“Russia is fake news,” asserted United States President Donald Trump at his press conference last Thursday (February 16). This broad statement is both true and false, but in neither case is it helpful for his intention to “get along” with Russia (RIA Novosti, February 17). It is true in the sense that Russia produces a massive amount of fake news, some of which may have had some impact on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election in the US. And fake news coming out of Russia continues to poison bilateral relations, like for instance the claim that Trump’s demand to return Crimea to Ukraine is a violation of his electoral promise (Moskovsky Komsomolets, February 15). Yet, the US President’s contention is false in the sense that a great deal of news about compromising connections between the members of the new US administration and Russian officials have turned out to be based in fact—recently leading to the resignation of Michael Flynn from the position of National Security Advisor (see EDM, February 16). Every instance of communication with Russia has become so toxic that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson preferred to take an extremely cautious position on “practical cooperation,” which the Russian media duly presented as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s victory over his US counterpart (Gazeta.ru, February 16).
One important bit of material news coming from Russia was about the deployment of short-range cruise missiles in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty (1988), which the Russian mainstream media vigorously denied as the recycling of an old scandal (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 16). The problem was, indeed, officially recognized as early as mid-2014. But the story’s latest twist came from reports of Russian progress in testing the sea-based Kalibr missile for launch from the ground-based Iskander platform. Thus, the two units of the new SSC-8 missiles are now apparently deployed for combat duty (Gazeta.ru, February 15). This technically elegant combination of two weapons systems creates a nightmare for arms control since all Iskander launchers now become incompatible with the INF treaty’s provisions. It is possible that President Vladimir Putin wanted to pile up some additional bargaining chips after his strategic proposal to extend the New START (2011) nuclear arms control accord was flatly turned down by Trump in their first telephone conversation (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, February 13). What Putin has achieved instead is debates in the US Congress on draft legislation to uphold the INF and punish Russia for those violations (Kommersant, February 18).
The missile problem could have been usefully discussed at the meeting of General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian General Staff, last Thursday. But according to official transcripts, the matter never came up (RBC, February 17). The meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan, had been prepared for several months by the Barack Obama administration; and the main topic of discussion was the prevention of high-risk military incidents (Kommersant, February 16). The issue is indeed of importance, and the mock attack of Russian Su-24M bombers on the USS Porter in the Black Sea, on February 10, provided yet another reminder (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, February 17).
The two countries’ military chiefs also touched upon the ongoing and forthcoming combat operations in Syria, where Russia—in addition to its air force grouping—has deployed two battalions from Chechnya and Ingushetia (RBC, February 13). The prospects for any sort of practical cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State look improbable, and not only because Russia insists on making Bashar al-Assad’s regime a key party to this collective effort. The US administration has redoubled efforts aimed at isolating Iran in the region; whereas Russia—despite some recent disagreements—seeks to expand ties with this Caspian neighbor (Politcom.ru, February 17; see EDM, February 14). Meanwhile, the recently established Russian-Turkish cooperation in Syria seems beset by problems (see EDM, February 16); both sides have blamed the other for the deadly Russian airstrike on a Turkish military position (Gazeta.ru, February 11).
The impracticability of US-Russian cooperation was confirmed by Tillerson, and this departure from the vague intentions expressed by Trump on the electoral campaign trail brings new worries in Europe (RIA Novosti, February 17). Until recently, the main concern was about an inconsiderate rapprochement between Washington and Moscow that would erode the sanctions regime and downplay the deadlocked conflict in Ukraine. Now the Europeans are concerned about Putin’s disappointment in the failure of the imagined “beautiful friendship” with Trump, marked by Flynn’s sacking (Grani.ru, February 16). Finding himself in a “nothing-to-lose” situation, Putin may indeed opt for new experiments in power projection (Carnegie.ru, February 17).
US Vice President Michael Pence sought to alleviate these worries while addressing the Munich security conference last Saturday. Specifically, he confirmed Washington’s commitment to uphold the unity of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (Newsru.com, February 18). Moscow, however, was irked by the statement of US Defense Secretary James Mattis on developing relations with Russia from the “position of strength” (RBC, February 16). Besides assertive rhetoric, Russia has started to employ various pressure levers—from cyber-attacks to diplomatic demarches—to demonstrate to smaller European states, like for instance Norway, that it is Moscow that enjoys an advantageous position of strength (TASS, February 17). NATO often finds it impossible to respond in kind to every Russian provocation, but can successfully demonstrate its readiness to provide necessary support to every member state, for instance by deploying a half-battalion of US Marines to Norway or by taking practical steps toward increasing its presence in the Black Sea theater (Newsru.com, February 16).
The intensity of ire and outrage toward Moscow is increasing steadily in Washington as revelations of past Russian mischief blend with the need to respond to new misbehavior. Putin finds himself close to the point where reconciliatory gestures, like for instance the agreement on a new ceasefire in the Donbas (eastern Ukraine) war zone, pay little or no political dividends. At the same time, undoubtedly Pence’s promise to hold Russia accountable will prompt investigations into the Kremlin’s various “hybrid offensives”—such as the organization of a coup attempt in Montenegro last October (Balkan Insight, February 20). Incentives for caution and moderation have all but disappeared, but the irritation in Moscow with US efforts at restoring “greatness” while denying it to Russia is building. Putin may yet opt for a wait-and-see stance, expecting that scandals in Washington lead to political paralysis. But temptations to test Western unity anew will remain strong.