Russian President Vladimir Putin’s confrontation with the West is the defining feature of his foreign policy. This confrontation has been made possible to a large extent by his other major pursuit: strategic partnership with China.
Perhaps, realizing that a two-front geopolitical contest—in Europe and in Asia—would be too much for Russia to handle, Putin has secured the country’s eastern flank by cultivating ever-closer ties to China. Thus, in addition to focusing its military capabilities on the European theater, “the correlation of forces” for Russia is enhanced by this partnership that has “no limits.” The partnership could grow even closer if China helps Russia alleviate some of the problems associated with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. With a secure strategic rear, Russia has been able to focus its energies on Europe while also exploiting opportunities in other theaters—in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America—when they arise.
Beyond the next three to five years, however, the correlation of forces is likely to look much more precarious for Russia. Europe is likely to accelerate dramatically its energy transition to combat climate change, with major effects taking place within a few years, perhaps even months, rather than decades as previously projected. The war has motivated the EU, a key buyer of Russian hydrocarbons, to try to phase out large-scale purchases of Russian oil and gas by 2027. While the Putin regime is benefiting in the near term from higher energy prices, planned moves by Europe and China—Russia’s two biggest trading partners—in response to climate change threaten critical income streams that the Kremlin has relied on to pay for both guns and butter.
It is unlikely that the Kremlin will change the hostile nature of Russian foreign policy or seek détente with the West in response to these circumstances. At the same time, it would be a mistake to underestimate how much economic pain the Putin regime can tolerate or inflict on the Russian population. Assertive Russian external behavior and risk-taking were not curbed by economic headwinds and sanctions caused by the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Assuming that NATO allies deliver on their recent pledges to boost defense spending and military capabilities, the conventional military balance in the European theater will shift to Russia’s disadvantage. In the absence of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaties, NATO members will have the freedom to deploy weapons that Russia (and the Soviet Union) have long found threatening by virtue of their ability to hold at risk key targets in the Russian heartland. This possibility is bound to be worrisome to the Kremlin, just as the concept of conventional prompt global strike has been highly unsettling to the Russian national security community even though the United States has yet to field any of these systems.
The expiration in 2026 of New START, which caps U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals, will leave the two countries without an agreed-upon framework for managing their strategic nuclear balance. It appears highly unlikely that a successor treaty between the United States and Russia will be in place by then. China’s expansion of its strategic nuclear arsenal may also prompt the United States to upgrade its strategic force modernization program, which would likely spur the Kremlin to respond to these changes.
In short, over the next several years the Kremlin will almost certainly have to deal with a new and significant arms race in both conventional and nuclear weapons. Moreover, Russia will also face a cutoff of technology from the West, with uncertain prospects that China can backfill critical components or alleviate the economic pressures facing the Putin regime. Such a turn of events could produce two radically different outcomes. The first could be an attempt at détente and reform—led, say, by Putin’s successor—which could prove just as destabilizing to Russia as former president Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms were to the Soviet Union. The second outcome could be an even more belligerent and insecure regime—a Russia-sized North Korea. Neither of these outcomes is reassuring.
Russia’s threat environment is poised to become more challenging as a result of what has been touted as the rebirth of NATO and the EU. The United States’ NATO allies have been shocked into pledging to spend more on defense and substantially beefing up their conventional capabilities as the alliance refocuses, after years of out-of-area contingencies, on its traditional mission of territorial defense.
In addition, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has significantly shifted the attitudes toward NATO membership in Finland and Sweden. Officials in both countries have expressed growing alarm over Russian intentions in northern Europe and on the alliance’s eastern flank, and recent public opinion polls in both countries now show majorities in favor of joining NATO. The Kremlin almost certainly looks at this prospect with deep concern. Finnish and Swedish membership would heighten Russian perceptions of vulnerability on Europe’s northern flank. Their membership would significantly improve the alliance’s ability to neutralize Russia’s anti-access and area denial (AA/AD) capabilities in and around Kaliningrad, project force into the region, reinforce NATO members on the eastern flank, and maintain control in and over the Baltic Sea.
