A Year of Mounting US-Russian Tensions, and More to Come in 2019

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 176

Russia’s relations with the West steadily worsened throughout 2018, and hopes that the presumed positive chemistry between United States President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, might help find some way to reverse this trend never materialized. The long-awaited full-scale Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16, was a PR disaster that caused a mega-storm of criticism in the US media and rebukes by both parties in Congress. Trump was accused of being too friendly and submissive at the joint press conference after the talks, though apparently nothing much of substance was in fact decided or traded off (see EDM, July 19, 23). Tensions, misunderstandings and punitive sanctions continued to pile up.

Both Trump and Putin are seen in Moscow as ideologically close. Therefore, the belief that Trump and Putin could come together, find common ground, make a grand deal and drastically figure out relations is still alive in Russia (Kommersant, November 13). Both the Kremlin and the White House worked hard on the agenda of the follow-up Trump-Putin summit planned for December 1, 2018, in Buenos Aires, on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Argentina. But Washington called off this official face-to-face meeting with minimal notice, after Russian forces shot at and captured three small Ukrainian naval ships near the mouth of the Kerch Strait, in the Black Sea, on November 25. The Ukrainian ships were heading into the Sea of Azov, where Ukraine controls two major port cities—Mariupol and Berdyansk. But Russia claims the Kerch Strait, which connects the Black and Azov seas, is its internal waterway (on account of having annexed Crimea in 2014), in which the international law of the sea does not apply. The Ukrainian ships were impounded and their crews captured and taken to Moscow, to the Federal Security Service’s (FSB) notorious Lefortovo prison. The 24 captured Ukrainian service members are being interrogated and face the possibility of harsh prison sentences. Trump apparently refused to have a direct formal meeting with Putin as long as the Ukrainian sailors and ships are not freed, which may not happen anytime soon (see EDM, November 26, 28, 29).

Russia and the US are at loggerheads on many issues, and the prospects of a meaningful détente look extremely dim. But up to now, both sides have successfully avoided any direct clashes between their militaries. In Syria, both US and Russian forces are deployed and engaged in parallel air and land actions against Islamist militants. A “de-confliction” agreement has been in force, preventing direct clashes, though fighting by proxy still happens. The best-known and extremely bloody incident happened on February 7, east of the Euphrates River, in the oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour. A battalion-size armed group of forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—apparently mostly Russian contractors or mercenaries from the notorious private military company (known in Russia as Chastnaya Voennaya Companiya or ChVK) Wagner—attacked US Special Forces. The US commandos were embedded with Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and were using a dysfunctional oil refinery as an operational base. The Russian-dominated force was supported by armor and artillery and vastly outnumbered the Americans, but was decimated by US airpower during a several-hours-long night engagement. The Russian command in Syria refused to acknowledge the Russian contractors as their own; though apparently, after the Wagner personnel were defeated, Moscow asked the US forces to cease fire to allow the removal of the dead and wounded from the battlefield. The story of this humiliating rout was essentially suppressed by the Russian authorities (see EDM, February 15).

After the recent Black Sea incident, Ukraine declared Martial Law for 30 days, mainly in regions bordering Russia or territories occupied by Russian forces; Kyiv has partially called up reservists and increased the country’s battle readiness in anticipation of a possible Russian invasion (see EDM, December 12). Moscow, of course, denies it has any plans to attack (see EDM, November 29). Even in a worst-case scenario, if a winter war between Ukrainian and Russian (or Russian-backed) forces breaks out, the probability of it evolving into a direct US-Russian skirmish are low. That said, the US military has apparently expanded its reconnaissance operations close to the line of control in Donbas, the Sea of Azov and Crimea, using spy planes and drones; it could support Ukraine in the event of an attack, but not directly with military personnel (Militarynews.ru, December 6).

Other possible US-Russian hot spots may develop in 2019. The Kerch Strait is not the only place where Moscow claims international sea waterways as its sovereign internal waters. In March 2014, the United Nations agreed to allow Russia to claim an extension of its continental shelf beyond the standard 200-mile exclusive economic zone, to cover an area in the center of the Sea of Okhotsk. Russia has interpreted this as recognition of the Sea of Okhotsk as an “internal Russian sea.” The Sea of Okhotsk serves as the deployment zone for Russia’s nuclear strategic-missile-carrying submarines based in Kamchatka, which makes it extremely important to keep foreign ships out (Gazeta.ru, November 19).

Moreover, Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev, the chief of the supreme command-and-control center of the Ministry of Defense (Natsionalnyi Tsentr Upravleniya Oboroni RF), announced that, in 2019, foreign military ships will need to request passage to be allowed trough the Russian-claimed Arctic seas, from the Barents Sea to the Bering Strait—the so called Sevmorput or Northern Sea Route (Interfax, November 30; see EDM, December 4). According to Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin, “[T]he struggle to control natural resources and obtain access to the Sevmorput are accelerating in the Arctic.” Fomin pointed to the US and its allies as the main culprits raising international tensions. Russia will reply by increasing battle readiness, he added (Interfax, November 30).

Russia’s moves to privatize the seas surrounding its territory will surely be met with the US Navy running more freedom of navigation (FON) operations. The first such operation aimed at Russia since the Cold War was performed by the guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell in the Sea of Japan, close to Vladivostok, on December 5. The Russian military claimed it shadowed the McCampbell, but that the US vessel never came close to Russian territorial waters and was essentially scared away without the use of force (Interfax, December 6). In 2019, additional FONs may spread to the Sea of Okhotsk, the Sevmorput, and maybe the Black Sea or even the Azov or the Kerch Strait. The Russian response to such “provocations” could be increasingly violent. Next year may see US-Russian skirmishes steadily mounting worldwide.