US officials adopt combative tone on Russia at Nato summit

Trump’s Defence Secretary rules out military cooperation with Russia, despite the President himself making overtures to Moscow

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The Independent Online

There will be no military cooperation with Russia and Vladimir Putin’s government must show that it is ready to abide by international law, America’s Defence Secretary has declared, as he accused the Kremlin of interfering in a series of elections in democratic states.

The combative stance taken by General James Mattis at a Nato summit in Brussels appeared to contradict that of Donald Trump, who has declared that he wanted to cooperate with Mr Putin, a man he has repeatedly praised on counter-terrorism, especially against Isis in Syria.

The US President has only belatedly acknowledged that Moscow carried out hacking operations in the election which brought him to power, after a long period denying that was the case.

Mr Putin raised the issue of security today, stating that it was vital to have cooperation with the US and Nato. “It’s in everyone’s interest to resume dialogue between the intelligence agencies of the United States and other members of Nato. It is absolutely clear that in the area of counter-terrorism all relevant government departments and international groups should work together,” said the Russian President.

Speaking soon afterwards, Mr Mattis made it clear that there was a trust deficit with Moscow. Asked whether he believed that Russia interfered in the American presidential elections, Mr Mattis answered: “There is very little doubt that Russia has interfered, or attempted to interfere, in a number of elections in democracies.” On joint military action with Moscow in Syria, he was adamant: “We are not in a position right now to collaborate on a military level.”

Political talks will take place, said the US Defence Secretary, to seek “a way forward where Russia, living up to its commitments, will return to a partnership of sorts here with Nato”.

“But, Russia is going to have to prove itself first,” he said.

The Nato summit hosted discussions on counter-terrorism, but most of the agenda was designed to counter alleged Russian aggression ranging from conventional military to cyber attacks.

Several member states in eastern Europe have said they have been targeted in hacking operations. Earlier in the week, Ciaran Martin, the head of the UK’s new National Cyber Security Centre, revealed that political parties in Britain asked for help following cyber attacks during the 2015 UK general election and the hacking of Democratic Party emails in the US elections.

Nato military units are continuing to be deployed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland and the naval presence will be increased in the Black Sea region. Russia has complained that the build-up of troops at its borders is in breach of past pledges by the alliance, and spurious “threats” were being manufactured in the Black Sea region to justify an enlarged Western presence there.

Nato’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, insisted at the summit: “Our aim is to prevent conflict, not to provoke it. We will not match Russia soldier for soldier, tank for tank, plane for plane. Our deployments are defensive and measured. Our presence in the Black Sea will in no way aim at provoking any conflict or escalating tensions.”

Mr Mattis has demanded that Nato raise their defence spending to alleviate the disproportionate contribution being made to the alliance’s budget by the US. This would, in part, help Nato to “negotiate from a position of strength”, he held.

This led to another spat with the Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, saying that “attempts to build a dialogue with Russia from a position of strength would be futile”. The US Defence Secretary hit back: “I have no need to respond to the Russian statement at all. Nato has always stood for military strength and protection of the democracies and the freedoms we intend to pass on to our children.”

However, dialogue was taking place with the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, meeting in Germany, and the military chiefs of the two countries, US marine General Joseph Dunford and the Russian General Valery Gerasimov in Azerbaijan. Mr Lavrov repeated Russia’s denial of hacking during the American election. “You should know we do not interfere in the domestic matters of other countries,” he said.

The Kremlin continued to refuse to comment publicly on the turmoil which has enmeshed the Trump administration, with Michael Flynn, the President’s national security advisor, being forced to resign over clandestine contact with the Russian ambassador to the US and an investigation under way into links between the Trump election team and Russia.

But Konstantin Kosachyov, the head of the international affairs committee in the Duma, protested that “even a readiness for a dialogue with Russians is seen in Washington as a thought crime. Either Trump has not found an independence he was looking for, and is being gradually cornered, or Russophobia has infected the new administration top down.”