WASHINGTON, D.C. — Russia's influence worldwide continues to grow as its global alliances intensify and confirmation of interference in the 2016 election are met with proverbial crickets chirping from the White House.
President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin conducted a one-hour phone call on Friday, during which White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders said the two leaders talked about Venezuela, North Korea, denuclearization and briefly the Mueller investigation.

Election interference

The recently released Mueller Report concluded there was Russian interference in the 2016 election. This was known even before the investigation's conclusion, as President Barack Obama placed sanctions on Russia and ejected 35 Russian diplomats from the country. The administration accused them of acting as intelligence officers as opposed to being legitimate diplomats. A report by CNN indicates the Obama administration just prior to issuing the sanctions approached bipartisan congressional leaders about sending letters to the governor of each state to recommend shoring up web securities to defend election infrastructure. The administration was chastised by Republican leaders, who stated the request was partisan.There is now evidence that Russian sources hacked into a number of state election computer and server systems; however it is not known what was impacted.
President Trump has taken to Twitter to indicate President Obama "did nothing" to prevent election interference. In fact, it is on record Obama told Putin on a number of occasions to cease interference with U.S. election. In January of this year -- with little attention by the mainstream media or any announcement by his office -- President Trump lifted a number of sanctions imposed by Obama against Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Deripaska has interest in a number of Russian companies, as well as being a personal friend of Putin and an associate of President Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort. Manafort pleaded guilty in September 2018 to witness tampering and conspiring against the United States. The conviction came as a result of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.
Mueller's report concluded the interference was conducted with government knowledge and direction. Because of his past and current involvement with Russian intelligence, experts have argued the measures to hack into the U.S. election system would not have been done without Putin's approval.
President Trump was pressed during a media briefing following his phone conversation with Putin whether or not he told Putin his country was to no longer interfere with U.S. elections.
He responded: "We didn't discuss that."


Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro faces increased pressure to step down from power as protestors and defected military personnel have stepped up their attempts to seize control of the country for opposition leader Juan Guaido. Guaido was sworn in by the National Assembly in January as the United Nations-recognized interim president of Venezuela; however, Maduro has refused to step down and maintains control of the nation through the military.
Sensing possible military intervention by the United States, Russia has recently sent some of its own personnel and advisors to the country to support Maduro. Maduro has been described as a socialist.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday said Maduro is "ruling for the moment."
"We've supported the National Assembly's choice," Pompeo told ABC News. "Juan Guaido is the interim president of the country…these things sometimes have bumpy roads. (Maduro's) ruling for the moment, but he can't govern. There's enormous poverty, enormous starvation, sick children that can't get medicine…This is not someone who can be part of Venezuela's future and whether that change take place today or tomorrow or a week from now, one can't predict."
Pompeo concluded by stating that eventually the people will demand that Maduro leave. Previously, Russia has warned the U.S. about interfering with any transition in government.
National security advisor John Bolton stated May 1: “This is our hemisphere — it’s not where the Russians ought to be interfering. This is a mistake on their part. It’s not going to lead to an improvement in relations.”
There are many in the global intelligence community who see Russia's actions as continual baits to check the temperament of U.S. intelligence and military.
“What the Russians seem to have effectively figured out is how to call our bluff,” Fernando Cutz, a former top National Security Council official under Trump told Politico. “When they send troops into Georgia, or Ukraine, or Syria, or Venezuela, what are we going to do about it? It complicates our calculus and gives Russia the upper hand.”
Following Friday's phone call, both Putin and Trump have pledged to work together to deliver humanitarian aid to Venezuela.

Military advancement

Russia continues to expand its military presence around the world. In April, the Russian navy launched the Belgorod submarine. The sub has the distinction of being the world's longest submarine according to a report by Popular Mechanics. It is designed to perform a number of military operations, including serving as a mobile base from which smaller subs can be launched. Belgorod is also armed with Poseidon long-range intercontinental torpedoes, which are nuclear powered and nuclear armed. The Russian military is also reportedly attempting to accomplish the same with intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Belgorod, which is 600 feet long, can dive to 1,700 feet. It also can displace 30,000 tons of water when submerged. Belgorod can reportedly carry up to six Poseidon missiles, each with a 2-megaton thermonuclear warhead. The torpedoes are designed to go around U.S. missile defenses to strike coastal targets.
A massive submarine is not the only development the Russian navy is involved in according to some maritime warfare experts. On April 26, the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries announced it had come into contact with a rather friendly beluga whale bearing a harness with the words "Equipment St. Petersburg." The harness featured a mounting bracket some believe could be used to attach some sort of device, such as a camera to the beluga. Others believe it could also be used to attach a weapon. The notion is not out of the realm of possibility, as a major Russian naval base lies just on the Russian side of the border with Norway, granting quick access to the North Sea and the North Atlantic.
Although Russia's use of marine mammals in recent times has been kept quiet, the use of dolphins in planting and detonating underwater mines was the focus of a military project in the past. In fact, the Russian government in 2016 posted an advertisement to secure three male and two female bottlenose dolphins, offering $24,000 for all five.
More than a week later, the beluga is still in the waters off Hammerfest, Norway, approaching fishing vessels in a friendly manner and at times gently bumping them, indicating it wants to be fed. As with previous marine mammal operations, the Russian government is denying any involvement.

