NATO countries have decried Russian aggression, going so far as to impose a variety of economic and diplomatic sanctions. But there has been a demonstrated lack of will within the alliance to either formulate a coherent defense plan, increase the size of member state militaries or pool resources to meet the agreed upon defense spending goals, something the last three secretaries of defense have criticized publicly. The United States has long struggled with what President Obama calls the free-rider problem within NATO, spending an immense amount of U.S. taxpayer money to underwrite the security of nations who do not see the need to invest sufficiently and effectively in their own armed forces. While President Obama has publicly expressed concerns about this free-rider problem, the DOD budget does not. In fact, the FY 2017 defense budget has quadrupled the European Reassurance Initiative, or ERI, to $3.4 billion. The idea that an extra five thousand troops on rotation in Europe will somehow deter Putin—when the existing fifty thousand have not—is preposterous, and suggests that the ERI is more about halfhearted signaling than affecting a substantive change in European security. Additionally, by placing the ERI in the Overseas Contingency Operation fund and not making it part of the base defense budget, the DOD is sending a clear signal that this is not a long-term priority and therefore should not be implemented in FY 2017. It is obvious that President Obama and the U.S. allies in European both recognize that sanctions and low oil prices have made more of an impact on constraining Russia’s adventurism than any amount of posturing or any number of joint exercises.
In Syria, Russia has committed significant economic and military resources for a seemingly limited period of time to secure their bases and prop up their client, President Bashar al-Assad. In this endeavor, Russia has been successful in the short term. They have also essentially bought themselves a seat at the table when the time comes for a political settlement. However, just as the United States found itself spending hundreds of billions of dollars to support the fragile governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia is faced with the long term prospect of sinking large amounts of political capital and money into an open-ended conflict in order to support an unpopular government. Putin’s decision to withdraw some of the Russian forces indicates that he believes he has achieved enough—the security of Russian bases and the continued survival of Assad. Putin’s strategy is ultimately reactionary and opportunistic: strike where the West has little to no interest, where the opponent is weak and unaligned and where there is either a significant chance of success or where there is a perceived existential security concern. Western defense planners speak of deterrence, but a state without leverage or overriding concern cannot deter a military-capable state. Yet, even as the rhetoric on both sides of the old East–West divide has ratcheted up, Putin has shown a willingness to cooperate when it suits him—particularly in Syria, where the United States and Russia have “deconflicted” the battle space, jointly worked to destroy Assad’s chemical stockpiles and worked to arrange a ceasefire.
In short, Russia is not the Soviet Union, nor is Putin the next Stalin. In fact, he is someone with whom we can work as we have done in Iran and are now doing in Syria. He is a strongman and authoritarian, but he still derives legitimacy from popular support—which his military actions have generated—at least in the short term. After the deterioration in the post-Soviet years, most Russians greatly desire to return their nation to a great power status. In the face of a struggling economy, corrupt governance and the general decline in the prospects of the average Russian. Putin has found a means to keep that dream of Russian power alive. But his military engagements have been inconclusive, and he faces a bevy of other constraints that are outside of his power to circumvent. Russia today is tied into the international system in a way the Soviet Union never was, and it remains dependent on keeping within the good graces of the liberal order. To do otherwise would invite collapse. There would be no winner in a U.S.–NATO war with Russia, and no meaningful way to stop it from escalating to a nuclear exchange if one broke out. So, it is incumbent on the United States, as the leader of the free world, to continue to find nonmilitary solutions to the situation in Eastern Europe. Just as Iran was brought to the bargaining table through a combination of engagement, international sanctions and isolation, so might Russia.
Historic state behavior, military options and economic concerns make war with China even more inconceivable than war with Russia. After nearly a century of imperialism, war and disastrous reforms, Chinese party leaders have cemented their position through a combination of authoritarian controls and making the country more prosperous. China today is arguably freer than at any time since the end of the Chinese Civil War, though civil, social and political rights have lagged far behind economic freedom and development. It was never a matter of if China would resume its position as a great power, but when. That time seems to be now—after years of spending on nondefense investment, Chinese leaders are now intent on creating a military on par with its world position. Here, though, is the line the Chinese Communist Party finds itself walking: spending on defense and pursuing a more muscular foreign policy, while ensuring the health of a national economy facing significant challenges and also answering demands for further liberalization and reforms.
In the South China Sea, China seems intent on using its military and economic power to shoulder aside competing territorial claims. The South China Sea represents one of the most important sea lanes in the world and sits on billions of dollars of proven oil and natural gas reserves. There are currently nine states—China, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Singapore, Cambodia and Brunei—that dispute ownership of some area of the sea. Despite occasional naval clashes between the parties, particularly Vietnam and China, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN—of which seven claimants are members—has worked to prevent a military escalation in the area and settle disputes. There is still a lack of an overarching treaty framework, however, and China has exploited that lack of cohesion. While China’s actions are provocative they do not represent clear and present danger to U.S. allies and interests. Continuing to maintain a strong naval presence in the area, by means of the pivot to Asia, is undoubtedly an important policy, but so is building allied capability, by policies such as lifting the arms embargo against Vietnam, while also working toward a diplomatic settlement, such as finally ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which our military has recommended for thirty years.
China also holds the key to any kind of peaceful resolution on the Korean peninsula. As North Korea’s sole patron, China has the most leverage over Kim Jong-un’s dictatorship and only through their cooperation can the United States hope to finally achieve the end of nuclear proliferation in the area. It is apparent the administration understands China’s important role in ensuring security for the United States and our allies. Thus, trade agreements and military events such as the Rim of Pacific Exercise, or RIMPAC, continue to be prime drivers in maintaining and strengthening bilateral ties. Growth of military technology and doctrine that seeks to counter traditional areas of U.S. superiority, such as the much-discussed Anti-Access/Area-Denial, or A2/AD, cyber and space capabilities, should act as a guide for future research and development rather than a justification for even more money than is in the FY 2017 budget.
China does not want a war, particularly over territory like the South China Sea. Its actions have already led to a multinational coalition to balance against it, renewing and reinforcing ties between the United States and partners such as Japan and the Philippines. China also happens to have major investments in and trade relationships with all interested parties in the area. To an even greater degree than Russia, China is constrained by its place within the world economy and the need to keep positive trade balances to avoid slowing its economic growth.
Open conflict would be devastating to every nation in the region—in both economic and human terms—which makes the likelihood of such an event incredibly slim. This means that military posturing alone will not deter China’s aim to establish itself as a power to be reckoned with; based on its size and its economy, that outcome is a foregone conclusion. The degree to which China feels the need to invest in its military and behave aggressively against its neighbors will be determined by many factors, both foreign and domestic, that are outside of U.S. control. China has had to slash 300,000 people from its armed forces because rising wages have made maintaining the world’s largest standing army prohibitively expensive. But it is within the power and in keeping with the interests of the United States to not further escalate the situation and instead continue to help the region work toward a peaceful solution that ensures freedom of trade and movement.