The recent stray spy ship and the fly-bys in the Black Sea are signs that the Kremlin is engaging in its favorite pastime: pushing America's buttons.
- By Mark GaleottiMark Galeotti is a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Affairs Prague and a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Last week, a Russian spy ship — the SSV-175 Viktor Leonov, to be specific — spent a few days loitering approximately 30 miles off the East Coast of the United States. It patrolled up to Connecticut, then down to Virginia, generating an enormous amount of consternation along the way.
Members of Congress discussed the ship in speeches on the House floor. It entered the popular conversation, becoming the subject of tweets by the likes of comedian Chelsea Handler. Asked about it during his now-infamous press conference on Thursday, the new U.S. president himself declared its presence to be “not good!” and speculated aloud that he would be praised if he took the decision to shoot it “out of the water.”
The ship came in the wake, so to speak, of a few other incidents that set off alarm bells in Washington and elsewhere. Last week, the New York Times reported that Russia had secretly deployed cruise missiles — it’s not clear when — in likely defiance of a 1987 arms treaty. Then, a few days later, Russian fighters buzzed a U.S. destroyer in the Black Sea.
That these events sparked panic among people who ought to know better is almost certainly a reflection of the ongoing Russia-related tensions in U.S. politics at the moment. The incidents themselves are hardly cause for alarm, though they should be cause for carefully calibrated response. As perplexed as the rest of us not quite sure what to make of Trump, the Russians are trying to get a sense for his administration’s neuralgic points and red lines. And, as usual, they’re turning to their military as a political instrument.
For all the talk of Donald Trump as the “Siberian Candidate,” Moscow has actually been rather wary of their supposed puppet. Yes, bombastic nationalist parliamentarians such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky were popping the champagne corks when Trump was elected. And Trump’s evident hostility to the European Union, his lack of enthusiastic commitment to Ukraine, and the growing acrimony and divisions within the American governing classes are all very much in Russia’s interests. (The split between the White House and the intelligence community is a particular delight to them.)
But Russia’s professional foreign-policy and national security establishments were worried from the start. The new U.S. administration has partially backed away from some of its initial inexplicable enthusiasm for Moscow, with Trump finally accepting that Crimea was “taken” and needs to be returned. Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov was speaking the truth when he affirmed last week that “We never wore rose-tinted glasses, never had any illusions,” about the likelihood of an improved Russo-American relationship. When the world’s only true superpower becomes unpredictable and pugnacious, no one can be comfortable. Having for so long been able to exploit U.S. predictability and restraint, the Russians are having to come to terms with a rather different era.
And so, the Kremlin is beginning to stage some smaller-scale provocations and incidents in an effort to calibrate the new U.S. administration.
These sorts of limited missions are what the Russian military is for — at least when deployed to the West. Yes, Russian soldiers are engaged in shooting wars in Ukraine and Syria. But in the West, they are typically used for what I have called “heavy metal diplomacy” — a sort of coercive, aggressive smokescreen, essentially, which seeks to divide, distract, and deter the West so that it is less able and willing to challenge Russian aggression in areas closer to its own borders, its self-proclaimed sphere of influence.
As such, Russia’s military power is typically an unsubtle instrument when used in the West — a hammer rather than a scalpel, such as when Russian bombers simulate a nuclear attack on Sweden. Yet even a hammer can also be a diagnostic tool when a doctor uses one to check a patient’s reflexes. So, too, can the Russians use their military to test Western responses, moods and limits.
This is what seems to be happening now. Within Ukraine — where Moscow seems to believe, probably with good reason, that Washington is losing interest — the Russians have not only encouraged their local proxies to step up their skirmishes but, in a serious hint that they see it becoming frozen, long-term, they are recognizing passports issued by their illegal local puppet states. Outside Ukraine, however, these most recent provocations have been strikingly limited. A single ship buzzed, a single unit of four SSC-8 cruise missiles deployed, a single spy ship, carefully staying in international waters. Each is testing Washington’s response to a different kind of stimulus, and delicately enough in the hope of not undermining Trump or forcing him into a corner. Is he going to get macho about bird-flipping fly-bys? How far will the new administration care about past arms treaties? (Trump’s reported dismissal of the 2010 New START ballistic missile treaty as a “bad deal” suggests not.) Or does it see Russian intelligence gathering as the really serious threat?
With this in mind, we should not assume that every exercise or deployment is a prelude to war. There certainly is no cause for panic. Putin is probing the United States for the sake of testing it, not seriously threatening it.
But that makes Washington’s response that much more crucial. The old cliché about not getting a second chance to make a first impression certainly applies in diplomacy. At present, the Russians are uncertain quite what to make of the new administration. But if they are able to cycle through their “heavy metal diplomacy” greatest hits with only token responses, then they may conclude Trump’s America is a pushover.
Trump is hardly lacking in options, from tougher verbal condemnations, to implicit military warnings (the suggestion, say, that Russian cruise missile deployments may force America to deploy more air defense systems in Europe) to asymmetric retaliation (such as letting it be known that the next time an American ship is buzzed, Ukraine’s soldiers will be getting some new shipments of body armor or night-vision gear).
For the time being, it appears as if the administration is too distracted by its own internal tumult to offer up any response at all. Last week’s Munich Security Conference did provide an opportunity for that triumvirate of grown-ups in the administration – Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Defense Secretary James Mattis — to try and reassure America’s allies and talk a little tougher on Russia. But whether this will be taken as a real warning or simply be interpreted as further proof of a dysfunctional, divided U.S. government remains to be seen.
Until the Kremlin has a sense of where the Trump administration’s red lines lie, we’re unlikely to have seen the last of these little acts of geopolitical trolling. The Kremlin regards its military as an integral part of its political and diplomatic arsenal (even its take on hybrid warfare embraces political wars that will never reach the lethal phase). So, we must not panic — but we must also give a strong and, perhaps most importantly, a consistent response, lest we only encourage more fly-bys, and perhaps, even more awkwardly timed spy ships.
Photo credit: Adam Berry/Getty Images