Relations with Iran

The Iranian navy has announced it will conduct joint military exercises with Russia later this year. The move is not unusual, considering the two navies have conducted joint exercises in the Caspian Sea in recent years. But, much like the U.S. Navy's long-running exercises with South Korea, the continued naval cooperation between Iran and Russia implies a unified front — one which could pose  threat to the U.S. Navy if intervention in the waters off Iran's coast is deemed necessary. Iran is at an advantage due to the amount of coastline it has along the Persian Gulf.
The Trump administration recently announced starting this month it will no longer grant waivers for allied countries wishing to buy oil from Iran. Waivers keep certain nations from facing repercussions for buying oil from Iran as opposed to neighboring Saudi Arabia. Iran in some cases is seen as more desirable due to open maritime access to the country's north via the Caspian Sea. Such a route enables a route to not only Russia but many European Union countries. The Republic of Korea, Japan and Turkey are among the current buyers. Saudi oil has to go out through either the Red Sea on the west or Persian Gulf on the east, adding more time to maritime travel.
At the same time as Trump's announcement or removing waivers, the Saudi Arabian government announced it will raise the price of oil to $85 per barrel.
China's Xinhua News reported on April 28 that Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, suggested his country may leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as an option for the U.S. re-imposition of sanctions. Sanctions were re-imposed on Iran in November 2018 on Iran's banking, energy and shipping industries.
Zarif noted that the previous 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which Trump has since pulled out of, was an example of being able to negotiate to remove sanctions. Zarif also denied Iran ever failed to live up to its commitments, and it was the U.S. that failed to live up to its commitments in the plan. The plan faced criticism by Republicans in Congress who claimed the Iranians were enriching Uranium for the purpose of creating nuclear weapons. The Iranians have insisted from the beginning that its reactors are for producing nuclear power.

Nuclear arms

On April 24, Xinhua News reported the U.S. deployment of missile defense systems near Russia's borders amongst the U.S. allied nations. Viktor Poznikhir, first deputy chief of the Russian General Staff's Main Operations Directorate, said by the U.S. developing such a system, it is also seeking "to have the opportunity of delivering such a blow to any country it dislikes. Poznikhir said Russia has taken its own retaliatory measures, including the development of the Sarmat and Avangard missile systems. The first deputy claims the system can overcome the U.S. missile shield. Ally countries where the U.S. missile system are held were warned that they would be "priority objects of destruction," and Poznikhir reminded those attending the eighth Moscow Conference on International Security that nuclear warheads also lead to radioactive contamination of land. He noted Russia is not interested in a strategic arms race and urged the U.S. to return to the negotiating table for constructive dialogue.
Both Putin and Trump recently pulled out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty after each leader accused the other of showing no interest in abiding by its provisions. However, Friday's call with both leaders provides hope for improved relations on the nuclear capability front. There is intent expressed to re-negotiate the New START Treaty, which would require the U.S. and Russia to cut their deployed strategic nuclear warheads to no more than 1,550, as well as limit delivery systems. The treaty also extends transparency measures requiring each side to allow the other to carrot out 10 inspects per year of nuclear bases, give 24 hours notice before new missiles under the treaty leave factories, and provide advance notice of any ballistic missile launches.
The New START Treaty, which was enacted in 2011, is set for expiration in 2021. Trump has called it a "bad deal" and "one-sided."
White House Press Secretary Sanders noted on Friday that both Trump and Putin are working for denuclearization of North Korea. Sanders said the president pressed with Putin in their phone conversation "the need and importance of Russia stepping up and continuing to put pressure on North Korea to denuclearize."

For questions or comments, email editor@mcdonoughvoice.com