While the White House reeled from a scandal that forced the resignation of National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, reports emerged on Tuesday that Russia deployed recently developed cruise missiles, a likely violation of a key arms control treaty, and a poke in the eye to an administration that vowed it would have better relations with Moscow.
The missile deployment — and the lack of immediate response from the White House — showcases how the understaffed and embattled new administration is ill-prepared to face security threats, experts and officials say.
The first few weeks of a new presidency “are always a convenient time for our adversaries to test the administration while it’s short-staffed and distracted,” Julie Smith, a former senior White House and Pentagon official, told Foreign Policy. But this administration is “particularly short-staffed,” and, after Flynn’s resignation, “particularly distracted,” she added.
Officials say Russia’s deployment of the ground-launched cruise missiles known as SSC-8, which have a range of 500 to 5,500 km (310 to 3,420 miles), violates the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which bans all ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles in that range. Russia previously irked Washington — and reportedly violated the treaty — when it tested the missiles in 2014.
Deploying the missiles, as opposed to just testing them, “moved [them] from being a potential to an actual threat,” Alexander Vershbow, former U.S. ambassador to Russia and deputy secretary-general of NATO told FP. “It’s a very serious deepening of the problem.”
The missiles are nuclear-capable, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, dealing a hefty symbolic blow to nonproliferation efforts. “It puts Russia in violation of a key U.S.-Russian arms control agreement that helped end the Cold War and removed a significant nuclear threat to our allies in Europe,” Kimball said.
Two Russian battalions now have the cruise missiles, according to the New York Times, which first reported the story on Tuesday. One of the battalions is located in southwestern Russia at a missile test site called Kapustin Yar. The New York Times did not specify where the other battalion was located. It also did not clarify when the cruise missiles were actually deployed.
While Trump stumbles on policies from immigration to Russia, Flynn’s chaotic management style left senior officials disjointed and frustrated, government officials told FP. Some senior military officials even took the unusual move of publicly admonishing their own civilian leaders.
“Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we’re a nation at war,” Gen. Tony Thomas, chief of U.S. Special Operations Command, said Tuesday. When pressed on what he meant, Gen. Thomas later said, “As a commander, I’m concerned our government be as stable as possible.”
The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Nearly 100 days after he won the presidency, Trump still hasn’t named picks to top administration postings that would be first responders for any number of crises, including Russian arms treaty violations. The administration hasn’t gotten anybody yet for top positions including deputy secretaries of state and defense, some senior National Security Council director positions, and other key middle management positions in the sprawling security bureaucracy.
“Russia will push and prod” the administration, said Jorge Benitez, NATO expert at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. “Moscow is probing to see how far it can get.”
Two other incidents involving the Russian military also occurred recently Russian military aircraft buzzed a U.S. destroyer in the Black Sea while it was conducting routine operations. And a Russian spy ship was spotted off the coast of Delaware, the first such reported deployment in two years. Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Valerie Henderson told FP the military is “aware of the vessel’s presence,” and noted it had not entered U.S. territorial waters.
Experts cautioned the incidents may not be related to each other, or, of course, to Flynn’s resignation.
The ship “could no doubt be a test as well, but that doesn’t happen overnight,” Smith said.
Photo credit: EVGENY STETSKO/AFP/Getty Images
Correction, Feb. 15, 2017: Kasputin Yar is a missile test site in southwestern Russia. A previous version of this article misidentified the site’s ordinal direction.