Report

McMaster Unleashes on Russia in Final Speech

The outgoing national security advisor took one last swipe at Putin’s efforts to undermine Western democracies.

U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster attends a White House meeting with President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on March 20, 2018. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster attends a White House meeting with President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on March 20, 2018. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster came out swinging against Russia in his last public address before stepping down as national security advisor next week, blasting Russian President Vladimir Putin for trying to undermine democratic societies and urging the West to counter Russia’s malign influence abroad.

“For too long, 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,” McMaster said Tuesday night, speaking at an Atlantic Council dinner alongside leaders from the three Baltic nations in town to meet with President Donald Trump.

“Mr. Putin may believe that he is winning in this new form of warfare,” McMaster said. “Perhaps he believes that our free nations are weak and will not respond to his provocations. He is wrong.”

His remarks impressed many in the audience of foreign diplomats, think tankers, and former U.S. officials, who have grown concerned about Trump’s reluctance to openly criticize Putin. McMaster received a standing ovation when he stepped off the podium.

“That was the strongest speech on Russia I’ve seen from anyone in this administration ever,” said one former senior U.S. official in attendance.

McMaster’s swan song stood in sharp contrast to his boss’s remarks earlier in the day. Trump, speaking alongside the presidents of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia at the White House on Tuesday, said he wasn’t kowtowing to Russia but wanted to have a good relationship with Putin.

“Nobody has been tougher on Russia, but getting along with Russia would be a good thing, not a bad thing. And just about everybody agrees to that except very stupid people,” Trump said.

When a reporter asked him whether Putin was a friend or an enemy, Trump said, “We’ll find out. I’ll let you know.”

While his administration has taken a hard line on Russia, Trump himself has openly praised the Russian president and refused to acknowledge Russia’s role in meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. The last time McMaster criticized Russia, at a security conference in Munich in February, Trump publicly rebuked him on Twitter.

But now, McMaster has only days left on the job, after he was cleared out during Trump’s March shake-up of his foreign-policy team. The three-star general will be replaced by former George W. Bush administration official John Bolton, who is expected to start April 9.

In his speech Tuesday evening, McMaster outlined the administration’s strong stance against Russia. That includes bulking up the U.S. military in Eastern Europe and expelling Russian diplomats, following the nerve agent attack against a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom, which Western capitals say the Kremlin orchestrated.

McMaster also warned of Russia’s growing use of “hybrid warfare,” which has been directed at Ukraine and the Baltics in recent years.

“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,” McMaster said.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

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