On July 13, 2015, the barracks of a unit of elite Russian airborne troops in Omsk, Siberia, collapsed, killing 23 servicemen. A day later, a long-range Tu-95 Bear bomber crashed in eastern Russia, the fifth Russian Air Force plane crash in a month. The entire Tu-95 fleet was grounded as a result. A few days earlier, though, two Bears were in the air, on a long-range patrol near the coast of Alaska, where they were intercepted by U.S. fighters.
In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama’s nominee to be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joe Dunford, called Russia “the greatest threat” to the United States at his July 9 confirmation hearing. In an interview the day before, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James made the same claim. The White House and State Department promptly distanced themselves from Dunford’s comments, but they failed to smother the impression that Dunford may be on to something.
Russian aggression against Ukraine has revived the long-forgotten craft of marketing the Russian threat. Russia certainly is a problem, and the U.S. relationship with it is at its worst since before the Cold War ended. But a sober look at Russia reveals a superpower in decline. Its economy is stumbling; its military capabilities are no match for those of the United States and its allies; and its actions are in large measure driven by exaggerated threat perceptions and insecurity at home and abroad.
The revival of the Russian threat is probably welcome in Moscow despite official protestations. Russian elites were offended when President Obama put Russian aggression in second place behind the Ebola virus when he described top international threats in an address to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2014. The recent statements by U.S. officials may reassure Moscow that the United States finally takes Russia seriously as a peer competitor.
The reality is likely to be different. Russia is back as a major challenge for European security. But it is a challenge of a different kind than the challenge posed by the Soviet Union that exists in the West’s fading memories of the Cold War.
It is no secret that the economy remains Russia’s weak spot. It had slowed to a crawl by the time the Ukraine crisis erupted in 2013. Western sanctions imposed since then have hurt, but not crippled, the economy, and growth will remain sluggish at best, even when Russia eventually recovers from the recession. In 2015, the slump is expected to reduce Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 4–5 percent. Former finance minister and leading economic liberal Alexei Kudrin estimates average growth of 1.5–2 percent for President Vladimir Putin’s third term, from 2012 to 2018—a far cry from the glory days of his first two terms, when the Russian economy grew by as much as 8.5 percent.
What was the strength of the Russian economy during Putin’s first two terms as president is now its weakness. Oil and gas revenues account for some 50 percent of the federal budget. When oil is expensive, Russia can afford to index pensions to inflation, build Olympic and World Cup stadiums, and modernize its defenses. When oil falls from $100 a barrel to $50 a barrel, the splurge is difficult to sustain. In a moment of remarkable candor in a June 2015 interview, the Kremlin chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, referred to Russia’s mineral wealth as a “curse” that had kept the country from diversifying its economy. Russia had no motivation to reform when “a golden rain” was pouring down on it, he said. Now low oil prices are crimping government spending and sanctions have cut Russia off from credit markets. The tough business climate and uncertainty about the future are choking off new investment and reducing prospects for growth.
Along with the economic troubles come the Kremlin’s deep-seated fears of political instability. There is little, if any, domestic political opposition in Russia these days. What opposition there is has long suffered from internal discord and, since Putin’s return to the presidency, has been decimated by the Kremlin’s harsh measures. But that is likely to be of little comfort to Putin. Even his high approval ratings—almost 90 percent—could be misleading.
Ukraine’s November 2013 popular uprising against then president Victor Yanukovych must have been a reminder to the Russian president that political fortunes can change quickly, especially if the elite and oligarchs conspire against you. Opinion polls showed no sign of the coming explosion, which was caused by Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union (EU) and the police’s brutal handling of a small group of youthful, pro-EU demonstrators in Kyiv’s main square.
In a nationwide poll conducted in Ukraine in September 2013, an economic union with Russia was favored by almost the same number of Ukrainians—37 percent—as an economic union with Europe—42 percent. The people of Ukraine showed little interest in politics; they were mistrustful of all politicians and overwhelmingly concerned about day-to-day survival issues. Fifty-five percent of respondents cited unemployment as their biggest concern; only 14 percent worried about political instability. And 50 percent disapproved of political protests without official permission.
Throughout 2013, Yanukovych had been accumulating ever more wealth, placing cronies in key government and law enforcement posts, and chipping away at the power of the oligarchs. The opposition was discredited by its failure to govern after the 2004 Orange Revolution and hampered by internal rivalries. There was no sign that the Yanukovych regime would collapse in a matter of weeks, abandoned by many in the ruling elite who quickly switched sides and supported the revolution.
