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U.S. Ships: Threat to Russia, or Deterrent to Aggression? 

Lieutenant-General Viktor Poznikhir

Lieutenant-General Viktor Poznikhir

Russian General Staff's Main Operations Directorate

Missile defense ships in the Black and Baltic seas pose a threat to facilities in the European part of Russia, because it is unclear what missiles the Mk-41 launchers carry at a given moment.

Ships are a response to Russian aggression

On March 28, at a joint press conference with Chinese officials, the deputy chairman of the Russian General Staff's Main Operations Directorate, Lieutenant-General Viktor Poznikhir, stated that U.S. missile defense ships in the Black and Baltic seas “pose a threat to facilities in the European part of Russia.”

The Russian general said the primary concern is the lack of specifics about the kinds of missiles the Mk 41 launchers on those ships are carrying. In addition, while discussing European missile defense, he accused the United States of violating the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Those launchers, Poznikhir added, “can be loaded with interceptor missiles or Tomahawk cruise missiles. The Arleigh Burke destroyer has 96 launchers. Potentially, the U.S. missile defense ships can be armed with more than 1,000 Tomahawk cruise missiles.”

A fact check found that while the presence of U.S. warships in the Black and Baltic seas may be a cause for concern to Russia, the U.S. Navy deployed these forces as a deterrent following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Experts claim that both Russia and the U.S. have multi-purpose ships in the Black and the Baltic seas. By portraying this issue as a major threat, the Russian general may be trying to portray the United States as a treaty-violating aggressor.

General Poznikhir claimed that the launchers on the American warships could be loaded with Tomahawk cruise missiles, which are used to hit targets on land and have a range of up to 2,500 kilometers.

“It's a rather odd way to characterize a long-established fact of life: ships carry land attack cruise missiles and can strike deep inside countries from shore,” Michael Kofman, a defense and security scholar at the Kennan Institute, told via email.

However, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Stephen Pifer does not find it surprising that the Russians are concerned about the American ships operating near their borders. “The new development is that the presence of U.S. Navy ships in the Baltic and Black seas has increased significantly,” Pifer wrote to However, he said that only happened after “Russia seized Crimea in 2014.”

Based on their purpose, these ships carry a variety of weapons. “The Mk 41 vertical launch system is standard on U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers. The shipboard launchers can carry SM-3 interceptor missiles, other standard air/missile defense missiles, ASROC anti-submarine missiles, Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missiles and other weapons – the Navy basically designs its weapons to fit the launcher,” Pifer wrote.

The ships that the Russian general referred to are destroyers and cruisers, which are multi-mission surface combat ships. Therefore, “missile defense is only one specialization for upgraded destroyers,” and many of them “are not even upgraded for that particular role yet,” said Kofman.

Russian anti-missile capabilities are less clear -- although Kofman believes that Russia’s navy has similar weapons, but in lesser numbers. He said, “in terms of sea-based weapons, Russia certainly cannot match the size of the U.S. cruise missile arsenal, but it is increasing the number of ships able to carry such missiles year on year. So, clearly the Russian Navy aspires towards some limited parity.”

Experts tell that the U.S. ship-based weapons offer important advantages to NATO defense, but the warships are not the only means for attaining a similar target range. “The Alliance has means of delivering similar strikes via air assets,” Kofman said.

While speaking about U.S. missile defenses in Europe, General Poznikhir said “naval missile launchers on the ground for accommodating the Tomahawk cruise missiles is a crude violation of the 1987 INF treaty.” He added that, despite multiple notifications, the U.S. has provided no response to these accusations.

Ambassador Pifer said it is actually Russia that is violating the treaty. “The U.S. government charged in 2014 that Russia had violated the INF Treaty. That had to do with Russia testing a ground-launched cruise missile to intermediate range. There have been press reports, and a comment by the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that Russia is now deploying that ground-launched cruise missile, which is a further violation of the INF Treaty,” he said.

Still, Pifer said that while he believes the U.S. government’s assurances that it is deploying only SM-3 interceptor missiles in Romania, when he has asked Pentagon officials “what differences there are to the Mk-41 system in Romania that would prevent it from containing and launching a Tomahawk, the answers relate to software and unspecified hardware differences.“

Those answers “are not fully satisfying,” Pifer said. “My guess is that, were the situation reversed and it were the Russians putting an Mk 41 on land, we might have some compliance concerns.”

Pifer believes that there are ways the U.S. could resolve Russian concerns, “but I don’t think there will be much interest in pursuing those unless Russia gets serious about addressing its violation of the INF Treaty.” has also fact-checked Russian compliance with the INF and other important international treaties.