Bucking Trump, His Cabinet Promises Hard Line on Russia
President-elect Donald Trump's nominees for his top foreign policy, defense, and intelligence posts testified before Congress this week, and expressed hardline positions on Russia that contrast markedly with their boss's more ambiguous opinions.
Trump's views on Russia, NATO, and associated issues have received substantial scrutiny, given that they are fairly far from the mainstream in Washington. But other than a personal admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a skepticism -- supposedly rooted in his busisnessman's dealmaking instincts -- of the U.S.'s alliances, Trump hasn't been very detailed about what he will actually do when in power.
So the Senate confirmation hearings for Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, and Mike Pompeo -- to head the State Department, Pentagon, and CIA, respectively -- were highly anticipated events, as senators can grill Trump's lieutenants in detail about the administration's foreign policy direction.
And what emerged was that their opinions on Russia and its neighborhood are far more conventional than their boss's. All described Russia as a threat rather than as a partner (as Trump has), expressed trust in the U.S.'s allies (Trump has suggested they weigh the U.S. down), and said they took seriously allegations that Russia meddled in the presidential elections (Trump has repeatedly played down the accusations).
Of particular interest was Tillerson's testimony: as CEO of Exxon/Mobil he had done substantial business in Russia, worked personally with Putin, and got the Order of Friendship award from Russia. All that made many in the U.S. and Russia suspect that he may be a pro-Russia voice in the administration.
But Tillerson repeatedly sought to dispel those suspicions. "We must also be clear-eyed about our relationship with Russia. Russia today poses a danger, but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests. It has invaded Ukraine, including the taking of Crimea, and supported Syrian forces that brutally violate the laws of war. Our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia," he said in his opening statement. "But it was in the absence of American leadership that this door was left open and unintended signals were sent. We backtracked on commitments we made to allies. We sent weak or mixed signals with 'red lines' that turned into green lights. We did not recognize that Russia does not think like we do."
In responses to questions from senators, he emphasized that he considered part of Georgia to be "occupied" by Russia, endorsed sending lethal weaponry to Ukraine, said he "would have no reason to take exception" with Freedom House's harsh assessment of human rights in Russia. He argued that the outgoing administration of Barack Obama has been too soft on Russia.
“What the Russian leadership would have understood is a powerful response,” Tillerson said, when asked about the annexation of Crimea. His message to the Russian leadership would be, “Yes, you took Crimea, but this stops right here," he said.
In comments on Turkey, he suggested that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan "got nervous" about the lack of leadership by U.S. and so turned to Putin, who isn't "a reliable ally." (He later undercut that message of solidarity with Erdogan by arguing that the U.S. should strengthen its ties with Syrian Kurdish forces in that country's civil war, something Ankara strongly opposes.)
Tillerson did, though, express some understanding of how Russia got to this point in one of the most interesting episodes of his hearing:
They [Russia] believe they deserve a rightful role in the global world order because they are a nuclear power. And they are searching as to how to establish that. And for most of the past 20-plus years since the demise of the Soviet Union they were not in a position to assert that. They have spent all of these years developing the capability to do that. I think that now what we are witnessing is an assertion on their part in order to force a conversation about what is Russia's role in the global world order. So the steps being taken are simply to make the point that Russia is here, Russia matters, and we are a force to be dealt with. That is a fairly predictable course of action they are taking.
Mattis and Pompeo had longer records of public service and so their hawkish positions on Russia were better known, but in the context of serving in Trump's administration, their endorsement of a hardline stance was still noteworthy.
Mattis said that he supported a permanent U.S. military presence in the Baltics, and said that Putin was trying to "break" NATO and that the U.S. needed to respond, including "militarily." And he cast doubt on the ability of Russia to be a real partner for the U.S. “I’m all for engagement, but we also have to recognize reality in what Russia is up to, and there’s a decreasing number of areas where we can engage cooperatively,” Mattis said at his hearing.
Outside of Russia and Ukraine, Eurasian security issues were barely touched upon. Tillerson, in his opening statement, argued that China was a strategic competitor and needed to be confronted, but also that there were areas of possible cooperation: "China has been a valuable ally in curtailing elements of
radical Islam. We should not let disagreements over other issues exclude areas for productive partnership." That is an apparent reference to its war on Uighur political groups; while the U.S. (in particular the Bush administration) has rhetorically made that point, real cooperation on that front has been scant, so this represents a potentially new policy.
Mattis was asked in a pre-hearing questionnaire about NATO expansion, which is surely what officials in NATO-aspirant Georgia most want to know about. He gave a sort of non-answer, but one consistent with current U.S. policy:
Membership in NATO means the guarantee of Article 5 protection, so any additional defense burden on the Alliance should be carefully considered before an offer is made. New members must bring strength to the alliance, and their inclusion must result in a situation that is maintainable. With that said, all nations have the right to seek membership in any organization they choose. NATO has an open door if those nations meet these standards and the Alliance’s other rigorous requirements for membership.
The reaction from Russia to all of this was nonplussed. Asked about Tillerson's endorsement of sending lethal weaponry to Ukraine, Putin's spokesman Dmitriy Peskov demurred: "I will leave that without a reaction. We'll clarify with Secretary of State Tillerson all these issues as they arise."
Alexey Pushkov, a hawkish Duma member, was more blunt: "At Tillerson's hearing the position of the American political mainstream was expressed," he tweeted. "Which yet again shows the artificial character of the hysterics of Trump's opponents."
There also seemed to be a lot of assumptions in Russia, however, that Tillerson may be hiding his true beliefs on Russia. In a piece on RT, headlined "T-Rex on Trump's Team: What do Tillerson's Attacks on Russia Mean?" Russian analysts suggested that he was just trying to get confirmed. "Tillerson had to apply titanic efforts to avoid the impression of being a Russia supporter," said one Americanist, Areg Galstyan. Another Americanist, noting the high level of anti-Russia sentiment now in the U.S., noted that "this is well known to Tillerson. He understands what difficulties he can come up against."
A Washington-based Ukrainian anlayst, Nikolay Vorobiev, agreed: "This isn't his real position, he's just telling them what they want to hear."
Trump has yet to respond to all of these apparent inconsistencies with his own positions. But one intruiging clue as to what might be going on behind the scenes was provided by Mattis, when he was asked how his views on alliances fit those of Trump's: "I have had discussions with him on this issue and he's shown himself [to be] open, even to the point of asking more questions and going deeper into the issue about why I feel so strongly and he understands where I stand, and I'll work with other members of the national security team, once the Senate confirms them, to carry these views forward."
Will those views carry the day? No one knows, but does seem safe to say that if Trump does really intend to carry out any sort of pro-Russia policy, he's going to run up against the opposition of some (if not all) of his closest advisers.