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 secretary-designate 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 nuclear-capable 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.
“There’s got to be some kind of a way to walk Russia back from this precipice, and yet the West is not showing a degree of unity,” he said. “The Americans appear indifferent. The Europeans are basically burying their heads in the sand.”
Russia scholar Jacob W. Kipp said that to understand how the Trump administration will ultimately treat Mr. Putin, one has to include a third player — incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. The retired three-star Army general cultivated ties with Russia while heading the Defense Intelligence Agency because he sees the major threat as radical Islam, not Russia.
“That he shares with Donald Trump,” Mr. Kipp said. “Both men are looking for a final victory in the war on terrorism but are not ready to push the nation into mobilization for total war that such a ‘victory’ would require. Neither man seems suited for continuing a war of attrition fought on the margins with drones and Special Forces. Both are tempted to see Putin as a natural ally in that war since Russia has been fighting radical Islam in the Caucasus.”
But Mr. Kipp said that Mr. Trump and Mr. Flynn are failing to recognize that Mr. Putin’s top priority is to pursue a culture of “Russianism” to hold his country together.
Mr. Putin, he said, views the Obama administration as botching the “Arab Spring,” which gave him an opening to enter Syria and change the entire balance of power in the Middle East.
How will Mr. Mattis relate to Mr. Flynn? Mr. Mattis has devoted his life to reading and understanding military history, diplomacy and warfare. Mr. Flynn is an intense bureaucratic battler who, unlike the retired Marine, was early on a campaign surrogate for Mr. Trump.
“General Mattis has an excellent reputation as a tactician and operational commander,” Mr. Kipp said. “The unknown is his strategic vision and ability to see how the game is played with hard and soft power.”
Democrats say Mr. Putin unleashed a cyberwar on them to help the president-elect, essentially to butter up Mr. Trump.
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper issued a statement during the presidential campaign that blamed the Russian government for hacking into the email account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. The anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks published reams of Mr. Podesta’s correspondence, which painted an unflattering picture of conniving behind the scenes among Democratic Party operatives.
Mr. Clapper said at a post-election congressional hearing that the intelligence community has no proof that Russia shared the stolen emails with WikiLeaks.