Defense Secretary James Mattis spoke at the Reagan National Defense Forum over the weekend, taking the opportunity to discuss critical elements of the U.S. national security strategy, dispel misconceptions about the nation’s defense apparatus, and notably, take a few shots at Russian president Vladimir Putin and even China.

When asked directly about Russia’s recent aggression toward Ukraine, Mattis did not pull his punches, saying, “Well, this is a very complex situation, because Mr. Putin is clearly a slow learner.”

He went on to explain that Putin’s actions — while potentially in line with Russia’s overarching plans to keep Ukraine as a destabilized buffer between Russia’s borders and NATO forces — hurt the Russian people in the eyes of the world.

He is not recognizing that what he is doing is actually creating the animosity against his people. He’s not acting in the best interest of the Russian people, and he is actually causing NATO to rearm and to strengthen the democracy stance, the unified stance of all the democracies together. “

Mattis was then asked by a reporter whether or not relations have worsened between the United States and Russia under the Trump administration. Mattis did not hesitate in saying that they have only become more strained — adding that Russia has continued to try to meddle in American politics through the recent mid-term elections.

There’s no doubt the relationship has worsened. He tried again to muck around in our elections just last month, and we are seeing a continued effort along those lines.

So Russia doesn’t speak with one voice. We find that Russia, on the surface tries to make certain very deceitful statements stick. They don’t stick. Their actions speak louder than words, and it has worsened the relationship.”

While the Defense Secretary did field a number of questions about China, all of which he answered with a measured diplomatic tone indicating a desire to counter their aggression with increased cooperation wherever security would allow, it was his statements that didn’t directly cite China but seemed to pertain to them that offered a glimpse into the retired Marine general’s perspective on America’s Pacific competitor. China has been rapidly expanding its influence around the world by offering massive loans to underdeveloped nations for infrastructure projects that bolster international trade with China specifically. It is widely expected that many of these nations will default on their loans, providing China with significant economic leverage over these nations.

Unlike other nations, we don’t buy friends; we earn them. We do not seek vassal states; we want empowered powers who invest in their own sovereignty and determine their own destiny.”

Among a long list of other issues Mattis also addressed the topic of defense spending. America has long been the global leader in defense spending, with massive figures like 2019’s approved $719 billion often touted as an indicator of how America’s priorities are too focused on military might. Mattis countered these claims by offering a bit of perspective.

So when we measure defense spending, we must realize it’s near historic lows as a share of both the federal budget and our national economy, that in 1957 defense spending was 52 percent of the federal budget, and in 2017 it was 15 percent. Defense spending today accounts for 3 percent of America’s gross domestic product.”

Finally, Mattis also offered another important bit of perspective regarding American exceptionalism. The United States has been the sole super power and possessed the most powerful military on the planet for decades — but in recent years it has fallen behind competitors in a number of key areas. Despite that, many remain critical of the nation’s efforts to close the capability gap presented by new Chinese and Russian weapons systems the U.S. has yet to possess, pointing out that neither Russia nor China possess a military that is as large or robust as America’s.

It is hubris to think that can’t change. We have no preordained right to victory on the battlefield. Our will to win is not more important than our will to prepare to win. This includes warfighting excellence from our military, steady predictable funding from Congress, and engaged support from our most innovative industry leaders, including Silicon Valley. Absent such commitments, we will pay the cost.

As Congress’ own National Defense Strategy Commission report puts it, and I quote here, ‘The cost will not be measured in abstract concepts like international stability and global order; it will be measured in American lives.'”

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