Home / Article / Flynn-McMaster Musical Chairs: Where will Trump’s Russia Pivot Go?

Flynn-McMaster Musical Chairs: Where will Trump’s Russia Pivot Go?

The forced resignation of President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor, General Michael Flynn, over his alleged inappropriate communications with the Russian Ambassador to the United States during the transition period, has provoked speculation that President Trump’s plans to develop cordial relations with Russia have hit a major snag.

Those who anticipate a more difficult process of US-Russian diplomatic thawing point to General Flynn’s replacement, General H.R. McMaster, as someone who holds more traditional and skeptical views about Russia than his predecessor. 

General Flynn participated in a Moscow conference in August 2016, celebrating the anniversary of the Russia Today television network. During that visit, Flynn had the opportunity to sit next to President Vladimir Putin at a banquet, where they spoke privately. During the campaign and the transition period, General Flynn frequently expressed the view that Russian-American cooperation was one key to winning the war against the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. 

The three-star Army General who has replaced Flynn has been the director of the US Army’s Capabilities Integration Center and the deputy commander of the Training and Doctrine Command (Tradoc) since 2014. In those capacities, he has studied Russia’s rapid military advances, both at the strategic nuclear and conventional level.

In several recent public speeches, General McMaster spoke of his concerns about Russia’s new aggressive actions. In a May 2016 speech at the Potomac Foundation, he told the audience that “we have awakened to this threat from Russia,” warning that Russia’s new military doctrine aimed “not at defensive objectives but at offensive objectives to collapse the post-World War II, certainly the post-Cold War, security, economic and political order and replace that order with something that is more sympathetic to Russian interests.”

In his speech at the College of William and Mary a month after the Potomac Foundation appearance, McMaster defined Russia, China, Iran and North Korea as “revisionist powers,” adding that Russia’s successful intervention in Syria had boosted “Russia’s subversive efforts in Europe.”

The broad consensus is that General McMaster is a strong believer in the NATO alliance, and believes that the forward basing of American forces near both Russia and China are vital to the security of those regions.

Despite these well-documented statements, General McMaster also has a long-standing reputation as an independent and innovative thinker. General Martin Dempsey, one of the most respected former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, once called General McMaster one of the finest military officers of his generation.

Defense Secretary James Mattis and General David Petraeus both recommended General McMaster for the NSC post, after Petraeus learned that he would not be offered the job. McMaster enjoys the backing of some of the leading anti-Russia hawks in the Senate, including Tom Cotton and John McCain. 

But President Trump was attracted to McMaster because of his willingness to challenge conventional authorities and viewpoints. In 1997, as a junior officer, McMaster wrote a scathing attack on the Johnson Administration, including LBJ, Defense Secretary Robert MacNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for allowing the United States to be dragged into the Indochina War. Among other things, that book, “Dereliction of Duty”, won him praise from historians and critics of the Vietnam fiasco, but it angered military commanders, and stalled his promotion to General for several years.

McMaster is widely seen as far more qualified to manage the National Security portfolio at the White House. His experiences as a combat commander in Iraq, during the height of the insurgency following the 2003 invasion, demonstrated leadership and management skills. McMaster has good relations with the US Intelligence Community, both at the Pentagon and the CIA. He will represent a potential formidable obstacle to President Trump’s strategic adviser, Steven Bannon, who has been put in charge of a White House Strategic Initiatives Group, which could be a rival to the NSC.

In an interview a week ago, President Trump showed signs of his own second thoughts about the full embrace of Russia and Vladimir Putin. He pointedly warned that he takes reports of Russia’s alleged violations of the INF Treaty very seriously. He sent Defense Secretary Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence to the annual Munich Security Conference to assure European allies that he is not about to abandon NATO (at the same time, however, Steve Bannon made contradictory statements, warning that the Europeans were expected to boost defense spending to more fairly share the burdens of European security).

On a deeper level, however, the more cautious approach to Moscow is a natural consequence of the Trump Administration finally settling into office, and catching up with the complex dimensions of the US-Russia relationship. By now, President Trump and his top national security aides have been briefed on Russia’s significant leaps in nuclear weapons technology, which has also been accompanied by a dangerous modification in Russia’s military doctrine for their use.

General McMaster has been at the center of this evolution of the US strategic assessment of the Russia threat, through his postings at Tradoc.

And General Mattis’ first assignment as Secretary of Defense was to come up with a 30-day review and recommendations for how to conduct the war against ISIL and Al Qaeda and their offshoots. Those who are close to that review report that one aspect of that study was a detailed reassessment of the Russian strategy and objectives in Syria, since their September 30, 2015 direct military intervention. Was the Russian goal primarily to defeat ISIL or to preserve Bashar Al Assad’s regime, along with Russian strategic interests in the Mediterranean basin?

The results of that review, and how President Trump responds to it, will shape the next phase of US-Russian negotiations over “deconfliction” and possible greater coordination of operations against the ISIL.

However, there is no question that US-Russian diplomatic process will go forward. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who also has had a long-standing personal relationship with Vladimir Putin from his years as the CEO of Exxon-Mobil, has already had several meetings with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov; and General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with his Russian counterpart, General Genady Gerasimov.

Far more important than the transition from Flynn to McMaster is the simple reality that the President and his key advisers have now been briefed on the complexities of the US-Russia game: The implications of the Ukraine situation, including the benefits and down-sides of the US and European sanctions; the challenges in the Arctic region; Syria; the strategic nuclear stalemate and prospects for nuclear disarmament; the Russia-China evolving strategic partnership and a host of other issues.

President Trump is a pragmatist whose strengths lie in his negotiating skills, which require a degree of intellectual toughness and flexibility. The US-Russia relationship, like the US-China relationship, is of great strategic importance, and can define success or failure in most of the global crisis spots. The simplistic slogans of the presidential campaign are no longer sufficient. 

In recent speeches and interviews, President Trump made clear that he believes that the United States and Russia must come to a better understanding than existed during the Obama years. He made the simple point that the massive overkill arsenals of thermonuclear weapons still in the possession of the US and Russia, alone, make it vital that the two powers come to some understanding.

That kind of thinking was Donald Trump’s and it did not depend on Michael Flynn, nor will it depend on H.R. McMaster. Trump is now better briefed, more aware of the complexities that must be addressed if there is to be a genuine re-set with Moscow. 

* March 2 2017

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