With relations at the lowest point in decades, the United States and Russia have embarked on what appears to be a new Cold War. But this new confrontation is fundamentally different from the original standoff with the Soviet Union that engulfed the world for the better part of five decades after the end of the Second World War. Unlike during the original Cold War, there is no all-encompassing global ideological struggle between Washington and Moscow to dominate a largely bipolar international system. Outside the realm of nuclear weapons, post-Soviet Russia can hardly be considered a peer to the United States by any measure. Russian weakness relative to the United States and its allies might make this new conflict even more dangerous and unstable compared to the original Cold War.
The 2014 crisis in Ukraine, Moscow’s intervention in Syria starting in September 2015 and the alleged nerve gas attack on GRU defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in the United Kingdom on March 4, 2018 signal the beginning of a renewed long-term standoff with Russia. The new standoff is not a return to the original Cold War, it is a new conflict—but one that is rooted in the ashes of the old struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union.
In many ways, this new conflict with Moscow can be explained by Russia’s geography and lack of natural defensive terrain features. Over the course of two centuries, Russian emperors starting with Peter the Great created an enormous ring around their spiritual capital of Moscow, as Tim Marshall described in his essay Russia and the Curse of Geography, published in The Atlantic in 2015. That ring started in the Arctic and stretched down through the Baltics, Ukraine, the Carpathian Mountains and eventually to the Black Sea. Taken further, the ring arches down through the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea and eventually comes back past the Urals mountains and returns to the Arctic, as Marshall described. The idea was to create strategic distance to keep the enemy as far away from the Russian heartland as possible. As Empress Catherine the Great put it: “I have no way to defend my borders but to extend them.”
In the late 1980s, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began to withdraw from Eastern Europe—and later when the Soviet Union itself fragmented—Russia lost its hard-won strategic buffer. While Russia has been shorn of its empire, the Kremlin continues to harbor the same fears and insecurities since the earliest days of the Czardom of Moscovy. For the first time since Peter the Great, the approaches into the Russian heartland lie unsecured—undoing centuries of imperial expansion to secure the frontier. Now, the borders are the closest to Moscow they have been since 1650.
While the reins of power in the Kremlin might have changed hands from the Czars to the Soviets to a “managed democracy,” Russia’s foreign policy thinking shows remarkable continuity in its deep sense of insecurity and external threat. Russia’s leadership is particularly worried that Moscow lies only 300 miles away from the border of a recently independent Ukraine.
After the end of Cold War, Washington moved to rapidly consolidate liberal democracy in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union through the expansion of the NATO alliance and the European Union—pushing into what had been Russia’s strategic buffer space, what the Kremlin calls its “near abroad.” Indeed, President George H. W. Bush’s administration discussed NATO expansion into the former Soviet bloc even before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those discussions took place even though American and Western leaders offered Gorbachev repeated assurances that the NATO alliance would not expand into the former Warsaw Pact once Soviet forces withdrew as new documentary evidence from the George Washington University National Security Archives show.
However, it was not until the subsequent Clinton administration that the United States decided to formally extend membership eastward. By 1994, the United States had made the decision in principle to expand the NATO alliance into the former Warsaw Pact. “The question is no longer whether NATO will take on new members but when and how,” President Bill Clinton said in Prague on January 12, 1994. “It leaves the door open to the best possible outcome for our region, democracy, markets, and security all across a broader Europe, while providing time and preparation to deal with a lesser outcome.”
Clinton did not intend to antagonize Moscow by expanding NATO. He hoped to build a partnership with the new leadership in the Kremlin and ensure that Russia would complete democratic and market reforms. Clinton believed that it was urgent to build a “strategic alliance” with Russian reform. “Nothing could contribute more to global freedom, to security, to prosperity than the peaceful progression of this rebirth of Russia,” Clinton said on April 1, 1993—on the eve his first trip outside the United States as president for a summit in Vancouver, British Columbia, with then Russian leader Boris Yeltsin.
Russia was initially Clinton’s primary foreign policy focus. The priorities of the Clinton White House shifted as it became apparent to some within the administration that the newly freed states of Eastern Europe had to be stabilized and democratic reforms consolidated. The future architects of NATO’s expansion plan—Ronald D. Asmus, Richard L. Kugler and F. Stephen Larrabee—partly driven by fears of Yugoslavia-style civil wars breaking out, argued that America had to act to prevent an “arc of crisis” from emerging in Central Europe. To do so, America would have to anchor itself in Europe and NATO would need to expand into the vacuum created by the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact. Together, they called for “a new U.S.-European strategic bargain” where NATO would extend its collective defense and security arrangements to the alliance’s eastern and southern borders.
