U.S. government officials said today that they believe Russia has secretly deployed two battalions of the SSC-X-8 cruise missile, which violates a 1987 treaty, according to the New York Times. At the same time, a Russian spy ship, the SSV-175 Viktor Leonov, is now hanging out off the United States’ East Coast. And it could not come at a worse time for U.S. President Donald Trump.
The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, known as INF, bans U.S. and Russian ground-launched ballistic or cruise missiles capable of flying between 300 to 3,400 miles. The Pentagon has known about the development of the new SSC-X-8 cruise missile since 2008, when the Russians began test-firing it. The Obama Administration had worked to persuade the Kremlin to end the tests and to adhere to the terms of the INF after concluding the test occurred in a 2014 report. Both Obama and then-Secretary of State John Kerry told Russia to back off.
Clearly, the Russians didn’t listen. Officials told the New York Times that the missile has been removed from current intelligence reports, meaning it is fully operational.
During one test on September 2, 2015, the missile did not fly beyond the 300-mile ban range, according to the Washington Free Beacon. However, the SSC-X-8 is capable of reaching distances beyond that range, which clearly violates the INF. While the missile is not capable of reaching the United States, it can certainly hit NATO alliance members in much of Europe, especially the Baltics and Poland.
Making matters worse is the optics of a Russian spy ship, the SSV-175 Viktor Leonov, just chillin’ 70 miles off the coast of Delaware at the same time, according to Fox News. The ship can intercept communications and measure U.S. Navy sonar capabilities. It was in international waters and the spy ship’s sighting was not a big concern, but “we are keeping our eyes on it,” one official told Fox News. By the way, the Leonov is armed with surface-to-air missiles.
This kind of nautical trolling is not unusual. During the Cold War, Russian spy ships regularly spied off the U.S. east coast and American ships spied on Russia as well. And the the SSV-175 Viktor Leonov has visited America before: it and another Russian ship were seen near our waters in 2014.
But both of these developments come at an extremely difficult time for the Trump administration. The president’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, was forced to resign after it was discovered he wasn’t completely forthcoming about his contact with a Russian diplomat.
As I said in my analysis this morning, Flynn’s departure already makes Trump look like a Russian pawn. Though the development the SSC-X-8 took place on Obama’s watch, Trump will be tasked with how to best deal with its deployment. It is one thing to test a missile that violates a long-standing treaty. It is another thing completely to deploy missile battalions in blatant defiance of that treaty.
NATO members have long expressed concerns over Trump’s commitment to the alliance, so this deployment surely will not put them at ease. Moreover, it will also test the mettle of how tough Trump will negotiate with Putin, who, by the way, he has yet to criticize. One has to think what Ronald Reagan, the GOP hero lauded for leading the fall of the USSR, would do in this situation. The INF was signed by Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev as the Soviet Union was on its deathbed. Now, it seems like American diplomatic power finds itself in the same predicament with the Kremlin in light of the missile deployment.
Additionally, this could potentially complicate any efforts for Trump to negotiate other arms treaties with the Kremlin, as the New York Times wrote:
Before he left his post last year as the NATO commander and retired from the military, Gen. Philip M. Breedlove warned that deployment of the cruise missile would be a militarily significant development that “can’t go unanswered.”
Coming up with an arms control solution would not be easy.
Each missile battalion is believed to have four mobile launchers and a larger supply of missiles. The launcher for the cruise missile, however, closely resembles the launcher used for the Iskander, a nuclear-tipped short-range system that is permitted under treaties.
“This will make location and verification really tough,” General Breedlove said in an interview.
Putin is winning the diplomacy battle, and Trump has not so much as condemned the Russian leader for hacking the election—let alone this latest show of strength.
This is going to get far worse before it gets better.