Mattis says response coming soon on Russia arms treaty violation

Defense Secretary James Mattis on Friday hinted at Russian interference in the U.S. election and said a decision will come soon on how to respond to the country’s alleged violations of a nuclear arms control agreement.

“Russia’s violations of international law are now a matter of record,” Mattis said at a press conference in London, “from what happened with Crimea to other aspects of their behavior in mucking around other people’s elections and that sort of thing.”

Mattis was responding to a reporter who asked whether it was time for the United States to exit the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty banning nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of 300 to 3,400 miles.

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The U.S. has accused Russia of developing and fielding such a weapon. Russia denies it has violated the treaty.

“On the INF issue, we are in consultation with our allies and we’re still formulating the way ahead,” Mattis said. “It’ll be addressed, I think, very, very soon as a matter of highest-level concern.”

British Defense Minister Michael Fallon, who spoke alongside Mattis, said the INF Treaty came up in their discussions.

Mattis made clear that whatever the Russian threat, the United States will maintain Article 5 — which commits NATO countries to help any member state under attack — “as absolute bedrock of the NATO alliance and we will ... act accordingly if Russia chooses to be a strategic competitor.”

The former U.S. Central Command head also responded to recent reports of Russia providing support to the Taliban in Afghanistan, confirming that the Pentagon has seen Russian activity in the area.

“I’m not willing to say at this point if that is manifested in the weapons and that sort of thing, but certainly what they’re up to there in light of their other activities gives us concern,” Mattis said.

He added that the United States has sought to engage with Russia on a political or diplomatic level, “but right now Russia is choosing to be a strategic competitor, and we’re finding that we can only have very modest expectations at this point of areas that we can cooperate with Russia, contrary to how we were just, 10 years ago, five years ago, it’s no longer a cooperative engagement with them.”

Fallon, meanwhile, reiterated President Trump’s push for NATO members to live up to defense spending commitments.

Trump has repeatedly criticized European nations that have yet to put forward 2 percent of their total gross domestic product to NATO defense spending. Only the United States and four European nations meet the 2014 goal: the United Kingdom, Poland, Greece and Estonia.

“Making that NATO alliance fitter and faster, fairer burden-sharing is the key here,” Fallon said. “Secretary Mattis and I have agreed that others must now raise their game, and those failing to meet the 2 percent commitment so far should at least agree to year-on-year real terms increases.”

Mattis and Fallon also agreed “that NATO must modernize and streamline its military structures to ensure faster decisions and take a 360-degree view of all the security threats that face us,” the British defense minister added.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson the same day reportedly gave NATO allies two months to either meet the group’s defense budget guidelines or offer up a schedule for doing so.

“Allies that do not have a concrete plan to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024 need to establish one now. Allies that have a plan to reach the 2 percent guideline need to accelerate efforts and show results,” Tillerson said in Brussels at his first meeting with his NATO counterparts.