The ouster of the U.S. national security advisor, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, on February 13 is seen in Moscow as a serious setback and a victory of anti-Russian forces trying to prevent a normalization of relations between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
Dmitry Peskov, Mr. Putin’s press secretary, refused to comment on Mr. Flynn’s forced resignation, insisting this was an internal matter for the U.S. The Kremlin confirmed Mr. Flynn had contacts with the Russian ambassador in Washington, Sergei Kislyak, last December, before Mr. Trump’s inauguration. But Mr. Peskov claimed that the U.S. media’s interpretation of the content of these contacts is “wrong” (Interfax, February 14).
The chair of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Russian Federation Council (the upper chamber of Parliament), Konstantin Kosachev, wrote on his Facebook page, “Ousting a National Security Advisor for contacts with a Russian ambassador is worse than simply paranoia.” According to Mr. Kosachev, “Flynn visited Moscow previously and was, unlike other American officials, open to dialogue on improving relations.” President Trump has failed to become a truly independent political player, Mr. Kosachev suggested, and is being cornered by opponents; or the new administration has become riddled by Russophobia. The chair of the Foreign Relation Committee of the Duma (the lower chamber of Parliament), Leonid Slutsky, called the ouster of Mr. Flynn a “provocation” – “the target was not Flynn, but Russia.” Russian foreign policy experts and officials see the Trump White House surrounded by enemies and besieged by “sore loser” Democrats supported by Russophobe Republican senators, all building up a possible case for impeachment. Russian experts advise Mr. Trump to push back by exposing the alleged massive voter fraud during last November’s elections (Interfax, February 14).
As the implications of Mr. Flynn’s dismissal were being assessed in Moscow, The New York Times reported that Russia is violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty by deploying long-range land-based cruise missiles. This story was confirmed by an unnamed Trump government official. Allegedly, two “rocket divisions” (a Russian rocket or artillery “division” is the equivalent of a Western battery) of land-based cruise missiles prohibited by the INF have already been deployed for testing and possible combat use.
Moscow denies violating the INF; in turn, it accused Washington of gross noncompliance with the treaty by deploying SM-3 interceptors of the land-based Aegis missile defense (MD) system at the Romanian Deveselu base, west of Bucharest. Russian officials imply that MD interceptors in silos at Deveselu could be easily and secretly replaced with U.S. long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles. Purportedly, those Tomahawks could be fired pre-emptively in a decapitation strike to suddenly make Russia defenseless by killing its military and political leaders (Interfax, February 14).
Russia is developing the Iskander-K missile system – a modified Iskander-M launcher carrying four cruise missile tubes instead of two ballistic Iskander missiles. In November 2014, the Defense Ministry’s TV Zvezda channel reported that Iskander missiles deployed in Crimea may wipe out the Deveselu base if their range is extended “to several thousand kilometers” by using a modified long-range Kalibr cruise missile (TV Zvezda, November 14, 2014).
Last April, the defense ministry published footage of the test-launch of long-range land-based cruise missiles using the Iskander-K missile launcher. It was announced the Iskander-K cruise missiles had a range of under 500 kilometers, to comply with the INF treaty (TV Zvezda, April 23).
Last week, Mr. Kosachev told reporters that the alleged Russian noncompliance with the INF was “information warfare” aimed at “Russia and those in the new U.S. administration that want to improve relations” (Militarynews.ru, February 15). According to the chair of the Federation Council Defense Committee, Viktor Ozerov, Russia “did not deploy anything in violation of the INF” (Militarynews.ru, February 15).
It seems the Iskander-K does exist and could possibly be deployed in Crimea, but the actual range of its cruise missiles is unclear. A cruise missile is, in essence, an unmanned small jet, whose range is limited by the amount of fuel it carries onboard. The same basic nuclear-capable Kalibr cruise missile design is absolutely legal when deployed on a frigate, corvette or submarine. But it is illegal under the INF when installed on a truck launcher somewhere in the steppe of northern Crimea. Of course, the Iskander-K launcher is much cheaper as a mass-production missile carrier, and its maintenance costs are lower compared to warships or subs. The Iskander-K would be under direct army command, and army generals dominate the all-powerful Armed Forces General Staff. The development and possible deployment of the Iskander-K is politically being justified as a Russian defensive move to counter the threat of the Deveselu MD base and the similar U.S. MD base in Poland, currently under construction.
Speaking at a gathering of the top brass (the collegium) of the Federal Security Service (FSB) on February 16, President Putin accused the West of increased spying and attempts to hack Russian secrets, which he said must be better guarded. In 2016, he noted, some 53 foreign professional spies and 386 agents they recruited were “neutralized” by the FSB. According to Mr. Putin, the West and NATO, in particular, are provoking a confrontation with Russia and attempting to destabilize it internally. Chaos and terrorism are on the rise internationally, and the threat of war is growing. Mr. Putin also accused the Ukrainian government of readying to use military force to suppress the Donbas and of preparing “diversion-terrorist” attacks inside Russia. But despite all the gloom, Russia will be seeking possible cooperation with the West and the U.S. to fight terrorism (Kremlin.ru, February 16).
Mr. Putin accuses the government in Kyiv of sponsoring terrorism and apparently wants Europe and the U.S., in the spirit of global anti-terrorist cooperation, to jointly exert pressure on – or at least diminish support for – Ukraine.
The announcement by the Trump White House in recent days that Russia must “de-escalate” tensions in the Donbas and hand Crimea back to Ukraine was met with strong rebukes in Moscow. The Duma speaker, Vyacheslav Volodin, accused Mr. Trump of “contradicting his campaign pledges” (But did Mr. Trump, in fact, give Russia any specific “campaign pledges?”)
Meanwhile, according to Mr. Ozerov, by being firm on Ukraine, “Trump is attempting to deflect accusations of being too sympathetic to Putin.” But he will eventually go along and broker a deal with Russia, the parliamentarian assured. According to the Federation Council’s Information Policy Committee chair, Alexei Pushkov, Mr. Trump is under internal siege in Washington: “war is declared and concessions will not help” (Interfax, February 15). Messrs. Trump and Putin are seen in Moscow as fighting a common enemy, which is easier to resist by firmly standing back to back.
The article above is reprinted from Eurasia Daily Monitor with permission from its publisher, the Jamestown Foundation, www.jamestown.org.