State Department trolls the Kremlin by naming a new Russia post after a missile Putin bragged about

  • On Tuesday, a State Department official announced a new position at the department: senior advisor for Russian malign activities and trends — or SARMAT.
  • The name appears to be trolling Russia over Sarmat, an intercontinental missile that Putin said could defeat American interception systems.
  • The trolling is the latest jab in the conflict between the U.S. and Russia, as the two countries remain engaged in an unusual, peculiarly 21st-century standoff.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin gestures during the joint press conference with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland July 16, 2018. 
Jussi Nukari | Lehtikuva | Reuters
Russia's President Vladimir Putin gestures during the joint press conference with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland July 16, 2018. 

In his State of the Nation speech earlier this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin officially announced the Sarmat, an intercontinental missile that he said could defeat American interception systems. Russian news agencies said it could destroy Texas.

"Nobody really wanted to talk to us about the core of the problem, and nobody wanted to listen to us," Putin told Russian government officials, decrying the proliferation of U.S. missile defense systems. "So listen now."

The U.S. State Department was listening.

On Tuesday, an official announced a new position at the department: senior advisor for Russian malign activities and trends — or SARMAT.

The announcement from A. Wess Mitchell, an assistant secretary of state, came at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the effectiveness of sanctions on Russia. A State Department spokesperson confirmed on Wednesday that the name was not a coincidence.

The trolling is the latest jab in the conflict between the U.S. and Russia, as the two countries remain engaged in an unusual, peculiarly 21st-century standoff.

Fighting has stretched from the battlefields of Syria to the war zone of Twitter memes. It is a cyber war, a hybrid war, an economic war — and a war of words. Of course, like the Cold War, the present tension between the U.S. and Russia is also not technically a war at all.

Left unclear is the significance of the SARMAT position itself. The State Department did not say whether anyone has been appointed to fill the spot, and a number of experts reached for comment by CNBC said they had not heard that the position would be created.

As for the responsibilities of the new position, Mitchell said in his testimony that the person will "develop cross-regional strategies across offices." The creation of the new position follows a push from the White House to cut billions of dollars in funding from the State Department and eliminate a number of positions with narrow portfolios.

Stephen Sestanovich, who served as the State Department's ambassador at large for the former Soviet Union between 1997 and 2001, was incredulous.

"This is for real?" Sestanovich asked in an email. Sestanovich suggested the news may have been invented by the trickster comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.

Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and the author of "From Cold War to Hot Peace," a book about the evolution of the U.S.-Russia relationship, said he didn't have any thoughts on the State Department's trolling efforts. But he called them "indeed curious."

Sestanovich also expressed skepticism that the new role would clear up the suspicion that the Trump administration does not have a coherent Russia policy.

While the administration has in some ways been more hostile to the Kremlin than Obama — Trump has approved lethal weapons sales to Ukraine, and authorized new sanctions on Putin allies, for instance — the president has repeatedly declined to criticize Putin for Russian election interference. At times, he has also sided with the autocratic leader over his own intelligence community.

"A funny acronym won't solve that problem," Sestanovich said.

The rollout of the new position came as the State Department is adding more resources to combat Russian influence operations, including coordination with allies such as the United Kingdom.

Mitchell noted in his testimony that the State Department had created a dedicated team "to take the offensive in publicly exposing Russian malign activities."

That team, Mitchell said, had "called out the Kremlin on 112 occasions." Asked for clarification on the 112 instances Mitchell cited, the State Department referred CNBC to the @statedeptspox Twitter feed and the department's press briefings.

The Sarmat missile, named for the ancient Sarmatian people, made its debut alongside five other weapons that Putin announced in March. Two of those weapons will be combat-ready by 2020, CNBC has previously reported. On Tuesday, CNBC reported that another one of the weapons Putin unveiled, a nuclear-powered missile that the Kremlin claims has unlimited range, remains lost at sea after a failed test in November.

The Russian Embassy did not respond to a request for comment from CNBC.