Mattis Condemns Russian Actions Yet Urges Waivers for Arms Sales

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Russia should pay a price for its “destabilizing behavior,” but added that any punishment shouldn’t apply sanctions to allies who buy Russian military equipment.

In a letter Wednesday to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Mattis urged lawmakers crafting a fiscal 2019 defense policy bill to let the State Department waive sanctions intended to restrict purchases of Russian equipment by other countries. The Pentagon chief argued that the U.S. has a strategic interest in working with nations that are transitioning to closer ties with America but may still depend on Russian equipment.

“Russia should suffer consequences for its aggressive and destabilizing behavior as well as its continuing illegal occupation of Ukraine,” Mattis wrote in the letter obtained by Bloomberg News. Still, “as we impose necessary and well-justified costs on Russia for its malign behavior, at the same time there is a compelling need to avoid significant unintended damage to our long-term, national strategic interests,” he said.

The letter from Mattis comes as lawmakers in both parties have called for actions -- potentially including tougher sanctions -- after President Donald Trump’s controversial performance at his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin as well as the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence agents on charges that include the hacking of Democratic Party email accounts during the 2016 election.

‘Boxing Us In’

Mattis told McCain’s panel in April that a 2017 sanctions law is “boxing us in” because “there are nations in the world who are trying to turn away from formerly Russian-sourced weapons and systems.” Mattis told lawmakers “we only need to look at India, Vietnam and some others to recognize that” because “eventually, we’re going to paralyze ourselves.”

Now the Pentagon chief wants the secretary of state be given the waiver authority as part of the defense bill that’s under negotiations this week.

“Without a national security waiver option, in the end we will pay a greater strategic price than Russia by pushing potential partners into deeper dependency on Russia,” Mattis wrote. He added that “some nations who now actively seek a security relationship with the United States still rely on Russia for spare parts and other material needed to sustain” their equipment “during the transition period” to closer U.S. relations.

Mattis warned that failing to grant the State Department the waiver authority risks “inadvertently giving Russia a significant strategic advantage” and places “undue burden on current and future allies and partners.”

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