On Russia, America Should Pick Its Battles

Vladimir Putin with Slovenia’s President Borut Pahor. Wikimedia Commons/Kremlin.ru

Here’s a fact: we’re not in the Cold War anymore.

Experts and policymakers in both Russia and the United States acknowledge a level of hostility and corrosive rhetoric between the two countries that has not existed since the darkest days of the Cold War. Is this due to conflicting geostrategic interests, or fundamentally opposed ideologies? Unlike during the Cold War, today neither is the case. During the Cold War, two relatively equally matched superpowers competed for geopolitical and ideological control, and allowing nations to fall to communism, into the Soviet sphere, sparked fears of dominos falling. Today, Russia is purely interest-driven, and Russian and American interests need not collide; indeed, there is much opportunity for mutually beneficial cooperation. This is not to say that Americans should not be critical of Russian espionage; covert meddling in the 2016 election; repressive Russian domestic political tactics; or aggressive interventions in Syria, Georgia or Ukraine, among other post-Soviet states. It is simply an entreaty towards an objective, clear-eyed understanding of where Russia poses a threat to American interests, and where it does not.

During the Cold War, both the Americans and the Soviets feared the other side gaining a power advantage in their contest for global supremacy. Furthermore, while the United States promoted a liberal ideology, the Soviets promoted a communist ideology that was by nature expansionist and revolutionary, and therefore anathema to, and destined to clash, with the American capitalist/democratic vision for the world.

Even at the height of the Cold War, strategic and economic realities tempered the revolutionary drive of Soviet leaders, from Khrushchev to Gorbachev. Today, the power balance between the two countries is not even close. Russia does not have an ability to project power in any way comparable to the United States, and is unable to challenge American interests globally. Russia’s newly upgraded force structure reflects Putin’s acknowledgment of this reality.

Putin has not been trying to build a military that can rival the United States; indeed, this is not possible with Russia’s economy and will not be possible for the foreseeable future. Instead, Putin has been investing in the ability to project power only in what it considers its historic vital sphere of influence. While the United States is leaps and bounds ahead of any other country, including Russia, in power-projection capabilities, Russia has effectively invested its limited resources in area-denial capabilities that are defensive in nature, and cannot be used to project power globally.

What the Russian Threat Is—and What It Isn’t

As the NATO security alliance and Western economic influence continue to expand eastward, Russia is likely to continue its policy of intervening to prevent what it considers a vital threat to its interests. This means that, as in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine more recently, Russia will likely continue to flex its muscles and take military action when it deems the use of force to be necessary. This is perfectly rational policy from a realist perspective. The United States maintains a strategic doctrine in line with these very principles in its own perceived sphere. Fears sparked by Russia’s robust, aggressive, but ostensibly defensive posture should not spark outsized fears in NATO countries. Russia has no intention of triggering the automatic response from the United States under NATO Article Five, and will not take an action that makes a military response likely to escalate to nuclear war, automatic under NATO rules. This means that Russia will not attempt military action against a NATO ally.

The United States has historically been outraged when countries threatened their strategic position globally, especially in the Western Hemisphere. 1917’s notorious Zimmermann Telegram, in which Germany sought to foment a Mexican front against the United States, is understood by historians as a proximate cause for American involvement in World War I. Certainly the most famous incident that sparked wild American fear, and pushback that threatened global nuclear war, was the Soviet placement of nuclear-capable missiles in Cuba. It does not require complex knowledge of international affairs to understand that states want to avoid being encircled, and are thus driven to protect what they consider their spheres of influence if they can. Therefore, Russian aversion to NATO military expansion, and Western political and economic expansion into what it considers its sphere, should be easily understood by experts and amateurs alike.

Picking Our Battles

In order to avoid a clash of interests that America is primed to lose, it is better to stand strong where our interests are vital—that is, in publically signaling resolve by reassuring our NATO allies of our unwavering support, and to humbly accept that Western expansion, and the continuation of the American post–Cold War near-monopoly on the use of force in the international arena, is not a sustainable strategy. As the 2008 war in Georgia, Russian hybrid warfare in Ukraine and open military actions in Syria show, Russia is willing to stand up to American pressure and fight for the areas that they care about.