Strategic Horizons: Planning the U.S. Military Response to Russian Revanchism

Strategic Horizons: Planning the U.S. Military Response to Russian Revanchism

When the Cold War ended, the days of imperial expansion seemed to go with it. No one expected the revanchism of bygone empires to affect, much less shape, the 21st-century global security system. But that is exactly what is happening. Al-Qaida is using the dream of a long-lost Arab empire to justify terrorism. China is yearning for territory it owned centuries ago and seems willing to use its rising economic and military power to regain it. And now Russia has joined the revanchists by invading Ukraine and seizing a large chunk of its territory. As a result, policymakers, military strategists and security specialists are dusting off old ideas about imperial revanchism and reconsidering how to stop it.

While Vladimir Putin’s desire to reconstitute the old czarist/communist Russian empire has been a wake-up call to the West, Russia has neither China’s economic power nor al-Qaida’s ideological appeal to fuel the rebuilding of its old empire. There are few if any angry young Russians willing to undertake terrorism on Putin’s behest. Nor can modern Russia call on a transnational communist movement like the Soviet Union could. Putin’s only proxies are the Russian speakers living in former parts of the empire and powerful criminal gangs with close ties to the Russian elite.

Still, Putin remains, in former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s words, the “ultimate revisionist,” obsessed with reversing the dismantling of the Soviet empire. Even before Moscow has fully digested Crimea, NATO officials are warning of a Russian military build-up that may portend further aggression, possibly a move into eastern Ukraine or Moldova’s Transnistria region.

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