MUSCAT, Oman — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent speech highlighting nuclear weapons that he claimed could be used to attack the United States was “disappointing but unsurprising” and does not alter the Pentagon’s strategic plan to counter Moscow, according to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Mattis, speaking late Saturday on a military plane en route from Washington to the Middle East, said he saw no change in Russia’s military capabilities in Putin’s presentation, which showed cruise missiles that could strike U.S. cities. Regardless of “how much money they want to put into this arms race with themselves,” Mattis said, the U.S. approach remains the same.
“At the end of the day, they can sink all of that money in,” he said. “It does not change my strategic calculation. I just assumed it would all happen at great expense to the Russia people.”
CIA Director Mike Pompeo shared a similar assessment on “Fox News Sunday,” saying in an interview that there were no surprises in what Putin touted.
“We are following and tracking all of this closely, as are our brothers at the Department of Defense,” Pompeo said. “Americans should rest assured that we have a very good understanding of the Russian program and how to make sure that Americans continue to be kept safe from threats from Vladimir Putin.”
The comments came nearly two months after Mattis released a new National Defense Strategy that prioritizes preparing the military for competition with Russia and China above all other threats. Terrorism, North Korea and Iran remain concerns, but “great-power competition” needs the most attention, he said.
On March 1, Putin gave a fiery speech in which he said Russia was developing new nuclear missiles that could overcome any U.S. missile defense system. He showed a video animation in which Russia launches a cruise missile from its Arctic north that evades missile defense as it crosses the Atlantic Ocean, rounds the southern reaches of South America and then heads toward the United States.
Mattis played down the presentation, saying U.S. missile defense is not focused on Russia but on Iran and North Korea.
He is planning to meet Monday with Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Oman. They are expected to discuss a variety of issues, including the civil war in neighboring Yemen and shipments of weapons that the United States believes flow through Oman’s borders.
On his flight, the defense chief again took aim at Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The recent bombing of civilians in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta region “looks kind of familiar” after similar campaigns in the cities of Homs and Aleppo, he said.
Russia, after forcing delays, agreed to the U.N. Security Council’s call for a 30-day cease-fire in Syria, but the Assad regime proceeded to either indiscriminately bomb Eastern Ghouta at best or target hospitals in the largely rebel-held enclave at worst, Mattis said. He linked the two nations, saying Russia is clearly Syria’s “partner” in the actions.
“I don’t know which it is,” Mattis said of Syria. “Either they’re incompetent or they’re committing illegal acts, or both.”
The Pentagon chief noted that there have been “an awful lot of reports about chlorine gas” being weaponized in the bombing, though he added that Washington does not have hard evidence to confirm that.
Mattis reiterated warnings to the Syrian regime that gas attacks “would be very unwise.” That is something President Trump “made very clear early in the administration,” he said, apparently alluding to the Pentagon’s 2017 Tomahawk missile attack on Syria’s Shayrat airfield, which was shared by Russian and Syrian forces. The missiles were launched in response to what U.S. officials said was evidence that Syria had targeted civilians with the deadly nerve agent sarin.
The United States has not reacted to suspected chlorine attacks in similar fashion, and Mattis did not draw a line in the sand.
“I’m going to leave a little bit of …” he said, before pausing. “I’m not going to strictly define it. We’ve made it clear that it would be very unwise to use gas against people, civilians, on any battlefield.”
Mattis declined to say whether he thought Russian aircraft have killed civilians in the most recent operations in Syria.
“Assad could not be in power right now absent Russia’s unfortunate veto in the U.N. years ago and the Russians’ full-throated military support for Assad,” Mattis said. “They are Assad’s partner. Whether the airplane dropping the bomb is a Russian airplane or a Syrian plane, I would prefer to not say right now.”