Defense Secretary James Mattis slapped Russia Friday for “mucking around” in other nations’ elections as U.S. political and military leaders, as well as Britain’s defense minister, heaped scorn on Russia for its actions.
Mattis, who was in London for meetings with British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, was asked whether the United States would pull out of a Reagan-era arms treaty with Russia.
“Russia’s violations of international law are now a matter of record from what happened with Crimea to other aspects of their behavior in mucking around inside other people’s elections and that sort of thing,” Mattis said.
Although Mattis did not go as far as Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of the U.S. Central Command who said Wednesday that Russia is lining up with the Taliban in Afghanistan, Mattis indicated Russian presence might be an issue.
“Certainly what they’re up to (in Afghanistan), in light of their other activities, gives us concern,” he said.
“We look to engaging with Russia on a political or diplomatic level, but right now, Russia is choosing to be a strategic competitor,” Mattis said. “And we are finding that we can only have very modest expectations at this point in areas where we can cooperate with Russia contrary to how we were just 10 years ago, five years ago.”
“It’s no longer a cooperative engagement with them right now. It’s when we’re going to have to carve out diplomatically some kind of maneuver room here assuming Russia can change its behavior and act in accordance with international norms and international law,” Mattis added.
Fallon said there “cannot be any return to business as usual” with Russia as long as it pokes its nose into other nations’ affairs.
“There’s a pattern of interference now by Russia in different parts of the globe that needs us to be, when we engage with Russia, wary of what Russia is up to,” he said. “We need to be extremely watchful of this persistent pattern of Russian interference.”
American political leaders said Russian interference is ongoing in Europe.
“There is no doubt whatsoever that the Russians were behind an effort to interfere with our elections,” said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.
“There’s no doubt this is a Russian pattern for years,” he said. “(T)hey have been trying to do this kind of disinformation as part of their toolkit … they’re doing it right now in France and Germany.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C. seconded King.
“What we might assess was a very covert effort in 2016 in the United States, is a very overt effort, as well as covert, in Germany and France,” he said.
“I remind you that we’re within 30 days of the first French election, with four candidates. It will go down to two candidates with a runoff in May,” he said. “I think it’s safe by everybody’s judgment that the Russians are actively involved in the French elections.”