It is therefore a mistake to assume that the Kremlin will simply bow before the United States if push comes to shove as many in Washington are prone to believe—given their experience dealing with a weak Russia in the early 1990s. “The Russians are fairly confident with where they are and they are really keen to push back and they have to take increasing steps to sustain the confrontation,” Kofman said. “People in the United States are very hawkish—they also want to pressure Russia and push back in different ways and that’s a big self-licking ice-cream cone, where it’s basically a feedback loop.”
Forgetting the Lessons of the Cold War
And therein lies the danger of a conflict with a nuclear-armed Russia. As Kofman noted, the Washington national security community has largely forgotten the Cold War concepts of nuclear deterrence and managing confrontations with a nuclear-armed rival. Over the past twenty-five years or so, Washington has become accustomed to a world where there are no great-power challengers and the only real threat comes from terrorism.
“People have sophomoric views on great power confrontation here,” Kofman said. “In fact a lot of people don’t even understand nuclear strategy and deterrence all that well anymore and the escalatory dynamics. And you can tell by the conversations—we have been in the terrorism/counterinsurgency game for way too long and people don’t understand what they are playing with at senior levels. I hear it all the time. That’s all a recipe for a 1950-1960s type interaction with another great power.”
Indeed, it might take a new version of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis for the American foreign policy establishment to fully grasp how dangerous a confrontation with a rival nuclear-armed great power can be. “I hate to say it, but it might be a good thing,” Kofman said. “I actually think it might be a good thing to have that crisis for everyone to grow up.”
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.