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Russian Actions Seen as Challenging Trump Administration


FILE - Russian servicemen equip an Iskander tactical missile system in Kubinka, outside Moscow, Russia, June 17, 2015. Russia has reportedly deployed the ground-launched SSC-8 cruise missile it has been developing and testing for several years.

A secret deployment of a new nuclear-capable missile in apparent violation of an arms control treaty. Russian spy ships lurking 50 kilometers from a U.S. East Coast submarine base while Moscow's jets buzz an American Navy destroyer in the Black Sea. These actions are being seen by some as a test of how the new Trump administration will react at a time when it faces heat for taking what critics call a suspiciously soft line toward the Russians.

"I don't think they do these things by accident," said Dmitry Gorenburg, senior research scientist at The Center for Naval Analyses. "Given the disorder in Washington, they're just doing some things knowing there will be no reaction."

Others see a more benign explanation.

"We should not try to read too much into this without more evidence," said political science professor Brian Taylor at Syracuse University. He told VOA it is not necessarily "part of some coordinated test" by Russia.

The first high-level face-to-face meetings between Russian officials and representatives of the Trump administration are to occur Thursday.

FILE - Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford, left, shakes hands with Secretary of Defense James Mattis as Mattis arrives at the Pentagon in Washington, Jan. 21, 2017.
FILE - Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford, left, shakes hands with Secretary of Defense James Mattis as Mattis arrives at the Pentagon in Washington, Jan. 21, 2017.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, sits down with Russian General Valeriy Gerasimov in Azerbaijan, a meeting Dunford has sought for months to discuss Syria and Ukraine. And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is scheduled to talk with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the G-20 meeting in Bonn, Germany.

Treaty violation

It is expected the U.S. officials will raise the alleged violation of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty caused by the deployment of two Russian battalions armed with the SSC-8 ground-launched cruise missile.

In Moscow, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia "remains committed to its international commitments, including to the treaty in question."

Senator John McCain, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, said Russian President Vladimir Putin is "testing" the Trump administration. He also said Congress has made it clear Russia's treaty violations require "a meaningful response."

FILE - Senator John McCain arrives at a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 31, 2017.
FILE - Senator John McCain arrives at a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 31, 2017.

But "what can the U.S. do?" asked Gorenburg, who also is an associate of Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. "How do they punish this violation, or do they even punish this violation?"

As for the Trump White House's view of Russia, "not much is coming into focus due to a rather chaotic transition" while things "are fairly stable on the Russian side," Taylor, who is writing a book on Putinism, told VOA.

Trump’s distractions

The Trump administration, in power for less than a month, is distracted with other Russia troubles.

Seven members of Congress — three Republicans and four Democrats — on Wednesday called for the right to review any attempt by the president to ease sanctions on Russia, two days after his national security adviser was forced out.

Michael Flynn, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, was asked to resign after it was revealed he discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador before Trump was inaugurated.

FILE - National Security Adviser Michael Flynn speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House, in Washington, Feb. 1, 2017.
FILE - National Security Adviser Michael Flynn speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House, in Washington, Feb. 1, 2017.

Flynn's ouster is a setback for the Russians because his successor is likely to be someone with a more skeptical view of Moscow, in line with the policy of past administrations, predicts Taylor, a specialist on Russian politics.

Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told a television talk show that he wants a congressional investigation of Flynn and the administration's ties to Russia.

"The base issue is getting to the bottom of what the Russian interference was and what the relationship was with associates of the Trump effort, and so that is the big elephant in the room that has got to be dealt with in the most appropriate way," Corker said on the MSNBC cable channel.

Intelligence information leaked to reporters Tuesday indicated that several Trump associates linked to his campaign team and businesses were in repeated contact with Russian intelligence operatives during the presidential race.

A federal investigation is under way to determine whether the Russian government sought to influence the November election, in which Republican Trump emerged as the surprise victor over the Democratic Party nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The president on Wednesday, during a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, denounced as "conspiracy theories" any relationship with the Russians, blaming "illegal" news leaks for forcing Flynn out of his administration.

"It's a criminal act," Trump said. "And it's been going for a long time before me. But now it's really going on."

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