The ABCs of Russian Military Power: A Primer for the New Administration

Armata tank in a 2016 Victory Day parade.

What the new Pentagon needs to know.

Fixing deterrence in the Baltics is an arduous task. It would require not just a tripwire force, but follow-on forces somewhere in theater, to make deterrence by punishment more credible. This means a gradual transfer of combat aviation, air power and naval power to the European theater—close enough to be credible, but based far enough away from Russia’s borders as not to be escalatory. There is no credible deterrence in Europe without visible American commitment, which means a force on the continent capable of fighting wars, and not just cheerleading allies. That said, there is little sense in expanding ground forces for a large footprint in Europe. The strategy should be based on punishment, leveraging advantages in the air and sea domain. This also keeps the costs to the United States minimal, and retains flexibility to pursue contingencies elsewhere.

Reviving allied capability and U.S. military presence will take years, and so in the interim it would do Western officials well not to panic publicly over the vulnerability. It’s not getting fixed anytime soon, and NATO’s track record of follow-through on military spending is terrible. Reviving NATO’s war-fighting capability is a generational project. Emphasizing how easily Russia could seize the Baltics is hardly going to help restore deterrence. If the United States wishes to project strength, it must stop incessantly highlighting its weakness in the face of credible adversaries.

To deal with Russia, the United States needs a much better sense of itself. America is not weak. It’s just that Washington, DC is not particularly smart in its use of military power, and often unable to corral a disparate policy establishment into a coherent response to long-term threats. Distant from its problems, American leadership is vulnerable to manipulation by adversaries and allies alike. Outpacing the decisionmaking in our policy establishment is no great feat; Russia has done exceptionally well in setting the negative agenda. European allies are also well practiced in the “damsel in distress” act. A few speeches about America’s indispensable leadership is usually all it takes to get DC to open up its pocketbooks and pay to defend the world’s richest economies.

Weakness, Real and Imaginary

America’s primary weakness is not in its lack of economic or military power, but in a failure to formulate strategy and, frankly, poorly informed decisionmaking, even when faced with a peer nuclear power. Military capability in and of itself will not fix these cardinal weaknesses in judgment, nor make up for a lack of vision and political will to see hard choices through.

Russian leadership takes the long view—a luxury of being in charge for sixteen years. The current conflict may seem local to Ukraine, or regional to European security, but the evaluation in Moscow is systemic. The problem this administration must solve is one of strategic insolvency in the eyes of powers like Russia. If the United States continues to cut its force size and defense spending while expanding its alliance network, all while the military utility of its allies continues to decline relative to the power of adversaries, then the proximate cause of a challenge is irrelevant. Eventually, an unsatisfied power will do the math, reaching the verdict that America lacks the ability and resolve to meet its alliance commitments. The odds are higher it will be China, not Russia. The problem is not the military balance in the Baltics, but Russia’s perception that the U.S. position in the international system is declining in large part because of decisions made by its policy establishment.

Prevention means investing in the foundations of military and economic power, not just plugging gaps. The United States cannot just procure its way out of this problem with new batches of missiles and increasingly exorbitant military toys. At the top of the agenda should be capacity in sea power, capability in the land and air force, and a modernized nuclear force structure better able to deal with nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Today the United States is shuffling an increasingly smaller deck of cards. Furthermore, it means stabilizing relations with some adversaries in order to better pursue confrontation with others. The Obama administration chose to rethink Iran, but the challenge from Russia was arguably no less important. It could not be abandoned to wishful thinking that Russia is a “regional power in decline.”

Negotiating from strength also means figuring out what America wants from Russia and seeking to establish leverage. In the post–Cold War world, the U.S. national-security establishment typically does not negotiate from strength; it builds strength so that it doesn’t have to negotiate, and then just sits there, hoping the other side will expire. The foreign-policy elite is unwilling to set priorities or make trades, and thus falls back on sticks or on “do something” solutions. Exhibit A: the current policy consensus to confront Russian influence everywhere, absent a real strategy. This has resulted in plenty of hand wringing, and bureaucratic activity without any achievement. Russia respects U.S. military strength, but has no regard for American leadership. The approach has also been objectively unsuccessful, with Moscow consistently beating the United States in contests from Ukraine to Syria, or the latest hacking scandal.