The Kremlin’s relentless quest for new and ever more elaborate tools to secure its control of Russian politics and eradicate all sources of hostile influence—domestic and external—is a sure sign of its nervousness. A ban on foreign ownership of media outlets, restrictions on nongovernmental organizations, the expulsion of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the stream of propaganda equating democracy with decadence, and warnings to the populace against the West’s pernicious influence are just a few elements of the Kremlin’s political offensive, which, no doubt, it sees as necessary self-defense. It never seems to be enough, and it probably isn’t.
The Kremlin’s insecurity manifests itself in the defense sphere as well. Operations in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have demonstrated that Russian military capabilities have improved since the desperate days of the 1990s, when the Russian military was practically written off. A far-reaching military reform implemented between 2008 and 2012 and a huge surge in resources for equipment, training, and personnel have resulted in a military organization that is capable of defeating or denying access to any adversary in the former Soviet space.
But the war waged by Russia against Ukraine in the summer of 2014 was, in the words of one prominent Russian military observer, a war fought by two 1991-vintage militaries, and the Russian military was simply better trained, equipped, and led than the Ukrainian military.
Russian military analysts have a decades-old concern that the West’s technological superiority and capabilities could threaten the survival of the Russian state. The conventional superiority of the United States, both real and projected—its air and naval power, its precision-guided conventional weaponry, its global reach—has long been a source of both fascination and profound insecurity on the part of Russian military analysts. Worse yet, they fear that over time, U.S. missile defenses will erode Russia’s ultimate deterrent—its strategic nuclear weapons—and enable the United States to act unilaterally with impunity.
Looking at future challenges, the prospect of U.S. nuclear and conventional long-range precision weapons combined with missile defenses, space weapons, and cyber capabilities that could disrupt Russian early warning and command and control systems must be the worst nightmare of Russian defense planners responsible for the survival of the country’s nuclear deterrent. The United States may have no desire to launch a disarming first strike against Russia, but as NATO officials said during the Cold War, when they dismissed Soviet statements about peaceful intentions, it’s the capability that counts.
Paradoxically, Russian military exploits in Ukraine have undermined Russian security. The prospect of renewed hostilities in eastern Ukraine and the Kremlin’s blatant attempts to keep Kyiv on edge will force the Kremlin to maintain a sizeable contingent of combat-ready Russian forces tied up on the border with Ukraine. Estimates vary—from 10,000 to as many as 40,000, depending on the intensity of the crisis and the source. These figures do not include some 15,000 troops stationed in Crimea—in addition to the Black Sea fleet. There can be little doubt that a sizeable portion of Russia’s roughly 260,000-strong army is tied up as a result of the Russian “victory” in Ukraine.1 The army’s 32,000 elite airborne troops are deemed to be its best trained and equipped. Much of the rest of the force is generally judged to be of lesser quality and lower combat readiness.
There are of course other contingencies—the restive North Caucasus and the threat of instability in Central Asia, for which Russian military planners claim they have to be ready, not to mention the long (and vulnerable) border with China. However, the European theater has dominated Russian security policy since the crisis in Ukraine began.
As seen from Moscow, Europe does pose a challenge, if not an outright threat. Whether or not NATO leaders are willing to admit it, the alliance’s expansion into the former Warsaw Pact and even the Soviet Union has resulted in a vastly different geopolitical balance in Europe, with Russia as the loser. Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution promises to bring NATO’s influence—if not its formal presence—to within 300 miles of Moscow. That is a hard prospect for Russian military planners to accept calmly.
NATO spends some $900 billion on defense each year, of which some $600 billion is U.S. defense spending. NATO member states’ combined GDP is over $30 trillion. The exact amount of Russian defense spending is not publicly available. The published defense budget for 2015 was $81 billion. Assuming generously that Russia spends 5 percent of its roughly $2 trillion GDP on defense, the total comes to $100 billion. Its armed forces total some 770,000, compared with NATO’s 3.3 million.
Ukraine—which presently is not a NATO member—must now be viewed by Russian military planners as hostile territory. Its leaders have declared their intent to join NATO, and Russian aggression against Ukraine and threats to the Baltic states have mobilized NATO to take steps it has not taken in many years. These include reinvigorated planning for war with Russia, forward deployments of U.S. and other allied military units along Russia’s border, prepositioning of weapons and equipment in Eastern Europe, show-of-force exercises, and training of and deliveries of military hardware to the Ukrainian army, to name just some of the most visible elements of the new security environment on Russia’s doorstep as a result of its actions in Ukraine.
