President Donald Trump's appears eager to thaw relations with Russia, but for now the U.S. Navy continues to prowl the waters in Vladimir Putin's backyard just like it has for the past several years.
Two of the Navy's missile-laden surface combatants are operating in the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea, conducting the kind of presence missions that have led to several confrontations with the Russian military over the past three years.
The destroyer Porter, which is forward deployed to Rota, Spain, entered the Black Sea on Feb. 2 and is conducting exercises with the Romanian Navy. The Navy has been sending its ships in and out of the Black Sea routinely since Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea. In 2014, a Russian fighter jet made a close pass over the destroyer Donald Cook, a move the U.S. called "provocative and unprofessional." The destroyer Ross had a similar incident in 2015. Both Donald Cook and Ross are also deployed to Rota.
On Monday, the cruiser Hue City made a port visit in Klaipėda, Lithuania, which is about 100 miles to the north of Russia's recently revitalized military installations in Kaliningrad. Last year, the Donald Cook again was buzzed by two Russian Sukhoi Su-24 fighters when it was about 70 miles from Kaliningrad.
Under the Obama administration, relations with Russia sank back to Cold-War lows over Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its military support for an ongoing conflict between Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government well within Ukraine's internationally recognized borders.
In 2014, the Obama administration organized European allies behind sanctions against Russian leaders and businesses that Russia has been eager to rid themselves of.
Yet the Trump administration has taken a decidedly different stance and has been weighing plans to ease the sanctions on Russia in exchange for greater cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Over the weekend, Vice President Mike Pence told ABC Newsthat easing of the sanctions would depend on Russian behavior.
"If we have opportunities to work together, I think the president is looking for an opportunity to begin that relationship anew," Pence said. "But, make no mistake about it, those decisions will await action. And they'll be very dependent on how the Russians respond in the days ahead."
The new administration’s rhetoric has been all over the map in regards to Russia. President Trump praised Putin as a strong leader on the campaign trail and on Sunday told Fox News he respected the Russian autocrat and brushed off suggestions from interviewer Bill O’Reilly that Putin was a killer.
At the same time Trump’s United Nations ambassador blasted Russia last week over renewed violence in Ukraine. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said at his January confirmation hearing that Russia was the principal threat to the U.S.
Operationally, the military’s posture towards Russia has been essentially on the same trajectory set out by President Obama
The Navy is still makings its presence known in Putin’s neighborhood and the Army still has the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, deployed in Poland near Russia’s border. U.S. Marines are training in Norway not far from the Russian border.
Some observers think the confusing signals are deliberate in order to feel Russia out.
"He may be trying to create an opening for Putin to step in and make some concessions," said Dan Goure, a national security analyst with the Lexington Institute think tank. "If you notice, he’s not really offering anything except cooperation on [the Islamic State group]. He’s not coming in and offering the ‘new start’ like the Obama administration did. All he’s said is he would like to have a good relationship. It may not be a bad negotiating strategy."
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.