The ABCs of Russian Military Power: A Primer for the New Administration
What the new Pentagon needs to know.
New units positioned in the Western Military District may not be arrayed against the Baltics, but they are of course mobile, and likely intended to intervene in Belarus. This means they are also able to punch through Lithuania to link up with Kaliningrad if needed. Russia’s Sixth Army around St. Petersburg, and the nearby airborne division in Pskov,are more than enough to roll through the Baltic states. Although there is little to suggest Russia is building a strike force for the Baltics, even if unchanged, the existing units are sufficient for the task. As the wave of modernization approaches, together with the growing size of Russian armed forces, its combat grouping in the region will only grow stronger relative to NATO’s.
The next U.S. administration must think about the right strategy to address deterrence in Europe without being consumed by it, especially given that the Obama administration has already done much to reassure allies. Burden sharing should be at the forefront of that approach, in part because it’s a perennial problem, but also because Russia sees U.S. military presence near its borders as provocative, using it in domestic political propaganda to mobilize the population.
Russian Power in Perspective
Despite Russia’s restoration of its military, the United States remains a far stronger power. Even if it were interested in fighting NATO over the Baltics, Moscow is not able to sustain a prolonged conventional conflict with the United States, lacking sustainment, reserves and most of all having too small a force to withstand a war on several fronts. Thus, the costs and risks of escalation have grossly outweighed any imagined benefits. The United States is a superpower with a global force; Russia is not, and is not keen on contests where it stands a real chance of losing.
Moscow may match the United States in nuclear weapons, and is a real competitor in the cyber domain, but Russian military strength lies close to its borders. It is also a lonely power, with weak allies like Belarus and Armenia. The United States, on the other hand, benefits from a vast network of allies, contributing military assets or strategically positioned territory, both of which offer advantages over revisionist challengers. Taking this into account, here is how the United States should structure its approach.
Fixing deterrence in the Baltics is an arduous task. It would require not just a tripwire force, but follow-on forces somewhere in theater, to make deterrence by punishment more credible. This means a gradual transfer of combat aviation, air power and naval power to the European theater—close enough to be credible, but based far enough away from Russia’s borders as not to be escalatory. There is no credible deterrence in Europe without visible American commitment, which means a force on the continent capable of fighting wars, and not just cheerleading allies. That said, there is little sense in expanding ground forces for a large footprint in Europe. The strategy should be based on punishment, leveraging advantages in the air and sea domain. This also keeps the costs to the United States minimal, and retains flexibility to pursue contingencies elsewhere.
Reviving allied capability and U.S. military presence will take years, and so in the interim it would do Western officials well not to panic publicly over the vulnerability. It’s not getting fixed anytime soon, and NATO’s track record of follow-through on military spending is terrible. Reviving NATO’s war-fighting capability is a generational project. Emphasizing how easily Russia could seize the Baltics is hardly going to help restore deterrence. If the United States wishes to project strength, it must stop incessantly highlighting its weakness in the face of credible adversaries.
To deal with Russia, the United States needs a much better sense of itself. America is not weak. It’s just that Washington, DC is not particularly smart in its use of military power, and often unable to corral a disparate policy establishment into a coherent response to long-term threats. Distant from its problems, American leadership is vulnerable to manipulation by adversaries and allies alike. Outpacing the decisionmaking in our policy establishment is no great feat; Russia has done exceptionally well in setting the negative agenda. European allies are also well practiced in the “damsel in distress” act. A few speeches about America’s indispensable leadership is usually all it takes to get DC to open up its pocketbooks and pay to defend the world’s richest economies.
Weakness, Real and Imaginary
America’s primary weakness is not in its lack of economic or military power, but in a failure to formulate strategy and, frankly, poorly informed decisionmaking, even when faced with a peer nuclear power. Military capability in and of itself will not fix these cardinal weaknesses in judgment, nor make up for a lack of vision and political will to see hard choices through.
Russian leadership takes the long view—a luxury of being in charge for sixteen years. The current conflict may seem local to Ukraine, or regional to European security, but the evaluation in Moscow is systemic. The problem this administration must solve is one of strategic insolvency in the eyes of powers like Russia. If the United States continues to cut its force size and defense spending while expanding its alliance network, all while the military utility of its allies continues to decline relative to the power of adversaries, then the proximate cause of a challenge is irrelevant. Eventually, an unsatisfied power will do the math, reaching the verdict that America lacks the ability and resolve to meet its alliance commitments. The odds are higher it will be China, not Russia. The problem is not the military balance in the Baltics, but Russia’s perception that the U.S. position in the international system is declining in large part because of decisions made by its policy establishment.
Prevention means investing in the foundations of military and economic power, not just plugging gaps. The United States cannot just procure its way out of this problem with new batches of missiles and increasingly exorbitant military toys. At the top of the agenda should be capacity in sea power, capability in the land and air force, and a modernized nuclear force structure better able to deal with nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Today the United States is shuffling an increasingly smaller deck of cards. Furthermore, it means stabilizing relations with some adversaries in order to better pursue confrontation with others. The Obama administration chose to rethink Iran, but the challenge from Russia was arguably no less important. It could not be abandoned to wishful thinking that Russia is a “regional power in decline.”
Negotiating from strength also means figuring out what America wants from Russia and seeking to establish leverage. In the post–Cold War world, the U.S. national-security establishment typically does not negotiate from strength; it builds strength so that it doesn’t have to negotiate, and then just sits there, hoping the other side will expire. The foreign-policy elite is unwilling to set priorities or make trades, and thus falls back on sticks or on “do something” solutions. Exhibit A: the current policy consensus to confront Russian influence everywhere, absent a real strategy. This has resulted in plenty of hand wringing, and bureaucratic activity without any achievement. Russia respects U.S. military strength, but has no regard for American leadership. The approach has also been objectively unsuccessful, with Moscow consistently beating the United States in contests from Ukraine to Syria, or the latest hacking scandal.
If the goal is simply to stabilize relations with Russia, then the new administration can no doubt reach an accord to curb aggressive military activity. That will satisfy European allies, but marginal improvements in atmospherics will not survive inevitable crises in relations. Washington must determine the best way to end Moscow’s rebellion against the international system and align resources to that strategy. A NATO policy is not a Russia policy. A Russia strategy should consider the interests and concerns of allies, and not abandon them, but be based on American national interests. That is a balancing act in which deterrence, coercive credibility and deal making will all play a role.
The days of simply dismissing Russia as a nonentity are gone. America’s credibility in retaliation has diminished, as has its demonstrable resolve, enabling Russia to feel it can establish escalation dominance cheaply. Today, Moscow has every reason to judge that the United States fears escalation more than it does American retaliation, which means it may treat any U.S. diplomatic efforts as negotiating from a position of necessity much more so than strength. That should not be a discouragement from pursuing diplomacy, but it is an unfortunate reality any policymaker must deal with. The previous administration found this problem vexing, and consistently punished Russia in the international system in the hope that retaliatory measures would prove coercive. They did not.
The new president has certain advantages. Russia will no longer assume that it can easily threaten escalation until it gets the measure of the new administration. If the president chooses to pursue strength and credibility, he should do it as part of a coherent strategy that brings Moscow back into the fold, rather than a means by which the American policy elite can once again recuse itself from making any choices.