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‘Tougher now than it ever was’: Mattis talks Russia-Ukraine war, China, Capitol attacks in visit to WSU Pullman

UPDATED: Fri., March 25, 2022

PULLMAN – In a visit Thursday to Washington State University, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis acknowledged the elephant in the room: the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the resulting war.

Mattis, the first in-person speaker in the Foley Institute’s distinguished lecture series since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, took questions primarily on the war in Ukraine, but also China, national stability and other related issues. He spoke to an audience that included students and military servicemembers in the Bryan Hall Theatre.

“I think it’s going to be tougher now than it ever was, and we’re just going to have to find ways to do it,” Mattis said of U.S.-China relations. “That’s why I hope some of you are studying diplomatic history and military history here … because we need young people to come in with fresh ideas that can help guide us through this perilous time.”

Mattis, a retired four-star Marine Corps general and a Pullman native, spent parts of his 43-year military career commanding forces in the Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq wars prior to his service as defense secretary under President Donald Trump. He resigned in early 2019.

Mattis, who would not say whether he has spoken to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin about the war in Ukraine, said he believes the country has seen presidents and administrations from both major parties do their “very best” to try to bring Russia into global communities, specifically NATO.

Speaking to President Joe Biden’s response, Mattis commended the administration for providing weapons, diplomatic support and economic sanctions “that are breaking the already sick Russian economy.”

Mattis said he would like to see more humanitarian aid contributions from the U.S. – not just for refugees who have lost their homes, but also to tell Ukrainians “you’re going to rise again, the world’s going to come back, we’re going to help you rebuild and you will be free.”

“But I think the weapons we’re providing, the intelligence that we’re sharing more openly than I’ve ever seen our intelligence shared, at least in my lifetime, I think we’re doing the right things right now,” he said.

Reports have shown Russia’s progress has slowed, with the country facing mounting and unforeseen losses and setbacks.

Mattis said he is only surprised by how “inept” Russian troops have been, describing them as poorly led, trained, equipped and briefed. He framed his perspective with a time in his career when he fought Russian troops in Syria.

“They did OK bombing Aleppo and killing women and children. They’re pretty good at that, and they’re proving that they’re good at it still,” he said. “As soon as they run into guys with guns that mean business, suddenly they don’t seem quite 10 feet tall, do they?

“It’s a tragedy, though,” he continued, “because I bet most of the Russian boys – conscripts, it turns out – would not choose to fight this war right now.”

What it might take Russian President Vladimir Putin to back down, however, is the big question, Mattis said.

He said that could involve giving Putin an out to save face, such as a show of “denazification” by Ukraine. At the same time, Mattis said that the Russians have willingly and wittingly killed women and children, as well as committed “a hundred other (war) crimes.”

Acknowledging that the people responsible for those crimes should be held accountable, Mattis said military leaders in some cases are able to track down the culprits by name thanks to the Russians’ “lack of communications discipline.”

“Ukrainian President (Volodymyr) Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people have made it clear there are some things that are nonnegotiable,” Mattis said. “So we’ve got to stand by the Ukrainians. We’ve got to make sure we don’t lose track of our own values.”

The unification of Western democracies is key to any solution, Mattis said.

He commended Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO, for making NATO “stronger than ever,” as well as Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission who he said had sanctions against Russia ready to go on short notice.

“We have a lot of arguments with each other,” he said, “but when we all pull together here at home and we all pull together with our allies and like-minded nations, that’s going to give Putin pause.

“Will it be enough to take an angry, hostile, isolated old man and stop him?” Mattis continued. “Well, welcome to war. It’s unpredictable.”

Mattis said the U.S. and NATO countries should take the threat of chemical and nuclear weapons seriously given Russia’s history, including the country’s involvement in the Syrian civil war.

Western democracies recognize the need to keep the war from going any further, Mattis said, adding that is why they are not giving Zelenskyy everything he has requested.

Zelenskyy, who Mattis commended as “courageous” and “inspirational,” has asked NATO for tanks and jets, as well as help establishing a no-fly zone over parts of Ukraine.

“It’s bad now. If you want to see Ukraine get forgotten about, see this war expand,” Mattis said. “Part of what you do, on a strategic level, is you choose the least of bad options, and that’s what’s going on right now.”

On China

China’s stance through the war – between refusing to condemn Russia and amplifying unsupported claims that the U.S. is financing biological weapons labs in Ukraine – have been telling, Mattis said.

Asked whether military conflict between the U.S. and China is inevitable, however, Mattis said leaders can always find diplomatic solutions. In this case, the former secretary of defense recommended “philosophical discussions” for China and the U.S. to “manage” their differences – ones similar, Mattis said, to those the United States had with the Soviet Union to prevent a nuclear conflict.

“I think very few nations are going to look at China’s role right now as anything but full-fledged support for Russia,” he said. “China has shown their colors – again, I might add.”

‘What worries me most’

Mattis has repeatedly warned of how internal divisions within the U.S. are dangerous to the country’s well-being. He did so again Thursday.

In that respect, Mattis said he never thought he would see anything like the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attacks. This after a military career during which, he said, he saw forms of tribal hatred in countries across the world.

Ultimately, the Capitol attacks left Mattis “disgusted.”

“This is what worries me most, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “because if we can’t keep our friendship and our respect for each other, we are not going to be able to have a government of the people, by the people and for the people.”

Referring to his generation not as the “greatest,” but the “luckiest,” Mattis urged the students in the audience “to reject this kind of gladiatorial combat and start looking at ways you can roll your sleeves up and work together.”

“I am not impressed by what my generation has done in turn to pass it on.”

The 71-year-old Mattis, who retired from military service in 2013, published a book in his post-military life, “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead.” He is currently serving as the Davies Family Distinguished Fellow at Stanford University.

Would Mattis return to a life of public service if asked?

“I won’t be asked back,” he said. Mattis later added, “It doesn’t matter if it’s Republican or Democrat, male/female, I don’t care – if the president asks, go back. Go back and give it your best shot.”

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