Top U.S. intelligence officials are refusing to back down over concerns about Russia, even as U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian officials lament what they describe as deteriorating relations between the two countries.
“Our values and our interests are not aligned naturally,” Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told a small group of reporters this week.
“Russia desires to be the center of influence in the European theater,” Stewart said. “There will be a perpetual contest between us and the Russian state for either regional or global dominance.”
Stewart, who spoke before the latest public sparring between Trump and Congress over Washington’s approach to Russia, also warned of Moscow’s ability to interfere and shape the playing field.
“They’ve got their heads wrapped around the idea that 21st-century warfare is as much cognitive as it is kinetic,” Stewart said.
This is not the first time Stewart, who has led the DIA since July 2015, has warned about Russia’s intentions.
In the DIA’s “Russia Military Power” report, released in late June, Stewart cautioned that Russia “is manipulating the global information environment” and was especially successful in Crimea and in Syria at “shaping the information environment to suit its interests.”
Despite such warnings from Stewart and other high-ranking intelligence officials, Trump has pushed for improving ties with Russia.
This past week, the president signed legislation authorizing new, tough sanctions against Russia but took to Twitter, warning of the consequences.
“Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low,” President Trump tweeted, adding, “You can thank Congress.”
Trump has also dismissed concerns about multiple investigations into allegations of possible collusion between his presidential campaign and the Russians, telling a rally in West Virginia on Thursday, “The Russia story is a total fabrication.”
Russian officials have been quick to echo Trump’s sentiments.
“We fully share this opinion,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Friday, when asked about ties between the U.S. and Russia being at a “very dangerous low.”
A tweet from Russia’s embassy in South Africa said the U.S. was using “primitive Cold War era cliches.”
Those themes were also picked up and disseminated by Russian disinformation networks on Twitter, according to a new online dashboard from the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Hashtags with “trumprally” and “westvirginia” were used with heavy or increased frequency during the course of Thursday and Friday based on the dashboard’s look at about 600 Twitter accounts with links to Russia’s propaganda efforts.
In addition to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency director, other top U.S. intelligence officials have warned about Russia’s influence activities.
“They’re trying to undermine Western democracy,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Aspen Security Forum late last month, admitting Russia’s influence efforts are “quite a bit more sophisticated than they used to be.”
CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who like Coats was nominated by Trump, told the same forum there was no doubt in his mind Russia would continue efforts to meddle in U.S. elections.
“They have been at this a hell of a long time,” Pompeo said. “And I don’t think they have any intention of backing off.”
Still, Pompeo refused to rule out working with Russia in areas where Moscow and Washington could find common ground, such as counterterrorism.
He said that “if Russia has information that can help us fight the CT [counterterror] fight around the world, it’s my duty” to work with them and “the right thing to do.”