The two Russian nuclear submarines that have been reported off the East Coast are not a military threat. They are in international waters and have not taken any provocative actions. Nonetheless, they convey a message. In the wake of President Obama’s visit to Moscow and Vice President Biden’s prediction that Russia’s weakness will produce conciliatory behavior, the submarines demonstrate that the Kremlin has no intention of changing its aggressive stance toward the U.S.
Since the Moscow summit, the Russians have given a number of indications that there will be no “reset” of relations on the Russian side. On July 15, Chechen human-rights activist Natalya Estemirova was murdered. Although Russian president Dmitry Medvedev publicly condemned the murder, Moscow police dispersed a gathering demanding a serious investigation once attention had shifted from the case. On Saturday, the Russian defense ministry accused Georgia of shooting at Russian troops in the breakaway region of South Ossetia, and threatened an armed response. Now, for perhaps the first time in 15 years, Russian attack submarines have appeared off the American coast.
On August 4, Medvedev called Obama to wish him a happy birthday. According to the Russian news agency Interfax, the Kremlin said that Obama “highly praised the new way of communication at the top level,” and that both sides stressed “the need to preserve trusting relations.” Amid all the happy talk, the appearance of Russian submarines shows that only a minimal degree of trust is possible in relations with a government that operates on two levels — the level of dissimulation and the level of reality — both with its own people and with the outside world.
– David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. His latest book is Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State.