Against this backdrop, Russian threats to deploy nuclear weapons to Kaliningrad, on the Baltic Sea, or to Crimea; long-range bomber patrols near the borders of the United States and its NATO allies; harassment of U.S. Navy ships in international waters; and other moves appear not as a sign of confidence, but as a sign of nervousness about NATO’s military superiority. A government confident of its conventional military capabilities hardly needs to engage in nuclear scaremongering and threaten nuclear annihilation to neighbors contemplating legitimate self-defense measures on their territory.
The Russian Challenge
Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal puts it in a special category as a threat to the United States. For the foreseeable future, the challenge Russia presents to the United States is twofold. It entails not only Russian strength but also Russian weakness and the lack of confidence on the part of the Russian leadership in the country’s political system, its economy, and its military.
Notwithstanding the difficulties it is facing, Russia has considerable means at its disposal with which it can challenge the West. Information operations, cyber capabilities, intelligence and subversive operatives, financial resources, vast natural resources, trade sanctions, as well as a willingness to disregard completely international norms—all have been usefully deployed by the Russian state since the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine. Surrounded by weaker neighbors, Russia can intimidate them, violate their sovereignty, and meddle in their internal affairs in ways that are well short of a full-fledged military crisis, but nonetheless represent a major threat to U.S. allies and partners. This challenge calls for a different kind of defense and deterrence than mutually assured destruction—the promise of mutual annihilation in the event of a war—which was at the heart of U.S. and Soviet strategy during much of the Cold War.
Both the United States and Europe have to recognize that the present crisis is not a short-term phenomenon. This state of affairs will last a long time and requires a long-term commitment from them to address the post-post–Cold War challenge of dealing with Russia and securing Europe.
There is little new in the West’s tool kit to deal with this challenge. The United States and its allies will have to rely on a mixture of diplomatic and military means, as they have already begun to do. This will require the United States to recognize that it is not “done” with European security, as it seemed earlier in this century, and that its commitment of military resources is essential for the continent’s stability and security. This does not mean going back to Cold War–era levels of U.S. military presence in Europe, or the forward deployment, as some have suggested, of more modern tactical nuclear weapons. Rather, it calls for a vastly smaller force and a creative approach to deterrence and defense, taking advantage of a quarter century’s worth of breathtaking technological change and unmatched U.S. military capabilities to signal to America’s allies and to Russia the strength of the U.S. commitment.
For Europe, this will mean recognizing that war has not been banished from the continent and that military force is still relevant in the twenty-first century. It will require a major shift not only in terms of committing resources, but also conceptually. It is essential, however, because the United States will not defend and deter on behalf of Europe if Europe is not willing to contribute its fair share of the burden.
But reliance on force alone is not enough. The United States and Europe have to pursue the diplomatic track as well. The challenge there is bigger than in the military sphere. The crisis in Ukraine is a major milestone in European security affairs, but it is only a symptom of a larger problem—the failure of the United States and Europe to implement their post–Cold War security plan designed around the idea of twin—NATO and EU—enlargements with Russia as a reliable partner.
The crisis in Ukraine has demonstrated that Russia is not willing to be a part of that scheme and that a new arrangement is needed. Devising this new arrangement is a top challenge for the alliance. To be successful, the effort has to include Russia. At the height of the present crisis, this is counterintuitive. However, any arrangement to which it is not a party from the beginning has little, if any, chance of succeeding. Russia’s insecurity and zero-sum approach to international relations mean that it will view any security arrangement in Europe in which it does not have a voice from the outset as a threat.
Considering the mistrust between Russia and the West, it is too early to take on the task of devising this arrangement. That is a task for the next U.S. administration. However, it is not too soon to begin laying the groundwork for it—taking the proper measure of what Russia is and the outlook for it over the next ten years; thinking through the United States’ own foreign policy priorities and Russia’s place among them; engaging the allies in a conversation about Russia and European security; and rebuilding channels of communication between U.S. and Russian foreign policy establishments, which are almost nonexistent at present, as a step toward restoring a measure of trust and understanding of each other’s motives and actions. These are just a few obvious actions that can be undertaken now, without waiting for a new U.S. administration in 2016.
The failure of the post–Cold War security arrangement does not mean a return to the Cold War in Europe. Too much has changed in the past twenty-five years. Russia and Europe have become much more interdependent, the center of gravity in the world has shifted with the rise of China and the Asia-Pacific region, and U.S. interests have become much more diffuse and diverse. And Russia does not pose the challenge the Soviet Union once did. It is a smaller, weaker power, whose main challenge to the world and to U.S. interests lies not in its expansion, but in the reckless behavior that has become a key feature of its reduced presence on the world stage.
1 The 260,000 estimate includes ground forces and airborne troops.