Clinton hoped to expand the NATO alliance while simultaneously building a new partnership with Moscow. The Clinton administration’s initial plan was called the Partnership for Peace (PfP), which the Pentagon establishment favored. While the PfP did not address the demands of some European states, the partnership would have been inclusive and allowed Washington to work with Moscow’s former clients—without provoking the Kremlin. Russian president Boris Yeltsin was quite enthusiastic about the PfP. One State Department memorandum noted that Yeltsin told Secretary of State Warren Christopher: “It really is a great idea, really great… Tell Bill I am thrilled by this brilliant stroke.”
Clinton publicly announced during a January 12, 1994, speech in Prague that NATO would take on new members. Clinton’s decision came in spite of repeated warnings from George F. Kennan, who both privately and publicly decried the administration’s move. Kennan believed that NATO expansion would inevitably sow the seeds of antagonism with the Russians—and he was by no means alone. Kennan’s prediction would prove to be prophetic:
Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.
The Clinton administration flatly dismissed Kennan’s arguments. While Clinton himself seemed to personally harbor some doubts, Strobe Talbott—the president’s so-called Russia hand—became convinced that expanding NATO eastwards would not adversely impact relations with Moscow. When Clinton directly asked Talbott why Kennan’s argument was incorrect, Talbott—as recounted in his own memoirs—did not have a coherent answer.
Ultimately, Clinton decided to press ahead with his dual-track plan to expand NATO while simultaneously developing a partnership with the Kremlin. Clinton made the argument that NATO expansion would be beneficial to Russia, though the Kremlin, which approaches the world from a realist perspective, did not see it that way. Clinton tried to make NATO expansion more palatable to Moscow by offering it membership in exclusive international clubs—hoping it would satiate the Kremlin’s great-power pretensions. Clinton also proposed a new joint NATO-Russia council where Moscow would have a voice but no veto. The president recognized the underlying flaw of the plan but pressed ahead anyway, convinced that he could charm Yeltsin into accepting a deal the Russians found abhorrent.
While the White House was successful in enlarging NATO, it was unsuccessful in integrating Russia into the new trans-Atlantic security framework. The consequences of this policy would not become completely apparent until the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. In five short days, Russian forces launched a full-scale invasion of Georgia after Tbilisi attacked the Kremlin-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia. The Russian invasion underlined Moscow’s red line that the Kremlin—after passively watching two waves of NATO expansion towards its borders—would not accept further alliance expansion into the former Soviet Union itself. Yeltsin only went along with Clinton’s NATO-Russia Founding Act gambit because a severely weakened Russia had no choice.
Moreover, the Clinton administration adopted a particularly obtuse negotiating strategy for dealing with the Kremlin, which former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, Victoria Nuland—then Talbott’s aide—had dubbed the ‘spinach treatment.’ “The American negotiating position had been simple, unbending and, largely for that reason, successful,” Talbott wrote. “‘Table and stick’ we’d called it: Go straight to your bottom line and stick with it; wait until the other side bends. We’d been able to look the Russians in the eye and tell them that we were going forward with or without them.”
Unsurprisingly, the Russians were not satisfied with Talbott’s methods. “You know it’s bad enough having you people tell us what you’re going to do whether we like it or not,” Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian foreign minister at the time, told Talbott during a private meeting about Kosovo in 1999. “Don’t add insult to injury by also telling us that it’s in our interests to obey your orders.”
Western leaders—particularly Clinton—believed that their intentions would be seen as benign by the Kremlin. The Russians, however, saw actions by the Americans and Europeans in a far different light due to their realist outlook. Moscow viewed NATO’s expansion as a threat—especially when combined with the alliance’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999 in contravention of the UN Security Council.
While Clinton set the stage for a confrontation with Moscow, it was George W. Bush and his so-called “Freedom Agenda” that brought relations to what was then a post–Cold War low (until Ukraine). Bush continued Clinton’s push to expand NATO into key republics of the former Soviet Union—Ukraine and Georgia. That ran afoul of Moscow’s red lines—thus provoking a conflict in Georgia and later in Ukraine. Clinton’s policies effectively guaranteed a confrontation with Russia down the line—exactly as George F. Kennan predicted. Bush’s drive for consolidating democracy in Europe was simply the last straw for Russia.
