state-owned RT that he wants a better relationship with Russia. “If we can get along with Russia, that’s very good,” he said.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov confirmed after the election that Russian officials were in contact with Trump team members during the campaign. Trump has refused to say whether a recent CNN report that intelligence officials briefed him on classified documents revealing that Russia has “compromising personal and financial information” on him is true.
Trump’s Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, who testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, refused to call Putin a war criminal and did not say whether he would favor sanctioning Russia for cyberattacks on the United States. Tillerson also dodged questions on his role as the CEO of ExxonMobil in lobbying against sanctions on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.
Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for National Security Advisor, has been similarly warm towards Russia. In December, Bloomberg reported that Flynn worked with “a man once convicted of trying to sell stolen biotech material to the Russian KGB espionage agency.” In December 2015, Flynn spoke at the tenth anniversary dinner celebration of Russian state-owned media company RT, and has refused to answer whether he was paid for doing so.
But in his Thursday confirmation hearing, Mattis suggested that the international order was under attack from Russia and told McCain that he agrees there should be a permanent U.S. military presence — not just a base — in the Baltics. In recent months, Baltic nations such as Estonia and Latvia have become increasingly fearful of Russian invasion.