Mattis: US 'not in a position to collaborate' with Russian military

Mattis's remarks may come as a blow to hopes of increased cooperation between the two powers following the election of President Donald Trump to the White House.

Thierry Monasse/ Reuters via Pool Politik
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen take places for a group picture during a NATO Ministers of Defense meeting at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Feb. 15, 2017.

President Trump's defense secretary, James Mattis, said at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday that the US does not believe military cooperation with Russia is in the immediate future. 

"We are not in a position right now to collaborate on a military level. But our political leaders will engage and try to find common ground," Mr. Mattis told reporters.

The secretary's comments came as European allies try to decipher the new administration's stance toward the Kremlin. 

Hours beforehand, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. The face-to-face meeting, the first between military chiefs from the US and Russia since 2014, was meant to "discuss a variety of issues including the current state of US-Russian military relations and the importance of consistent and clear military-to-military communication to prevent miscalculation and potential crises," reads a statement from the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Mattis's remarks seemed to fly in the face of Moscow's hopes for repairing ties with the US following Mr. Trump's election. Trump has spoken positively about Russian President Vladimir Putin on a number of occasions, unlike former President Obama, who sought to isolate the country after its annexation of Crimea and support for the government of President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war.

"It's in everyone's interest to resume dialogue between the intelligence agencies of the United States and other members of NATO," Mr. Putin said Thursday, addressing Russia's Federal Security Service. "It's absolutely clear that in the area of counter-terrorism all relevant governments and international groups should work together."

Putin's interest in closer cooperation between the two countries was echoed by Russia's defense minister, Sergey Shoigu. But Mr. Shoigu reacted angrily to Mattis's assertion Wednesday, made in a closed-door NATO meeting, that the alliance needed to ensure its diplomats could "negotiate [with Russia] from a position of strength."

"Attempts to build a dialogue with Russia from a position of strength would be futile," Shoigu responded on Thursday, according to TASS Russian News Agency. 

Mattis reacted in kind. "I have no need to respond to the Russian statement at all," he said, when asked about Shoigu's response. "NATO has always stood for military strength and protection of the democracies and the freedoms we intend to pass on to our children."

The back-and-forth between military leaders, even as talks aimed at increasing cooperation between the two countries are being held in Baku, underscores the nebulous relationship between the two countries following Trump's election to the White House.

"I think the American people need to understand what this administration's strategy is vis-à-vis Russia before we go intensifying the relationship," Elissa Slotkin, who was an acting assistant secretary of defense for the Obama administration, told The New York Times. "Engagement just for engagement's sake, without clear goals, simply plays into Russian hands."

One of the biggest challenges for the Trump administration concerns the recent presidential election, when Russia, according to US intelligence agencies, hacked and leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee during the presidential campaign in order to tilt the election in Trump's favor.

"Right now, I would just say there's very little doubt that they [Russia] have either interfered or they have attempted to interfere in a number of elections in the democracies," Mattis told reporters, when asked about the hacking. 

Russia has repeatedly denied hacking the DNC.

The NATO remarks and planned military meeting follow a number of military incidents between the US and Russia, which some have suggested are attempts to test the Trump administration. This week, a Russian surveillance ship was spotted off the Delaware coast, and on Thursday, US officials accused Russia of launching a cruise missile in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. On Tuesday, the Pentagon said that Russian aircraft had buzzed a U.S. destroyer in the Black Sea

This article contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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