Failure to integrate Russia into the transatlantic security structure and the expansion of NATO has had dire consequences. And it was entirely avoidable. Yeltsin himself had warned that forcing Russia to accept NATO expansion would lead to a “Cold Peace.” As Kennan had predicted, the Kremlin began to push back against Western encroachments as it regained its strength. Indeed, Russia appears intent on rewriting the post–Cold War settlement—which is part of a Moscow’s efforts to reassert itself as a great power.
Moscow’s fears of foreign intervention are only heightened by perceived Western involvement in so-called “Color Revolutions” in Russia’s near abroad—former constituent republics of the Soviet Union—which the Kremlin believes it must dominate in order to secure a strategic buffer zone and protect its borders.
Washington’s denial of Moscow’s “privileged space” inside what was formerly the Soviet Union has created the impression that the United States does not respect what the Kremlin see as its “legitimate interests.” That has been further compounded by NATO expansion, which from the Russian perspective is a zero-sum game—and Moscow is the loser. As Dimitri Trenin notes, the Kremlin saw that the West rapidly consolidated its gains as the Soviet Army withdrew from Eastern Europe. From the Kremlin’s perspective, the United States took advantage of Russia when it was at its weakest. “Our most serious mistake in relations with the West is that we trusted you too much,” Putin reiterated at a recent Valdai Club meeting. “And your mistake is that you took that trust as weakness and abused it.”
Russia’s weapon of choice against what it sees as Western encroachment into its former territory has been its military—the Kremlin’s most reliable instrument of national power in this new Cold War. Unlike the Soviet juggernaut, today’s much truncated but modernized Russian military is not an existential threat to Europe—or even Ukraine for that matter. Instead, the modern Russian military is primarily a tool of coercion designed to impose the Kremlin’s will by force on Russia’s newly independent post-Soviet neighbors that were once Moscow’s imperial possessions.
While the Soviet military could expect to count on its sheer mass and firepower to streamroll opponents, Russia today—with its much smaller forces operating under the New Generation Warfare doctrine—tends to try to avoid costly conventional military operations in favor of asymmetric means that fall below the threshold of war whenever possible. Thus, the Kremlin focuses on achieving its victories though political warfare, special operations and other indirect means—resorting to conventional military operations only if there is no other option.
The reason for Moscow’s reluctance about engaging in major conventional military operations is simple—the Russian military is not able to sustain a prolonged conflict. Russia dispensed with the Soviet Union’s mass mobilization military, which proved to be ineffective in the post-Soviet era, and instituted a major overhaul of its forces following their less-than-optimal performance during the 2008 conflict in Georgia. The resulting force—coupled with Russia’s 2011 military modernizations effort—is far more capable and ready than the old mass mobilization force, however, it is also much smaller than its predecessor, numbering roughly 900,000 men under arms in total (including all branches of the service), about half of whom are so-called “contract” soldiers rather than conscripts.
Today’s Russian Ground Forces number between 300,000 and 350,000 soldiers and lack any sort of operational reserves. During any sort of contingency on Russia’s borders, the Kremlin could deploy a force of roughly 40,000 to 50,000 troops including airborne, armor, mechanized infantry formations and Spetsnaz (special operations forces) in very short order. Moreover, Russian ground forces are designed to fight alone and are equipped with formidable mobile air defenses that are intended to counter Western advantages in air power.
The most common maneuver unit within the Russian Ground Forces is the motor rifle brigade (MRB). Each motor rifle brigade consists of roughly 4,500 troops. In each brigade, there are three motor rifle battalions with 510 soldiers and forty-three MT-LBV, BMP-2 or BMP-3 armored personnel carriers and eight 2S12 120mm towed mortars. There is also a armor battalion consisting of forty-one tanks and two self-propelled artillery battalions, each with eighteen self-propelled guns—such as the 2S19 Msta-S. Those are accompanied by significant air defenses in the form of a battalion of Tor-M2 or Buk M2 or M3 air defenses and another battalion of shorter-range point air defenses including the Tunguska M1 missile and gun system. Those are backed by a support battalion, which includes formidable electronic warfare capabilities and BM-21 multiple launch rocket artillery systems, and another battalion of towed artillery. Essentially, each MRB is a self-contained battle group that can fight completely independent of air support.
