The Growing Danger of Military Conflict with Russia

A Russian military honor guard welcomes U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen during a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, Russia. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy

There are no risk-free options.

The prudent response would either be to find ways to de-escalate the pressure on the spring or to prepare for its snapback and to be able to cushion the shock. A whole host of track II dialogues over the past two years—some of whose conclusions were reported in these pages—recommended compromises on flashpoint issues like Ukraine and Syria and developing new codes of conduct for cyberspace. But the political costs of acting on these recommendations—which would have required the United States to step back from some of its positions and preferences—were seen as too high. In Syria, for instance, walking back the “Assad must go” demand as a precondition for talks on the country’s future, at a time when Russia might have been open to compromise. Today, when the United States has reluctantly conceded that Assad might be able to stay, at least for a period of time, Moscow has moved on and decided it can “win” in Syria, or at least in Aleppo, to give Assad a much stronger hand to play as the bargaining on Syria begins with Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

The other prudent response—to prepare for the springback—also ran up against costs the U.S. was unwilling to pay. Two ineffectual NATO summits in 2014 and 2015 did little to convince Europeans that in the face of a threat from the Kremlin and with the United States facing a more assertive China in the Pacific, they would need to rapidly restore real expeditionary capabilities. The U.S. itself did not want to abandon its preferred construct for defense spending: drawdowns in Europe and the Middle East to allow for buildups in the Far East while making overall cuts. Nor did the U.S. want to shoulder the burden of a Ukraine aid program that would be the equivalent of what Washington was willing to spend post-1989 in central Europe or be prepared to commit to a more direct intervention in Syria to advance its preferred outcome. Instead, we have tended to complain about Russia’s actions and why they are inappropriate for a twenty-first-century world.

Last year, the calculation of Saudi Arabia—and by extension of the United States—was that Russia could not sustain its more assertive position in the Middle East (and other parts of the world) in light of declining energy prices, and that unsheathing the oil weapon would curb Kremlin ambitions. This was wrong. Today, it is Saudi Arabia that has begun to search for ways to firm up oil prices while Rosneft—Russia’s state oil company—declares that it has no need for capping production. Syria has not proven to be the quagmire that President Obama said it would be for Moscow. The Russia-Turkey partnership now seems to be back on track while Ankara’s ties with Washington worsen. While the Trans-Pacific Partnership, America’s signature economic initiative for Asia, is on political life support, Chinese president Xi Jinping will travel to the BRICS summit in Goa later this week to unveil ambitious proposals for free trade arrangements that bypass the West.

Moscow is setting red lines of its own. The United States, under the current administration and then under new management come January, needs to assess which of those lines it is unwilling to cross, which ones Russia is serious about defending, and which ones America must be prepared to defy—and in so doing, be prepared to pay the costs.

As an observer of U.S. policy, I can’t say for certain where the United States might be prepared to compromise and where it would stand firm. But U.S. leaders have to make these calls based on their assessment of U.S. values and interests combined with costs America is willing to pay. But U.S. policy will be on a firming footing once there is a salutary realization that, when it comes to the Kremlin, there are no risk-free options.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a contributing editor at the National Interest, is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The views expressed here are his own personal assessments.

Image: A Russian military honor guard welcomes U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen during a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, Russia. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy