Russia tests Trump, deploys ground-based cruise missiles in violation of arms treaty

They tested Obama the same way for years, and of course, being Obama, he failed. Popular Mechanics lays out the timeline: In 2007, after two decades of intermediate-range ground-based cruise missiles being banned under the INF Treaty, Russia started to test a new one called the SSC-X-8. That went on for seven years before the Obama administration finally felt it had enough evidence to prove that the new missile was in development and was prohibited. It formally accused Russia of breaking the treaty in 2014 but the tests continued. And now, right on time for the great U.S.-Russia detente of 2017, two battalions of the missiles have been made operational and deployed to locations in Russia. (Russia’s been using a very similar sea-based missile, which is legal under the treaty, in attacking rebel positions in Syria.) As an intermediate-range missile, the SSC-8 is designed to threaten Russia’s neighbors — like, say, NATO countries to the west, which would be devastated within minutes after launch. The point of the INF Treaty was to lower tensions on the continent by making that sort of quick-strike option forbidden (at least in ground installations). And now here’s Putin, rolling out a small supply to welcome Trump to international geopolitics by raising that tension once again.

That’s not the only Russian provocation lately either:

Just last week, a US navy warship in the Black Sea had three encounters with Russian aircraft Friday that were deemed to be unsafe and unprofessional because of how close the Russian planes flew to the US, according to a senior defense official.

The USS Porter, a destroyer, was operating in the Black Sea when it was approached three times by Russian aircraft, including one IL-38 and two SU-24s. The Navy calculated the Russian planes may be have flown as close as 1,000 yards laterally from the ship and 1,000 feet over the water, but did not cross the deck of the Porter.

Meanwhile, a US defense official told CNN that the Russian spy ship, the SSV-175 Viktor Leonov, is sailing in international waters off the coast of Delaware. The vessel is outfitted with a variety of high-tech spying equipment and is designed to intercept signals intelligence. Fox News first reported on the ship’s location.

Time for Trump to demand enforcement of the INF Treaty and for those SSC-8s to be shut down, right? It’s not that easy, says arms-control expert Jeffrey Lewis:

But now the US faces a “compliance nightmare,” according to Lewis, because the missiles that violate the INF belong to a family of missiles made by Russia, some of which do not violate the treaty.

“You’re not going to be able to shut down their production facilities, because you’d have to shut down all of their facilities,” said Lewis. And if Russia is deploying the missiles with battalions that have other missiles, then the other missiles become violations by extension.

Why would Russia want to risk a new arms race with the U.S.? Good question. Popular Mechanics doesn’t understand it either, especially since the missiles would be legal if air- or sea-based. Their best guess is that it’s a form of saber-rattling, compensating for Russia’s declining military with a threat of mass destruction to Europe. But that’s not easily explained: The U.S. and NATO obviously can deploy intermediate-range missiles of their own there, threatening Russia with the same form of rapid devastation that the SSC-8 promises. (“Can you imagine the horrifying things we can put in Poland?” said Lewis to Business Insider.) Another simple explanation is that deploying the missiles is a pure test of Trump’s reaction, to see if he’ll jump through the diplomatic hoops Obama did in demanding compliance with the treaty or if he’ll move directly to arms-race countermeasures. Trump recently complained to Putin about a different treaty, New START, claiming it was a bad deal for the United States. Maybe deploying cruise missiles is Putin’s way of getting Trump to learn to appreciate the treaties currently in force between the countries: If Trump really does seek detente with Moscow, including an extension of New START, then perhaps those cruise missiles will be taken offline. It could be, in other words, that Putin has put this piece on the chessboard in the expectation that he’ll remove it later as a concession as part of a broader deal with the United States.

Or maybe the Kremlin has concluded, whether for reasons of prudence or circumstance, that having Trump as an enemy is worth more to them than having him as a friend. Remember, some Russian officials believe that any rapprochement between the U.S. and Russia is doomed by Trump’s mercurial nature; eventually he’ll feel slighted in some way by Putin and will change America’s posture towards Moscow, which means any diplomatic gains will be short-lived. Besides, for a nationalist like Putin who relies on anti-western propaganda to help him consolidate power, a prolonged thaw with the United States would be tricky and maybe even dangerous. Without Washington as an enemy who’s forever attempting to sabotage Russia out from within, why would Russians need a strongman as leader? From Putin’s perspective, deploying the missiles may be win/win: If Trump lets him get away with it then he’s learned something important about Trump’s unwillingness to defend NATO, and if Trump doesn’t let him get away with it then he’s got some useful material to attack Trump with domestically and keep the U.S. in an “enemy” role, even during tentative negotiations between the two sides. Your move, Trump.

Here’s Spicer today at the White House with a valentine for Vladimir.