With Prospect of New Sanctions, US-Russian Relations Continue to Deteriorate

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 20

Russian Economy Minister Anton Syluanov (Source: PressTV)

A bipartisan bill introduced in the United States Senate—the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act (DASKA)—has generated significant nervousness in the corridors of power in Moscow. If passed and signed by the US President, the bill could trigger new sanctions targeting Russian state debt, energy projects abroad and major banks. This new sanctions package was introduced as punishment for Russian actions in Syria and Ukraine, in particular the November 25, 2018, incident in and around the Kerch Strait, where Russian forces fired on and captured three Ukrainian naval ships. The vessels, together with their crews, are being held in custody in Russia. Both the US and the European Union have strongly insisted on their release. The Kremlin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, denounced the DASKA bill as illegal and a manifestation of rabid Russophobia. Finance Minister and First Deputy Prime Minister Anton Syluanov, meanwhile, decried the new sanctions package but expressed optimism that safety measures installed by the Russian government and Central Bank will largely mitigate any negative effects. The US “will shoot itself in the foot,” he defiantly predicted. German Gref, a former economics minister and the current CEO of the state-controlled retail banking behemoth Sbernak, expressed hope that Russia’s state-controlled bank majors would not be hit by any new sanctions. The Russian financial markets have reacted apprehensively: stocks dipped and the ruble depreciated (TASS, February 14).

This week (February 13), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) member state defense ministers gathered in Brussels. The main theme of this ministerial was the fate of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which both Washington and Moscow have “suspended” for six months. By next July, the INF may become officially defunct, and both Russia and the US would be legally freed to deploy ground-based nuclear intermediate-range missiles in Europe and worldwide, as during the Cold War. In 1987, the INF ended an acute European nuclear missile crisis by codifying then-President Ronald Regan’s so called “zero option”—the verified destruction of all US and Soviet land-based nuclear intermediate missiles. NATO and US officials have denied any plans to redeploy intermediate-range missiles in Europe even if the INF is abandoned, noting that it is still possible to “save” the arms-control treaty if Russia agrees to stop cheating and destroys its 9M729 (NATO reporting name: SSC-8) land-based long-range cruise missiles (Interfax, February 14).

The number of deployed 9M729 cruise missiles does not seem to be overly big, less than a hundred perhaps. But Russia has emphatically refused to consider scrapping them. The Russian Ministry of Defense has called in the US military attaché in Moscow and handed him an official note with the list of demands required by Russia as a condition for it staying within the INF Treaty limitations. Specifically, the Pentagon must scrap all its SM-3 Aegis Ashore МK-41 missile-defense (MD) interceptor launch tubes in Poland and Romania and refrain from introducing the Aegis Ashore system in Japan as planned. In effect, this would be a worldwide ban on the Aegis Ashore MD system. The Pentagon must also stop utilizing and destroy the target dummy missiles it uses to test intermediate-range missiles interceptors. Additionally, the Russian defense ministry demands that the US scrap absolutely all of its attack and intelligence-gathering MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper and Avenger unamend aerial vehicles (UAV) as well as all other drones developed by General Atomics Corp. All these weapons, according to Moscow, violate the INF and must be destroyed before Russia agrees to return to the treaty (Militarynews.ru, February 7). Moscow rejects Washington’s protestations that Aegis Ashore, target test missiles and attack drones have nothing to do with intermediate-range nuclear missiles (Militarynews.ru, February 8).

This list of official Russian requests seems ridicules, in particular the demand the US abolish its fleet of modern drones. The note delivered to the US military attaché in Moscow seems to be a public relations stunt intended to guarantee the INF is permanently dead and will not be revived under any circumstances, even if Washington later has second thoughts. The Russian military seems happy the INF is on its way out and that it was Washington that took the initiative to abandon this treaty. Moscow will likely attempt to use that fact to strain Transatlantic bonds within NATO by portraying the Donald Trump administration as irresponsible and putting in jeopardy the security interests of its European allies. Putin has said Russia would move to introduce new intermediate-range missiles after the INF is gone only if the US deploys them first in Europe or Asia. In fact, Washington has no immediate plans to deploy any missiles of this range, nor has it secured any agreements from its allies to allow such deployments. However, the Russian defense ministry has stated clearly that it considers the presence of Aegis Ashore interceptor launchers or MQ-9 Reaper drones in any part of the world to be akin to a US intermediate-range missile deployment. And such contrived semantics “legitimate” Russia to counter (as it already pledged it would) by introducing at least small numbers of nuclear-armed intermediate-range missiles, which are already essentially ready for deployment (see EDM, February 7).

Russia announced it might also deploy nuclear intermediate-range missiles in the Far East and on the Southern Kurile Islands (Interfax, February 14). The sea-based Kalibr-M cruise missile (with a range of 4,500 kilometers or more) could soon be introduced in a land version (Militarynews.ru, January 16; Kommersant, February 4). Deployed in the Far East, on the Kuriles or on the Chukchi Peninsula, it could cover all of Japan as well as US naval and air bases in Asia, Alaska and California. According to the Kremlin-controlled pollster VTsIOM, 63 percent of Russians want the INF to be preserved, and 66 percent believe the Americans had violated the treaty and are responsible for its demise; 77 percent believe Russia did not do anything wrong or violate the INF (Interfax, February 4).

The INF is now essentially dead. Russia has an advantage in the coming years in intermediate-range nuclear missile capability, and the Russian state propaganda machine has been exceling in convincing the domestic population of its narrative—Europeans will be targeted next. Additional US sanctions will make Moscow angry, but hardly enough to seriously change its present course.