President Trump acknowledged increased U.S. tensions with Russia on Wednesday, but said he would “see what happens” in the long-term.
“It would be wonderful, as we were discussing just a little while ago, if NATO and our country could get along with Russia. Right now we’re not getting along with Russia at all. We may be at an all-time low in terms of relationship with Russia,” he said after meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the White House.
“But we’re going to see what happens,” he said. “[Vladimir] Putin is the leader of Russia. Russia is a strong country. We’re a very, very strong country. We’re going to see how that all works out.”
U.S. tensions with Russia have skyrocketed since Trump last week ordered cruise missile strikes against its ally, the Syrian regime, after the U.S. military presented evidence that Syria conducted a chemical weapons attack on April 4 that killed more than 80 people, including women and children.
U.S. officials are looking into whether Russia knew about the pending chemical weapons attack ahead of time, and whether they tried to help Syria cover it up.
Trump said it was possible but “probably unlikely” that Russia did not know about the chemical weapons attack in advance. “We’ll find out,” he said.
Trump also said he had “absolutely no doubt” he did the right thing in ordering the cruise missile strike in response to the chemical weapons attack.
“It shouldn’t be allowed. That’s a butcher. That’s a butcher,” he said in reference to Syrian regime leader Bashar Al Assad. “So, I felt we had to do something about it. I have absolutely no doubt we did the right thing. And it was very, very successfully done, as you well know.”
The press conference came after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Putin on Wednesday. Tillerson took a hard line against Russia ahead of the meeting, but both sides expressed a positive tone during a press conference after the meeting. Trump said he thought Tillerson did a “terrifice job.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg echoed Trump’s call for cooperation with Russia, but said the U.S. and NATO need to be strong in the face of Russian assertiveness.
“We have to find ways to engage with Russia, to talk with Russia. Because Russia will not go away. Russia will be our biggest neighbor. And we have to find ways to live with them and to try and avoid a new Cold War, a new arms race,” he said.
But he added, “I strongly believe that the only way to deter Russia is to be strong.”
“The only way to avoid a new Cold War, avoid the arms race, and avoid increasing tensions is to continue to engage Russia in a political dialogue and to make sure that what we do is defensive and proportionate in response to a more assertive Russia.”
It was the first meeting for Trump and Stoltenberg since Trump’s election. The two struck a friendly tone and agreed on the need for NATO members to increase defense spending, to lessen the burden on the U.S.
Trump said NATO has been the “bulwark of international peace and security,” and is no longer “obsolete.”