The main dilemma for NATO in the years ahead will be managing the trade-off between creating a robust forward defense of “every inch” of NATO territory, preventing spillover from the conflict in Ukraine, and avoiding military escalation with Russia. The United States and its NATO allies could decide that they can meet the requirements for deterrence on the eastern flank with a trip-wire-plus force posture, which would entail shifting from a temporary forward presence, met by rotational deployments, to a slightly enhanced permanent presence on the eastern flank. In this posture, NATO would also augment its combat air patrols and policing, deploy additional air defense assets, and upgrade its rapid response and logistics capabilities. This enhanced posture would be driven by the assumption that the poor performance of the Russian military and the economic consequences of further aggression would leave Putin with less appetite for further military adventurism.
Alternatively, if Putin comes out of Ukraine emboldened to take on greater geopolitical risks, NATO could decide to abandon its trip-wire force and the threat of escalation in favor of a robust forward defense and war-fighting posture emphasizing deterrence by denial. Such a change would require a huge investment of resources and a significant movement of troops, weapons, equipment, logistics, and combat support to the European theater.
Notwithstanding the allies’ early show of unity in the wake of the Russian attack on Ukraine, some of their differences and challenges to a more robust NATO posture have not disappeared entirely. These include the varying interests and priorities of the EU’s and NATO’s diverse members, as well as likely disagreements over which threats and challenges should be privileged in resource allocation decisions (among issues ranging from the Russian threat, China, climate change, pandemics, immigration, borders, refugees, or diversification of energy supplies). It would be prudent to not take for granted that Europe will forge the political unity and raise the billions of euros it will require to create a first-class military that might substitute for or provide a substantial addition to NATO’s military kit.
Moreover, the unanimity with which Europe came together to impose sanctions on Russia and help Ukraine is likely due to the fact that Ukraine is not a NATO member, and demonstrations of solidarity with it do not involve defense commitments through NATO’s Article 5. In the event of a Russian attack against a NATO member country, the specter of an all-out war with Russia may lead some allies to demonstrate less resolve and more caution and hesitation.
One headline is likely to become a trend line: Putin has confirmed that nuclear weapons are useful for a wide range of deterrence and coercive purposes to go along with what will still be formidable conventional capabilities in a short-war scenario, such as a quick land grab in the Baltic region. Several implications flow from this development.
First, notwithstanding rhetoric about defending every inch of NATO territory and the alliance’s impressive show of resolve, NATO may be unable or unwilling to conduct an Article 5 intervention against a Russian attack. The alliance may choose instead to form a coalition of willing NATO countries to defend vulnerable countries on its eastern flank.
Second, against the backdrop of renewed Russian nuclear threats and an unreconstructed Putin determined to achieve his long-standing geopolitical ambitions in Europe, NATO will need to rethink its conventional and nuclear doctrine and capabilities. Three key questions, fraught with political and geostrategic consequences, will need to be confronted:
- First, should the alliance try to muster the political unity and massive resources that would be required to shift from a trip-wire posture to provide deterrence and reassurance to a war-fighting posture?
- Second, will NATO need to rethink the balance between conventional and nuclear capabilities in its military doctrine?
- Finally, does the alliance need to do a fundamental rethink of its nuclear doctrine and declaratory policy—specifically, whether, how, and under what circumstances it should threaten or actually use nuclear weapons against Russian forces on the battlefield or against Russian territory?
Finally, the risks of inadvertent escalation could increase significantly if Russia relied more on its nonstrategic nuclear forces. To mitigate these risks, the United States and NATO will need to restore and upgrade military communications and deconfliction procedures with the Russian military and resume dialogue on stabilizing arms control and confidence-building measures as soon as possible.
Amid all the uncertainty, one thing is certain: the NATO alliance cannot afford to be trapped by institutional inertia, path dependent choices, or an assumption that a weakened Russia will stay Putin’s hand. To the contrary, Putin is likely to double down on his reckless gamble in Ukraine rather than stand down.