One day after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told US NATO allies they will have to pay up and meet their mandatory quota of 2% of GDP (which only 5 nations currently satisfy, among them the US and Greece), on Thursday the Pentagon's new chief also had some bad news for Russia when he rejected any kind of military collaboration with Russia, despite previous calls by Putin for the West to work with his country on Syria and other issues.
Quoted by the WSJ, Mattis said at NATO's Brussels headquarters that “We are not in a position right now to collaborate on a military level” adding that “our political leaders will engage and try to find common ground or a way forward where Russia, living up to its commitments, will return to a partnership of sorts, here with NATO.” Prior to the meeting, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu expressed hope for cooperation but warned that “attempts to build a dialogue from a position of strength with regard to Russia are hopeless.”
Mattis’s remarks came after Mr. Putin made a plea for the alliance and other nations to cooperate with Russia. “It’s in everyone’s interest to resume dialogue between the intelligence agencies of the United States and other members of NATO,” said Mr. Putin, addressing Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) on Thursday.
The sudden chill in US-Russian relations is understandable: the Trump administration remains in turmoil over questions about the extent of Trump administration contacts with Russia, and tensions have been rising.
Elsewhere, as reported previously, the top US general, Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is scheduled to meet his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, in Baku, Azerbaijan. The meeting will mark the highest-level military contact between Washington and Moscow since 2014. Shoigu added that the Russians “await clarification of the position of the Pentagon” at the Baku meeting.
Of particular interest will be any discussion between the US and Russia on the topic of NATO expansion.
NATO has been pursuing a multinational force on its eastern flank as a deterrent over Moscow’s aggression in the region. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the allies didn’t want to isolate Russia but still wanted “a firm predictable approach, including credible deterrence.”
He announced that alliance defense ministers had approved a plan to bolster its naval forces in the Black Sea, which is bordered by Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and other countries, and would improve military intelligence in the area.
Mr. Stoltenberg said the alliance’s standing maritime fleets would make more frequent visits to the Black Sea and step up military exercises. “It will be measured, it will be defensive and it will be no way aim at provoking a conflict or escalating tensions,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.
Understandably, Russia has taken frequent issue with operations in the Black Sea by naval vessels from nations that don’t border it.
Also of note, Russia’s military intervention in Syria on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad in late 2015 also caused friction between the U.S. and Russia, although both sides agreed to establish military communication to reduce the risk of incidents in the skies over Syria. As the WSJ further adds, "The meeting in Baku is expected to focus on a proposal pushed by senior uniformed officers at the Pentagon to improve that system. Gen. Dunford has pushed the plan, which would elevate the military contacts to a the three-star general level. Currently, the two militaries communicate by phone at the colonels’ level to share information about where each is operating.
The plan has been floated for months, but went nowhere under Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who was wary of higher level coordination with the Russian military. The proposal wouldn't likely mean the U.S. and Russian militaries would coordinate with each other or share intelligence. The system is thought to have worked well, but has had some problems. The U.S. mistakenly hit Syrian forces in Deir Ezzour rather than Islamic State targets after a Russian colonel couldn't immediately locate his American counterpart on the phone.
With US-Russian relations about to be scrutinized in the US, keep a close eye on the diplomatic exchanges between the two countries for hints on whether another chill is about to fall between D.C. and Moscow.