One of the more persistent techniques used by Russian Information Operations is to have government officials release contradictory statements.
“Russia will not stand for this NATO aggression!” Says minor party member.
“The presence of even an additional brigade along Russia’s borders is meaningless, purely symbolic.” Says different minor party member.
In both cases, Russia needs both statements to be absolutely true, because at some point in the future the Russian leader can say, “We’ve always said that these NATO exercises were pointless and ineffective” OR “We’ve put up with too much NATO aggression and now the west must accept the consequences of their own actions!”
The point is that the “truth” that Russia wants in the future needs to be supported by the statements in the press now, and Russia is more than happy to take both sides on any issue to ensure future flexibility.
With that in mind, Secretary of Defense Mattis made his first official phone call as SecDef to the head of NATO and reassured NATO that America still stood with NATO. This is even at the same time that President Trump has never rescinded his statement that America wouldn’t automatically come to the aid of an ally that “wasn’t paying it’s fair share.”
This schizophrenic policy duet is probably the best possible response to Russia’s current situation, being aggressive towards neighbors and losing money due to the international sanctions. At some point the current “status quo” must either break into a “thaw” or into “war.” Russia going broke and having a huge internal upheaval is an extremely distant third option.
So at some point in the future Trump can say, “I and my administration have always offered an olive branch to Russia.” or they can say “We supported our NATO obligations to their fullest in the fact of immanent Russian invasion.” By owning both sides of the issue SecDef Mattis and President Trump have diplomatic wiggle room for the future.
This is totally at odds with Obama’s policy which was much more defined, and therefore much easier to manipulate.
At the nation state level, relations between the US and Russia is best understood as a dance where both are trying to lead. The struggle is to keep dancing rather than stop dancing. Throughout the Cold War this “tango” between US and Russian leadership took on great subtlety and years would pass between changes in the beat, key, or tempo.
Now…whether Russia responds well to a dose of it’s own IO tactics remains to be seen. Russia has always had longer serving leadership than the US, so Russia can afford to play a longer game. Possibly the best outcome from the Trump administration is just to kick the can four more years into the future.