In a previous article, “Russia and China are Already Winning the Nuclear Arms Race,” I discussed the dangers to U.S. national security from the breathtaking advances by China and Russia in expanding the size of their nuclear arsenals to a level far in excess of the size of the current U.S. nuclear arsenal. The more that Russia’s and China’s superiority over the United States in terms of nuclear and other unconventional weapons such as super-Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) and cyberweapons, as well as in terms of overall nuclear war survivability, continues to increase, the greater their temptation will be to engage in increasingly brazen international aggression abroad. We have already seen examples of this happening with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, China’s occupation of disputed islands in the South China Sea over the last several years, and what appears to be an increasingly imminent Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
In March-April 2021, Russia reportedly massed 100,000-150,000 troops along Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders poised for a possible invasion. In response, the United States raised its alert status to Defense Condition (DEFCON) Three for the first time since September 11, 2001. Moreover, U.S. European Command raised its watch level to “potential imminent crisis” in fear that a Russian invasion of Ukraine might be followed by a Russian attempt to overrun frontline NATO states including the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. It was this crisis that caused President Joe Biden to propose the June 2021 Geneva summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin to reduce tensions and improve U.S.-Russian relations, which were then at their worst since the end of the Cold War. More disturbingly, Russia’s achievement of nuclear supremacy over the United States could potentially enable it to coerce or blackmail U.S. leaders to do its bidding and unilaterally disarm or, far worse, launch a catastrophic attack on the U.S. homeland with a comparatively low risk of effective U.S. military retaliation. Such an attack would essentially have the effect of erasing the United States from the geopolitical map much as the Allies did to Germany at the end of World War II.
The commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Admiral Charles Richard, testified to Congress in April 2021 that the United States might well face a two-front or even a three-front war if Russia were to invade Ukraine and/or other Eastern Europe nations, China were to attack Taiwan, and North Korea were to attack South Korea simultaneously and in coordination. Adm. Richard testified that the United States currently has no contingency plans for how to confront two allied nuclear superpowers in a future war. Thus, the ability of the United States and its allies to survive, let alone win, a war fought with such powerful, unconventional weapons against our enemies remains very much in doubt.
In a recent article in the National Interest, former Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs A. Wess Mitchell expanded upon this increasing danger warning that:
The greatest risk facing the twenty-first-century United States, short of an outright nuclear attack, is a two-front war involving its strongest military rivals, China and Russia. Such a conflict would entail a scale of national effort and risk unseen in generations, effectively pitting America against the resources of nearly half of the Eurasian landmass. It would stretch and likely exceed the current capabilities of the U.S. military, requiring great sacrifices of the American people with far-reaching consequences for U.S. influence, alliances, and prosperity. Should it escalate into a nuclear confrontation, it could possibly even imperil the country’s very existence. Given these high stakes, avoiding a two-front war with China and Russia must rank among the foremost objectives of contemporary U.S. grand strategy [emphasis added]. Yet the United States has been slow to comprehend this danger, let alone the implications it holds for U.S. policy…A debate has erupted among defense intellectuals about how to handle a second-front contingency…There has been much less discussion of how, if at all, U.S. diplomacy should evolve to avert two-front war. In the current budgetary environment, though, the most likely outcome could well be the worst of all worlds—namely, that America will continue to try to overawe all threats…while reducing real defense spending. Such an approach keeps U.S. power thinly spread…This creates an ideal setting for an increasingly aligned Russia and China to conduct repeated stress tests of U.S. resolve in their respective neighborhoods and, when conditions are ripe, make synchronous grabs for, say, Taiwan and a Baltic state.
U.S. concerns about the risks of fighting a coming war with Russia and China are well-grounded, given it is unprepared to fight even a purely conventional war with them. In 2019, former U.S. deputy secretary of defense Robert Work, and David Ochmanek, one of the Defense Department’s key defense planners, offered a public summary of the results from a series of classified recent war games. Ochmanek summarized the results of the wargames by stating: “When we fight Russia and China, ‘blue’ [the United States] gets its [butt] handed to it.” As The New York Times summarized, “In 18 of the last 18 Pentagon war games involving China in the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. lost.” While many U.S. leaders have been keen to defend every nation threatened by Russian and Chinese aggression—including those thousands of miles away on their borders, such as Taiwan and Ukraine, where our enemies enjoy overwhelming theater military superiority—they need to adopt a more realistic assessment of the chances of the United States prevailing in such a conflict. In an article for War on the Rocks, Edward Geist, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, notes that in November 2018, the National Defense Strategy Commission found that “If the United States had to fight Russia in a Baltic contingency or China in a war over Taiwan … Americans could face a decisive military defeat … Put bluntly, the U.S. military could lose the next state-versus-state war it fights.” He surmises that:
These findings suggest that, in a pitched battle with a near-peer adversary such as China, American forces may be defeated even if its commanders don’t make any mistakes…If defeat is to be prevented, U.S. strategy and planning may need to think about all the different forms defeat might take so as to be ready for alternative kinds of conflicts and concepts of operations … In the present, when near-peer adversaries are increasingly capable of defeating U.S. conventional forces on a theater level, U.S. decision-makers can no longer afford to pretend that defeat is not a real possibility. And, so long as policymakers do not take losing seriously, they are unlikely to take the difficult steps needed to prevent such a defeat [emphasis added] … Unfortunately, U.S. strategy has not planned seriously for protracted near-peer conflict since the early Cold War… It is much more unpleasant to envision losing than winning — but this does nothing to change the fact that defeat is an increasingly plausible possibility in a war with Russia or China…An essential first step could be to start taking the prospect of protracted near-peer conflict seriously. Whether or not U.S. policymakers want such a conflict, one may be imposed upon them — and at present, America is woefully underprepared for it.
While U.S. policymakers are right to focus in recent years on the threat of great power wars with Russia and China, it is imperative that U.S. leaders recognize the increasing prospects of defeat in such conflicts so that they can better determine whether fighting losing wars against America’s nuclear superpower enemies and risking the lives of tens of millions of Americans and our nation’s very existence best serves U.S. national security interests. Furthermore, U.S. policymakers made a strategic mistake in expanding NATO into eastern Europe in the late 1990s and subsequently into the former Soviet republic of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as the United States and its allies do not have sufficient military capability to defend its Eastern European members against potential Russian aggression. Last month, Stephen Philip Kramer, a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, expounded upon NATO’s inability to credibly defend its frontline NATO members from Russian aggression.
Putin has allied Russia to China, defying the basic rules of geopolitics. But Russia and Putin—including his supporters—cannot be ignored; Russia remains a threat because of its vast … nuclear arsenal and its newly acquired skills at projecting its limited power in clever and unpredictable ways. It is also important to recognize that if Putin’s regime feels seriously threatened, that there are few limits to what it might do to retain power… Almost every assessment of NATO’s ability to deploy and defend against a major Russian incursion into the Baltics comes to the stark conclusion that our current capabilities are not adequate; the alliance would be presented with a fait accompli before it could emplace traditional defensive forces to meet the obligations of Article V of the NATO charter…It is easy to answer the question of whether Europe can defend itself against a determined Russian invasion of the Baltics or other NATO allies in eastern Europe—the answer is no. As noted above, geography and the current correlation of military power favor a successful attack. The cost of mounting a counterattack to reclaim and secure the territory would be tremendous for all concerned—and catastrophic for the nations and people in the areas where kinetic warfare would actually occur. Beyond that, the destruction of infrastructure and other enabling capabilities—obvious targets in such a war—would have massive impacts on both sides. This is all without including the possibility of nuclear escalation. Even the limited use of tactical nuclear weapons would have devastating consequences.