The problem for Moscow is numbers—the Kremlin simply does not have the sheer mass of troops that the Soviet Union had. Russia would be able to decisively intervene during a contingency on its borders and win a short sharp war. However, Moscow’s forces would have difficulty sustaining a prolonged conflict. “Russia’s military is not configured to occupy large amounts of land or replace combat losses in offensive operations,” military analyst Michael Kofman has observed. “This lesson was driven home rather quickly through combat operations in Ukraine, creating strain on the Russian military rotating units through the Donbass.”
The Russian Ground Forces are equipped with formidable artillery and air defenses because of Western air dominance—those troops cannot count on support from the skies. While the Russian Aerospace Forces have improved markedly as new aircraft such as the Sukhoi SU-30SM Flanker-H, SU-34 Fullback and the SU-35s Flanker-E and new precision-guided weapons have entered service, Moscow’s airpower lags behind the West despite their impressive performance during the Kremlin’s intervention in Syria. Specifically, the Russians are lagging behind on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities—which precludes real-time targeting of moving targets—and the overwhelming majority of Kremlin’s aircraft lack targeting pods. The Russians are also well behind the West—particularly the United States—in coordinating between air and ground forces, lacking procedures, training and hardware to effectively coordinate close air support.
The Russian Air Force is improving thanks to its experiences in Syria. The Russian Air Force is developing new tactics, training and procedures and is trying to develop targeting pods that would improve its ability to coordinate with ground forces. But the Russians still need to develop small precision-guided weapons that can hit small moving targets. However, Russia has proven that its latest KH-101/102 series cruise missiles, which can be launched from its upgraded Tupolev TU-95 Bear and TU-160 Blackjack bombers, are able to make precision strikes at long range. While that capability is not needed against targets in Syria, that ability to strike from extended ranges affords Moscow the option of striking across the globe, including inside the United States.
Indeed, long-range precision guided weapons—or noncontact warfare—will be Russia’s primary means of using airpower against NATO. Against a high-end threat, the Kremlin’s air forces would not make penetrating strikes without incurring serious losses against superior Western warplanes. Despite the formidable capabilities of newer Russian warplanes, such as the su-30sm and the su-35s, the Kremlin’s fighters remain at a distinct disadvantage against NATO and American jets such as the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Moscow invests very heavily in advanced air defenses due to the West’s air dominance—and it is the reason why Russian ground forces are accompanied by their own organic area air defenses. The most potent of these is the S-400 system, which will eventually be able to engage targets at ranges of 250 nautical miles. Russia intends to field fifty-six battalions of S-400s and thirty-eight battalions of the developmental S-500, which could be the most capable air and missile defense system ever developed when it is fielded.
However, air defenses are only part of Russia’s anti-access/area denial strategy. The Kremlin is well aware that its naval forces are only a fraction of what the Soviet Union once possessed, thus it devotes much effort to protecting the maritime approaches towards its shores. The Russian military has invested in the K-300P Bastion coastal defense system, which can fire a Mach 2.8–capable P-800 Oniks anti-ship cruise missile at ranges of 370 nautical miles. The weapon, placed in a region like the enclave of Kaliningrad, could effectively hit any maritime target in the Baltic Sea.
Meanwhile, the modern Russian Navy’s surface fleet is mostly based around small, very-well armed corvettes such as the Buyan-m and Steregushchiy-class that can not only defend the maritime approaches towards the Russian coast, but can strike at targets across Europe and the Middle East from the Black Sea and the Baltics with long-range Kalibr cruise missiles. Indeed, Russia showed off this capability to good effect against targets in Syria.
Russia still has some major surface combatants—and even a decrepit and largely useless Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier—inherited from the Soviet Union. Some of these legacy ships include the Project 1144 Orlan-class Peter the Great nuclear-powered battlecruiser, three Slava-class cruisers and a handful of aging Sovremennyy- and Udaloy-class destroyers. These ships are used mostly for show in current times. Meanwhile, Russia had developed and built new frigates—which are much smaller than previous Soviet ships—including the Admiral Grigorovich class and the Admiral Gorshkov class, which are armed with cruise missiles and other advanced weapons. While Russian ships are individually fairly capable, the Russian surface fleet is largely designed as a demonstration of national power and prestige, not necessarily for combat. The most vivid example of this was Russia’s deployment of the aging Kuznetsov and her air wing of SU-33 Flanker-K and MiG-29KRS to the Syrian coast in late 2016.
