With the rhetorical indications coming first out of the Donald J. Trump presidential campaign, and now out of the Trump White House, one could be forgiven for thinking that the U.S. military might be pulling back its forces from the Russian “sphere of influence” in order to facilitate an improvement of ties between the two countries.
That thinking appears to be wrong. At least for now.
According to Navy Times reporting, the U.S. Navy, as well as U.S. ground forces, are maintaining a robust presence in the Russians’ backyard, and continuing on with planned NATO exercises aimed, in part, at repelling a notional Russian advance into western Europe.
Per a separate Navy Times article, an annual joint NATO maritime exercise — Sea Shield 2017 — hosted by the Romanian navy is currently underway in the Black Sea, in which the destroyer USS Porter (pictured) and a P-8A Poseidon sub-hunter aircraft are participating. The U.S. surface combatant is forward deployed to Rota, Spain, and entered the Black Sea on February 2, according to the Navy Times report.
Other countries involved in the joint exercise include Bulgaria, Canada, Greece, Spain, Turkey, and of no doubt particular annoyance to Russia, Ukraine. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, though was invited to join the exercise.
Per the Navy Times, the U.S. Navy has been “routinely” sending its ships in and out of the Black Sea ever since the Russian military annexed Crimea in 2014 from the Ukraine. At that time, the then-Obama administration led the effort to impose sanctions on Russia over its actions, which contributed to the bottoming out of relations between the two countries.
The Russians have responded by buzzing at least two U.S. warships — the USS Donald Cook in 2014 and the USS Ross in 2015 — in the Black Sea, which the Russians see as an integral part of their strategic zone of influence. The Russian navy maintains a “Black Sea Fleet” off Crimea, which was revamped in 2016, per Newsweek reporting.
In addition to the Black Sea, the Russians also see the Baltic Sea as part of their backyard, and the U.S. Navy has been operating there, as well, per Newsweek and the Navy Times. Earlier this month, the USS Hue City made a port call in Lithuania, which lies 100 miles north of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. The Russian military had recently “revitalized” its military presence in the enclave, per Navy Times reporting.
Additionally, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps have also been making their presence known in the vicinity of Russia. The 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, is deployed in Poland near Russia’s border, and the Marines are training in Norway close to the Russian border.
In other words, there has been no noticeable change in the U.S. military’s posture towards Russia as the U.S. government has transitioned from the Obama administration to the Trump administration. Why is that? After all, Trump and a number of his advisors — including, notably, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn — have repeatedly stated that they would like to see improved relations with Russia.
There are at least two obvious possibilities for the continuation of the U.S. military’s robust stance. First, the Trump administration has simply not conveyed to its military leadership that it wishes to cease these maneuvers and exercises. Perhaps the administration has yet to order U.S. forces to dial back the perceived provocative (in Russian eyes) posture. That is entirely possible, as some of these exercises and deployments are no doubt routine and carried out yearly. Those begun by the Obama administration as a result of the Russian action in Crimea might simply have yet to be halted by Trump’s Pentagon — whether deliberately or not.
Secondly, it is possible that the Trump administration is hedging its bets in order to first gauge the Russians’ reaction to its overtures for better ties. It is possible, in other words, that the Trump team wants first to see how Putin will react to its friendly overtures before dialing back the military pressure. That would be a smart strategic move if it were, in fact, the tack being taken here (and assuming the improved ties will prove beneficial to the United States).
At this stage it is simply too early to tell either way. Either the U.S. military leadership is continuing on with its previous maneuvers, through a form of strategic inertia, or the Trump administration has willingly allowed the exercises and deployments to continue in a calculated effort to let things play out slowly in the desired thaw with the Russian government.
We shall all see how things shake out. For clues, keep your eyes on the U.S. military’s moves in the region.
(Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy).