Avoiding a U.S.-Russia War

Russian President Vladimir Putin, flanked by top officials, attends a military parade during Russia’s Navy Day celebration, St. Petersburg, Russia, July 30, 2017 (AP photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko).
Russian President Vladimir Putin, flanked by top officials, attends a military parade during Russia’s Navy Day celebration, St. Petersburg, Russia, July 30, 2017 (AP photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko).
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As Russia seeks to expand its influence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, the threat of a U.S.-Russia war has never been higher since the Cold War. Find out more when you subscribe to World Politics Review (WPR).

In its efforts to re-establish itself as a great power, Russia has adopted a three-dimensional strategy designed to strengthen the country politically, enrich it economically and allow it to punch above its weight in a rapidly changing global security environment. This strategy has already raised tensions with Washington, raising fears of a U.S.–Russia war.

The first dimension of Russia’s strategy is intimidation. Focused on nearby nations, particularly those that were once part of the Soviet Union or the old Russian empire, the use of intimidation is meant to ensure that neighboring governments are friendly and subservient—or at least fearful of Moscow. It reflects Russia’s need for security buffers around its periphery, a response to geographical realities that allowed it to be invaded many times in the past.

The second dimension of Russia’s strategy is weakening the Western-engineered global order, particularly around the Mediterranean. As with the intimidation of Russia’s neighbors, this reflects Soviet strategy from the Cold War. Part of it is political obstructionism, using Moscow’s veto at the United Nations Security Council to delegitimize or stymie joint American and European efforts to prevent genocide during the Libyan civil war, for example, and put pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to negotiate an end to his nation’s disastrous civil war.

The third dimension of Russia’s global strategy is its most transactional: creating and protecting markets for arms sales. That’s really why Moscow is attempting to return to Libya and, more importantly, why it protects Assad. Other than military arms, few Russian manufactured goods are competitive in the global economy, forcing it to rely on raw material and energy exports. But Russia’s leaders know that a great power—a status they desperately want—must do more than sell commodities.

To learn more about Russia’s strategy to get the upper hand in U.S.-Russia relations, read How Russia Crafted a Three-Dimensional Strategy to Regain Global Influence for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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Assessing Russia’s Great Power Aspirations

Perhaps the most visible illustration of Russia’s return to great power status is its intervention in Syria, which has highlighted the advances in Russia’s military modernization since the 2008 conflict with Georgia. Moscow has outperformed the expectations of many skeptical observers with its air campaign and advise-and-support mission in Syria, while unveiling new capabilities, like standoff cruise missile strikes, for the first time in a conflict zone.

The preoccupation with Russia’s military, however, is part of a broader debate that has unfolded in the U.S. and Europe over whether to regard Moscow as a potential partner, a rival or an adversary—and even an enemy. Just as important, that debate has been accompanied by another one over whether Russia’s ambitions to regain its superpower status after the 1990s—a post-Soviet decade of humiliation—are realistic and achievable, or simply the delusions of a country in economic and demographic decline. In other words, is Russia the greatest geopolitical threat the U.S. faces, as Mitt Romney famously declared during a 2012 presidential debate? Or is it a bogeyman wielded by alarmists stuck in the 1980s, as then-President Barack Obama replied?

The debate is an important one, as it will have major implications for resolving the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

To learn more about whether the U.S. should take Russia’s aspirations seriously, read Is Russia the West’s Potential Partner, Rival, Adversary – or Even Enemy? for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

Are We at Risk of a U.S.–Russia War?

The heightened tensions between the U.S. and Russia have made war more likely today than at any time since the worst years of the Cold War. This may sound implausible or exaggerated to policymakers, journalists and the wider public. Yet the fact remains that increasing deployments by both sides, coupled with severely constrained direct dialogue, mean that it is only a matter of time before poor U.S.-Russia relations lead to dangerous incidents between their military forces. When they do occur, these incidents will be far harder to defuse and de-escalate. The question then will be how well-equipped both sides are to manage the consequences. Judging by the state of the relationship overall, the answer is not very well at all.

To learn more about the danger of heightened U.S.-Russia tensions, read The Real Risk of Unintended U.S.-Russia Conflict for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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Dusting Off an Old Approach to Deterring Russia

As a result of the dangers of escalation in the event that conflict broke out between the U.S. and Russia, Washington is concerned, perhaps even fixated on finding ways to deter possible Russian aggression against the NATO members on its periphery. The U.S. military is convinced that the way to do this over the long term is by fielding new capabilities that would give it a clear battlefield advantage over Russian armed forces. More immediately, the Pentagon and the wider community of security experts are considering force posture changes that might augment deterrence. There has even been talk of a return to the permanent stationing of American forces on NATO’s eastern flank. These are important ideas, and some variation of them should be implemented. But there is another way to amplify deterrence with existing capabilities and without additional spending: by reviving what is known as the “indirect approach,” which was an important element of American strategy during the Cold War.

Read more about how an old approach to deterring Russia could be worth re-examining, in To Better Deter Russia, the U.S. Should Rediscover the ‘Indirect Approach’ for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

Learn more about the possibility of a U.S.-Russia war, and a wide variety of other issues concerning Trump, Putin and the future of U.S.-Russia relations in the vast, searchable library of World Politics Review (WPR):

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Editor’s Note: This article was first published in August 2018 and is regularly updated.

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