The real combat power of the Russian Navy lies in its submarine fleet. While much truncated from the massive roughly 250-submarine Soviet Navy force of 1991 down to a maximum of about fifty boats, the Russian undersea fleet is still a force to be reckoned with. Aside from the new Borei-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, the Russians are building a new generation of nuclear-powered guided missile submarines called the Project 885M Yasen class. Russia is building up to eight Yasen-class vessels, which the U.S. Navy officials see as the most formidable enemy submarine ever developed. However, the Russians are also developing the somewhat lower cost Husky-class nuclear attack submarine to supplement the expensive Yasens. Meanwhile, Russia continues to upgrade its older submarines, which includes the massive Oscar II–class nuclear-powered guided missile boats, Akula I and II classes, the Sierra class and possibly a handful of surviving Victor IIIs.
This formidable nuclear attack submarine fleet is tasked not only with protecting Russia’s strategic nuclear missile submarine force but also with combating enemy navies and striking at land-based targets with Kalibr cruise missiles. Indeed, Severodvinsk and the rest of Yasen class—which are extremely quiet—could strike deep inside the continental United States with as many as forty nuclear or conventionally tipped Kalibr cruise missiles with very little warning.
Even Russia’s fleet of conventionally powered Kilo-class submarines are armed with long-range Kalibr cruise missiles. These vessels, which have repeatedly been used to strike Syria, could also hit targets anywhere in Europe. With their quiet electric powerplants, the Kilos are extremely difficult to find and pose a significant threat to allied naval power. But at the end of the day, the problem for Russia is that its submarine fleet is roughly one fifth the size of the old Soviet fleet. As is almost always the case for the new Russian military, while it may have the capability, it often lacks capacity.
The bottom line for Russia, as its experiences in Ukraine, Georgia and beyond have shown, is that Moscow could easily defeat any of its neighbors in the post-Soviet space. The Kremlin does not, however, have the forces required to occupy those countries—its forces are simply too small and lack operational reserves. The Russian military might even be able to defeat the NATO alliance in a short, sharp, high-intensity war. It would more than likely lose a prolonged conflict—particularly against the much more powerful United States.
The Kremlin is acutely aware that it would likely lose a conventional war with Washington, but Moscow’s conventional forces could inflict significant damage to the United States and Europe. In recent years, Russia has made significant investments in long-range precision-guided weapons for its air and naval forces. Russian bombers are now equipped with long-range cruise missiles such as the KH-101/102, while Russian ships and submarines are armed with Kalibr sea-launched cruise missiles, which can range most of Europe from the Black Sea or the Baltic Sea. Moscow has the demonstrated the conventional versions of these potent new weapons during the Kremlin’s campaign in Syria, likely as a signaling tool towards the United States and its European allies.
The Kremlin hopes to conventionally deter Washington with its new long-range precision-guided weapons—particularly its air and submarine launched missiles. The idea, from Moscow’s point of view, is to forestall or deter any Western intervention during a conflict in the post-Soviet space. The implicit message is that a Western intervention against Russia will result in retaliation not just in the immediate theater of operations but also at home. Indeed, when Russian chief of the general staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov promised that Moscow would retaliate against both “missile and launch systems” targeting the Kremlin’s forces in March, Russian experts suggested that Russia could strike back at American bases in the Middle East with long-range precision guided missiles. The threat of “deterrence by punishment” has worked quite well for Moscow thus far: Washington has gone out of its way to avoid striking at the Kremlin’s forces in Syria during its April 13 missile raid on Damascus. The fear in the White House was that striking at Russian forces directly would result in a massive escalation—exactly what Gerasimov was signaling.
However, if a standoff were to escalate into a war with the West, Russia ultimately relies on its nuclear arsenal—both strategic and nonstrategic—to offset NATO’s conventional military superiority. Though Russia’s conventional forces are being modernized, they are still weak compared to the United States and NATO. “Russia’s conventional forces are incapable of defending Russian territory in a long war,” Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, says. “It would lose and as a result of that, they have placed more emphasis on more usage of tactical nuclear weapons as a leveler.”
