They came hours after Trump, in a White House news conference with Baltic state leaders, stated, “Nobody has been tougher on Russia than I have.”
Despite a series of recent actions taken by the Trump administration against Russia over its alleged role in poisoning a former Russian spy in Britain, interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and global cyberattacks, Trump has been criticized by Russia policy experts and Democrats for refraining from forcefully condemning Moscow for such actions.
His outgoing national security adviser had no such qualms.
“Russia has used old and new forms of aggression to undermine our open societies and the foundations of international peace and stability,” McMaster said Tuesday evening at the Atlantic Council.
“We are now engaged in a fundamental contest between our free and open societies and closed and repressive systems,” he said, alluding to Russia, among other countries. “Revisionist and repressive powers are attempting to undermine our values, our institutions and way of life.”
He spoke in the presence of the presidents of Estonia and Latvia and the foreign minister of Lithuania, who met with Trump at the White House earlier Tuesday. The summit was held to reinforce ties between the United States and the Baltic nations and to celebrate the 100th anniversary of their independence following World War I.
McMaster noted “Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have all been targeted by Russia’s so-called hybrid warfare, a pernicious form of aggression that combines political, economic, informational and cyber-assaults against sovereign nations.”
He lauded the Baltic states, which lie west of Russia, for their role in countering Moscow’s malicious acts.
He criticized Russia for employing strategies “deliberately designed to achieve objectives while falling below the target state’s threshold for military response.” Tactics include infiltrating social media, spreading propaganda and using other forms of subversion and espionage — all without rising to the level of an armed attack that would merit military retaliation.
For too long, McMaster said, “some nations have looked the other way in the face of these threats. Russia brazenly, and implausibly, denies its actions, and we have failed to impose sufficient costs.”
Trump, for his part, was more restrained in his remarks about Russia.
“Ideally we want to get along with Russia,” he said at the news conference. “Getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Maybe we will, maybe we won’t.”
With his unvarnished broadside against Moscow, McMaster becomes Trump’s second senior aide to leave the administration in a dramatic kiss-off with the Russian government.
Rex Tillerson, in his final interview with reporters last month as secretary of state, gave the most critical assessment of the Russian government of his tenure, saying U.S. efforts to work constructively with Moscow only resulted in worse Russian behavior.
“I’ve become extremely concerned about Russia,” Tillerson told reporters following a trip to Africa. “We spent most of last year investing a lot into attempts to work together, to solve problems, to address differences. And quite frankly, after a year, we didn’t get very far. Instead, what we’ve seen is a pivot on their part to be more aggressive. And this is very, very concerning to me.”
He added “there seems to be a certain unleashing of activity that we don’t fully understand what the objective behind that is.”
Tillerson, too, was fired by Trump, who has nominated his CIA director, Mike Pompeo, to replace Tillerson.
Bolton takes over as national security adviser on Monday.
McMaster noted the measures taken by the Trump administration against Russia: the expulsion of 60 diplomats last week, calling out the Russian government for malicious cyber-intrusions that targeted U.S. critical infrastructure and increasing funding for the European Defense Initiative, which finances U.S. and allied military forces in Europe, to deter Russian aggression and prevent conflict.
But, he said, “we must recognize the need for all of us to do more to respond to and deter Russian aggression.”
He named four critical areas. For one, he said, the government must “reform and integrate” its military, political, economic, law enforcement and other instruments of power to counter Russia’s hybrid warfare.
The country must also invest in cyber-infrastructure to protect data against espionage and attack, he said.
All countries must share responsibility to pay their fair share of the costs of security, he said. “Strategic confidence” must be preserved through a defense of the values of sovereignty, freedom and rule of law, he said.
McMaster’s remarks underscore the disconnect between the president, who frequently emphasizes the potential benefits of getting along with Russia, and his top advisers, whose skepticism of Russia follows traditional Republican orthodoxy.
The president’s top diplomat for Europe and Eurasia, Wess Mitchell, is a longtime Russia hawk, and his senior Russia advisers on the National Security Council, such as Fiona Hill, are also skeptical of the Kremlin.
The mixed messages are likely to continue beyond McMaster’s tenure, as his successor, Bolton, continues to push for a harder line against Moscow, analysts say. Bolton, in a speech in February, called for a tougher posture toward Moscow, saying the United States must be more aggressive in responding to Russian meddling in foreign elections.
“I don’t think the response should be proportionate,” he said. “I think it should be very disproportionate.”