Neither of these contrasting schools for explaining and dealing with Russian behaviors is entirely wrong. There is little doubt that Russia sees itself as on the defensive in the face of NATO expansion and Washington’s extensive involvement in Russia’s domestic affairs in the 1990s. Moscow harbors deep resentments, misperceptions and mistrust of American intentions, and its views of the United States have changed from partner to adversary over the course of the past twenty-five years, in part due to American actions that it perceives as threatening. At least some of the Russian behavior that appears to Americans as unprovoked aggression—such as interference in the 2016 presidential election—appears to Russians as a natural reaction to years of perceived Western meddling in Russia and its neighbors.
But Russia’s behavior is not driven solely by defensive motives. It also sees itself as rightfully a great power, albeit one that was down on its luck in the 1990s, that should play a key role in international affairs along with the United States, Europe and China, and that should dominate its neighboring states, as it believes all great powers do. It is difficult to argue that Moscow’s military involvement in South America, a region far from Russia’s borders with only the most tenuous of connections to any vital Russian interest, is motivated by anything other than a desire to show Washington that Russia is a great power capable of stirring up trouble in regions dominated by the United States. Part of the resentment of the United States that has grown within Moscow’s political class over the past two decades stems from the belief that Washington treats Russia as a subordinate and has stood in the way of its return to great power glory. Russia’s desire to dominate neighboring states has been a key factor driving their efforts to join NATO and seek American help, which in turn has fueled Moscow’s insecurities in a spiral of escalating hostility. This mix of offensive and defensive motivations is, in fact, an old theme in Russian foreign policy. Commenting on tsarist Russia’s behavior in the period leading to World War I, Henry Kissinger observed, “Partly defensive, partly offensive, Russian expansion was always ambiguous, and this ambiguity generated Western debates over Russia’s intentions that lasted through the Soviet period.”
THE FIELD of management science has a term for the kinds of conundrums that resulted in World War I: wicked problems. The term is not meant to connote the given problem’s evil nature, but rather the enormous challenges it presents. One of the hallmarks of such problems is that efforts to break them down and address their component parts incrementally are counterproductive. Addressing one aspect of the problem can make others worse and often adds new dimensions of difficulty. Multiple individual elements are connected to and interact with each other in ways that change over time. Relationships in such a system are not arithmetic, and good intentions do not necessarily bring success. Every individual action inevitably has effects on other parts of the system, some of which may be damaging. And recognizing in advance what those cascading effects will be is immensely difficult.
While our Russia challenge does not fit neatly into either the “offensive Russia” or “defensive Russia” schools of thought, the tangled set of issues crisscrossing the U.S.-Russian relationship does reflect the complexities of a classic wicked problem. Starkly differing perceptions of the other side’s intentions have garbled the signals that each believes it is sending and reinforced mistaken assumptions about how the other will react to events. Unsettled questions about Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture are fueling antagonisms. New and still poorly understood cyber technologies, coupled with the development of advanced strategic weapons delivery systems, are providing enormous advantages to the attacker over the defender, reinforcing perceptions of vulnerability while incentivizing aggression. Changes in the global geopolitical order have simultaneously threatened U.S. preeminence and provided tempting opportunities for Russia and other rival powers to advance their influence. Each side has increasingly tethered itself to unreliable proxies whose interests overlap with—but do not coincide with—those of their sponsors. And each side is struggling to cope with domestic political challenges that magnify its feelings of vulnerability and complicate its ability to formulate and implement effective foreign policies. Meanwhile, the old rules that governed the Cold War competition between Washington and Moscow have withered away, and new understandings that could contain and stabilize the renewed rivalry have not replaced them. All these factors are reinforcing each other in a vicious cycle of dynamic interactions. Moreover, the interconnection between component parts of these issues means there is a high potential that accidents and incremental actions will produce unintended knock-on effects. Just as in Sarajevo in 1914, small events can cause ripples in this complex set of problems that produce large, catastrophic outcomes.
Echoing the British and German experience in the period leading up to World War I, the United States and Russia are caught in a spiral of threat perceptions today. Russians have long been convinced that Washington is moving to encircle their country with hostile puppet regimes and overthrow their government. Americans have more recently become persuaded that the Kremlin is trying to use cyber weapons to divide our society and destroy U.S. democracy. Each regards the other’s purported fears as exaggerations at best, if not self-serving lies. U.S. accusations of Russian paranoia are nearly equaled by Russian charges of American Russophobia. Dismissals of the other side’s fears are reinforcing, not ameliorating, each side’s threat perceptions.
Cyber technology is making this problem more acute. On the one hand, its destructive potential is enormous. As the U.S. Defense Policy Board put it, “The integrated impact of a cyber attack has the potential of existential consequence. While the manifestations of a nuclear and cyber attack are very different, in the end, the existential impact to the United States is the same.” On the other hand, there is very little that cyber defense can do to thwart sophisticated attackers, who can with enough skill and determination exploit inevitable flaws in software code or other human failings to penetrate nearly any system they target. This fosters a deep sense of vulnerability on the part of defenders.
Devoting countless hours to scouring millions of lines of code to uncover malware is often a fruitless approach when dealing with skilled hackers. Even when searches come up empty, defenders cannot be certain that a cyber bomb is not lying undiscovered somewhere in their vast web of infrastructure. Nor can they be certain that what they do discover is not a false flag operation, malware planted by a third country in disguise. Even more disturbing is the fact that the intentions of cyber intruders are seldom clear even after the intrusions are detected. Intrusions meant to gather data can initially look just like those aimed at preparing for sabotage, blurring the distinction between espionage and warfare. Subversive cyber influence efforts intended to divide and conquer an adversary can in practice appear identical to those simply aimed at forcing concessions the adversary is loath to make. These vexing problems incentivize defenders to play offense: to penetrate an opponent’s networks even more deeply to learn what exactly it might be doing—and to plant cyber weapons of one’s own in an attempt to deter the adversary from any detonation.
As a result, cyber technology has created a new form of existential threat that is reminiscent of the impact of nuclear technology on the Cold War, but operates according to a different logic. Largely invisible, these weapons can quickly become ineffective if they are not implanted and updated, even if they are not detonated. Their nature encourages states to assume and plan for the worst. Unlike in the Cold War, when nuclear vulnerability produced the concept of mutually assured destruction and had a stabilizing effect, cyber technology has created a destructive feedback loop of aggression and counter-aggression in the cyber arena, where the real or imagined compromise of systems on one side prompts it to redouble efforts to compromise its rival’s systems.
This would be dangerous enough if strictly contained within the cyber sphere. But in a globalized, highly connected world—in which financial networks, commercial operations, media platforms, and nuclear command and control systems are all linked together in some way—limiting spillover from the cyber domain is inherently problematic. When cyber uncertainty magnifies fears of other states’ strategic intentions, while at the same time prompting questions about whether warning systems can detect incoming attacks and whether weapons will fire when buttons are pushed, crisis management becomes a distressing issue. Unlike in Las Vegas, what happens in the cyber world is not likely to stay in the cyber world. It will sooner or later spill into other domains, including economic and kinetic military operations.
HOW, THEN, does one deal with a nascent World War I problem? Unfortunately, there is no universal recipe for success. Like Tolstoy’s observation that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, every wicked problem exhibits its own individual qualities that require particular approaches. But there are nonetheless some important principles that can help to reduce the prospects for disaster and improve the likelihood of progress in dealing with Russia.