In effect, the Russians have adopted NATO’s Cold War strategy. Soviet conventional forces outgunned NATO, and the alliance thus had to rely on nuclear weapons. “The Russians are doing the same thing,” Kristensen said.
There is much debate about exactly how and when Russia might use its nuclear weapons—particularly its nonstrategic warheads. The real answer, as Kristensen explained, is that Western analysts simply do not know. “Russia has some vague statements about its mission with weapons in various regions—so to speak,” Kristensen said. “Their public doctrine does not help us a whole lot because it has two giant categories in which it comes down to the survival of the state.”
Modern Russia renounced the Soviet Union’s no-first-use policy in 1993 due to the shabby state of its armed forces. In 2010, it was suggested that Russia would issue policy guidance that would lower its nuclear threshold, but that did not exactly happen.
The consensus among arms control experts is that Russia will reduce its dependence on nuclear weapons as more long-range conventional precision-guided weapons enter its inventory. “It’s not going to do away with it, of course, but like in our military—once we got more advanced conventional weapons—our planners reduced reliance on tactical nuclear weapons,” Kristensen said. “It’s likely we will also see that happening to some extent in the Russian military forces.”
Former Soviet and Russian arms control negotiator Nikolai Sokov, now a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told the National Interest that he agreed with Kristensen’s assessment. Sokov comments,
Conventional missions for these assets (Iskander, KH-101/102 etc.) are, in my view, more important than nuclear ones. Nuclear missions are a ‘back-up’ for the case of a really big bad conflict, which has extremely low probability—basic deterrence in several variants. Conventional missions are about actual use in support of foreign policy—Syria is the example of the main role of these assets.
Sokov believes that Russia is fundamentally changing its nuclear posture as its long-range conventional precision strike capabilities improve. “I believe that we are dealing with a fundamental, long-term transition in Russian posture and strategy with the introduction of long-range precision-guided conventional assets,” Sokov said. “Nuclear missions will decline in relation to conventional—that is, in relative, not absolute terms.”
Indeed, it is very unlikely that either Russia or the United States will ever eliminate their strategic nuclear weapons since both nations see their respective arsenals as the ultimate guarantor of their security. Moscow and Washington currently maintain parity in strategic nuclear arms. However, Russia is now running somewhat ahead of the United States in modernizing its aging Cold War arsenal.
Ultimately, Russia’s reliance on nuclear weapons depends on policymakers not in Moscow, but in Washington. How the United States alters its posture to rely more on nuclear weapons (or not)—now that precision weapons are no longer the sole purview of the Pentagon—will determine to what extent the Russians will rely on their own nuclear forces. Sokov argues,
Whether reliance on nuclear weapons will decrease, too, like it did for the United States in the 1990s depends almost solely on the United States. Until recently, the United States held a monopoly on long-range conventional strike capability so it could afford reducing reliance on nuclear weapons. Whether this U.S./NATO policy will continue now that monopoly is almost lost, remains to be seen. I am particularly concerned that NATO—especially the newer members—might want to enhance reliance on nuclear weapons and then Russia will certainly respond in kind—i.e., conventional missions will supplement nuclear instead of replacing them. That’s the key dynamic to watch in the next five to seven years.
Despite Russia’s relative weakness compared to the West, President Vladimir Putin has played a weak hand extremely well. Indeed, as Trenin notes, it is “truly an irony of history” that today’s Russia can directly challenge Washington with a tiny gross domestic product compared to the United States and a defense budget that is roughly a tenth of what the Pentagon spends. Although there is a massive disparity in national power, Russia has managed to successfully challenge Washington and the liberal international order.
Whether one wants to refer to this new U.S.-Russia confrontation as a new Cold War or by some other name, the fact is that the Washington and Moscow are now set to face off against each other over the long term. But this new Cold War is fundamentally different from the original. This new confrontation is as, or possibly more dangerous, because of Russian insecurity and relative weakness compared to the United States and its allies. Russia, despite its recent resurgence compared to the chaotic days of the 1990s, has been shorn of the strategic buffer space it had gathered through centuries of imperial expansion, devoid of allies and surrounded by what it considers to be potential threats, is deeply insecure and much more prone to acting provocatively than the Soviet Union was during much of the original Cold War.
In event of an inadvertent military confrontation between the United States and Russia—in Syria, for example, and such an eventuality nearly came to pass during the Trump administration’s strike on Damascus on April 13—a resultant crisis could spiral out of control into an armed conflict.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.