Vladimir Putin is trying to break the north Atlantic alliance and his policies represent one of the key threats to the global order that has prevailed since the second world war, James Mattis, the retired general nominated to be secretary of defence, has told a Senate committee.
In testimony that struck a notably harder line on Russia than that of Donald Trump, Mr Mattis said the US should be willing to engage with Moscow but that there were a decreasing number of areas where it was possible to co-operate and an increasing number where it would be necessary to confront Russia.
“Right now the most important thing is we recognise the reality of what we deal with with Mr Putin, and we recognise that he is trying to break the north Atlantic alliance, and that we take the integrated steps — diplomatic, economic, military, and the alliance steps, working with our allies, to defend ourselves where we must,” said Mr Mattis.
His comments contrasted sharply with the repeated expressions of praise Mr Trump has had for Mr Putin.
Questioned by Republican senator John McCain, Mr Mattis said the postwar order was “under the biggest attack since World War Two”, with the threats coming from Russia, from terrorist groups and China’s activities in the South China Sea.
Pressed by Mr McCain on the threat to the Baltic states posed by Russia, Mr Mattis suggested he supported the idea of a permanent US military presence there. The US must continue to embrace its international alliances, Mr Mattis said, arguing that “nations with strong allies thrive and those without them wither”.
Mr Mattis’s words came during his confirmation hearing before the Senate armed services committee. On Wednesday, Mr Trump for the first time acknowledged that Russia was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee during the election, but he has continued to downplay the gravity of the attacks on America’s election.
Mr Trump has said he wants to forge closer relations with Russia. Mr Mattis said he was “all for engagement” and that relations had been possible during the worst years of the cold war. But it was also necessary to recognise reality and what Russia was up to.
He said in his opening statement that Russia posed “grave concerns” on a number of fronts.
The blunt-speaking former general, known as “Mad Dog” Mattis, is regarded in military circles as a top intellectual and one of the Pentagon’s most forward-thinking strategists. He is also seen on both sides of the aisle as a potential restraining influence on Mr Trump.
The president-elect has himself said conversations with Mr Mattis had prompted him to reconsider his previous pledges to revive the use of waterboarding in interrogations.
Republicans in Congress are paving the way to arrange a waiver to allow Mr Mattis to serve despite a decades-old rule that military officers must be out of uniform for seven years before being appointed Pentagon chief. The last time a recently retired general led the Pentagon was in the early 1950s.
The nomination of Mr Mattis has triggered some concerns within Congress that the tradition of civilian control of the military is being damaged.
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