OP-ED | When the Russians Come Calling
It suddenly feels like the bad old days of the Cold War around here, and for good reason. Russia, led by President Vladimir Putin, is constantly and aggressively testing the strength and resolve of the NATO alliance. But unlike the 1980s, the United States has no clear policy on Russia, has weak and vacillating leadership, and is entirely unpredictable.
President Donald J. Trump is not a comforting man to have in charge. Hillary Clinton said it best when she said, during the first presidential debate last September, that “...a man who can be provoked by a tweet should not have his fingers anywhere near the nuclear codes.” But this is the man who is followed around by the nuclear “football,” the satchel that contains a direct line to the Pentagon, codes, and options. This is the man who lashes out at the slightest provocation, mindful only of his own anger and hurt feelings, with no regard to anyone else.
He is being provoked now.
A Russian spy ship, the Victor Leonov, was discovered patrolling the waters only 30 miles off of the coast of New London, home of the Groton Sub Base. By itself, this wouldn’t be an alarming thing. We spy on them, they spy on us, such is life. The Victor Leonov has no weapons and posed no real threat.
However, the context surrounding this is much more worrisome.
Members of the Connecticut delegation to Congress are pressing the president to act. I spoke with U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, whose district contains the Groton Sub Base. “Clearly the Russian military is testing a new administration,” Courtney said. Courtney is also worried that Russia perceives “softness” in the new administration, and that they see this transition as an opportunity to “create a new normal.”
This provocative show of force by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the exact moment that Trump is reeling is not a coincidence. Trump has a notoriously thin skin, however, which could lead to a very dangerous situation. “In an effort to overcompensate,” Courtney warned, “there might be a temptation to overreact.”
Courtney wants to see clear policy from the White House more than anything. “I think he needs to publicly state what U.S. policy is in terms of Putin’s persistent aggressiveness,” he said, as well as “making sure international maritime rules will prevail. That’s just not clear that this administration is committed to that.”
As for what the military response should be, Courtney pointed to a report issued by the Obama administration in December calling for increasing the size of the naval fleet, including more Connecticut-built submarines, to counter a newly resurgent Russian fleet.
Russia is constantly pushing boundaries to see how much the West is willing to put up with. The invasion and annexation of Crimea is the prime example, as is Russia’s continuing involvement in Ukraine’s festering civil war. But there have been others. Russian submarines were spotted in the Baltic Sea near Sweden in 2014, Russian fighter jets have been doing close, dangerous passes against U.S. warships in the Baltic and Black seas, and Russia recently developed and deployed a cruise missile that violates one of the major arms treaties.
All of this is theoretical for us in the United States, because it’s mostly happening in Europe. A Russian spy ship off our own waters changes that. This is something that hasn’t happened in a long time, and it’s an act that seems designed to take a jab at Trump during a time when he seems weaker than ever.
Trump’s weakness is the fault of the close relationship he, his campaign, and his supporters have had with Russia. The illicit conversation between Russia’s ambassador and former National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn about easing sanctions, as well as the recently uncovered conversations between members of President Trump’s staff and Russian intelligence during the campaign, have Trump’s administration on the defensive.
“There are questions out there screaming for answers,” Courtney said, echoing what many Democrats have said. “Is there more to this in terms of connections [between] Trump and his team and Russian intelligence?”
We are also at a low point when it comes to how our allies see us. Trump has lowered our standing in the world, and his defense secretary’s reckless talk about how NATO members need to pay more to keep up the alliance or the U.S. will “moderate” its support for members is not reassuring.
This crisis may pass without further incident. But if Putin’s goal here was to sow chaos and confusion in the West so that he could expand his military footprint and project Russian power around the world, he has succeeded.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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