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Russia is Not America’s Near-Peer Threat

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Russia is Not America’s Near-Peer Threat

J. Robert Kane

The U.S. Government has described Russia as a “near-peer” threat. [1] Information warfare by the GRU (Russian military intelligence) seen most prominently in the 2016 Presidential Election has brought fear to the consideration of Russian capabilities and intentions. [2] Russian paramilitary occupation of Crimea in 2014 has brought worry of Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, in particularly the Balkan states. [3] Stated aggression from Russian political as well as diplomatic figures has given the U.S. reason to consider Russia as a threat to the U.S. and the larger world order that has remained in place since the end of the Cold War. [4]

More notably, the U.S. military has re-orientated its efforts to countering and deterring Russia abroad. [5] While American counterintelligence and law enforcement has focused on information warfare from Russian assets both abroad and in country, the military has re-shaped its training and deployment to reflect near-peer armed conflict in Europe. Commanders have lost sight of counterinsurgency (COIN) theory and counterterrorism, replacing it with understanding the Russian way of war. [6]

With exception from certain Special Operations Force (SOF) and specialized intelligence units, the U.S. military doctrine on war has been diverted from counterterrorism operations to countering that of a near-peer threat. [7] By examining U.S. Government allocation of resources and preparation for the future, one would think that the next armed conflict will take place in Eastern Europe against Russia and the threat is imminent. [8]

The problem with this logic that has been adapted by the military is that the potential for armed conflict with Russia is only theoretical at this point. It is not happening. [9] Conventional U.S. forces are being deployed to the Baltic states in order to deter Russian aggression but no conflict is on the horizon at this time. It is possible, although unlikely even at that. But when considering where America’s threats lie, there is no conflict at the moment in this capacity. [10]

As the U.S. military trains for potential land-based operations with Russia that resemble something from many decades past, all indications suggest that armed conflict of this sort is only suggestable in fiction. No indications suggest that Russia will engage in land operations against the U.S. or N.A.T.O. head on. The closest that Russia will get to that would be paramilitary or special purpose forces that invade a Baltic country in order to immediately seize territorial control and then withdraw to be replaced by information warfare complemented by coup-like elements in order to maintain the aggression’s initiative. From the Kremlin’s intentions, it is very unlikely that Russia is interested in a decisive action. Their capabilities are just no match for what would be deployed through coalition forces in N.A.T.O. Rather, Russian interests seem to be more interested in monitoring signs of instability in Eastern Europe in order to launch information warfare campaigns in the targeted countries so that they may gain and spread influence. That is not armed conflict and it surely does not fit into the land-based operations narrative that the military is preparing for.

By the time that U.S. and N.A.T.O. forces arrive to the country in question, any semblance of Russian military action would be long gone. It takes an incredible amount of time to mount a military operation in the first place and that would only be irrelevant when Russian actions would take place in such a short amount of time that it would leave little to no possibility with direct action with N.A.T.O. as the U.S. military prepares unrealistically for force-to-force conflict.

Despite the U.S. military’s preparation for armed conflict with Russia, efforts to combat Russian information warfare are dismal. As depicted in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, Russia is plainly good at conducting misinformation campaigns in such a way as to really exert influence. And this is not new. Look no further than the idea that the AIDS virus was created in a U.S. Army medical research laboratory. That was a KGB misinformation campaign. Russia is continuing to do things like this now and there is a greater threat from Russian bots and social media engineering to conduct information warfare than conventional military action ever will be.

While armed conflict with Russia is not an immediate concern now, it should not even be a foremost concern in the near future. In contrast to popular opinion in the military, Russia is not our near-peer. Military leaders may refer to Russia as a near-peer threat because it warrants importance to the case of Russian hostility and threat of war. [11] But that is only so because it makes the situation seem important to the U.S. military in terms of what it can look forward to in the future. It is important to remember that the military functions by fighting our nation’s present wars and preparing for the future. The military is doing the second portion in the case of Russia but is making the situation sound much more dire than it actually is. [12]

The fact is that Russia is not our near-peer. The only thing near-peer about Russia as an adversary is the fact that the country possesses a conventional army. [13] I know that is something that many of our warfighters have never seen before having only been subject to the realities of the Global War on Terror but it is not something that is novel in the course of our country’s existence. [14] If every country that is antagonistic to the U.S. and possesses a conventional army is “near-peer,” then we would be in a on the verge of a cold war with the majority of the world. [15]

But that is not the case. What determines whether or not a country can be considered near-peer to the U.S. involves the said country’s capabilities. [16] Many confuse capabilities and intentions as indicators of near-peer threat assessment but a country’s intentions are irrelevant when it comes to assessing near-peer capabilities. [17]

Capabilities and intentions are mutually exclusive in this regard. [18] That is why many in our government, and military especially, refer to Russia as a near-peer threat because open-source information would indicate that the country harbors hostile intentions toward the U.S.

It is true that intentions are very important to monitor as they give indication of future potential of threat. Intentions provide the other side the ability to understand what the enemy is thinking, assess their course of action and plan for the enemy strike radius. But unlike capabilities, intentions do not provide indication of what the country in question is capable of. A country may possess very hostile intentions but without adequate capability, the hostile country is relatively benign as far as a threat can be. [19]

Where this is untrue, however, is in the case of state-sponsored terrorism. Nation-states that do not possess reachable capabilities to the U.S. can sponsor terrorist outfits in order to asymmetrically reach U.S. interests and targets without having much military reach. [20] Once used effectively by Libya, state-sponsored terrorism is now used most extensively by Iran. [21] No indications support that Russia has resorted to state-sponsored terrorism. Even if Russia did, conventional deterrence measures would have no effect against it.

We should primarily be concerned with Russian capabilities as such. If we can understand and assess Russian capabilities, we can determine the Russian threat. Fortunately, we know a fair amount about Russian capabilities. The Russians even know a fair amount about our own capabilities and that is actually a good thing because it plays into how the Russians will behave. [22]

The most comprehensive open-source, unclassified assessment of Russian capabilities and intentions can be found in the 2017 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) unclassified report on Russian Military Power. [23] While more classified intelligence that is not available for public consumption can aid decision-makers in acting according to the Russian threat in national security decisions, this DIA report provides a sound framework of general Russian capabilities.

The intelligence estimate provides indication of Russian intention in saying that Russia possess great power aspirations and is seeking to build a military that reflects that. The Russian intent is portrayed as hostile and ambitious. [24] Without a doubt, the Russians seek to advance themselves to the point of becoming a near-peer adversary of the U.S.

However, Russian capabilities are not portrayed as grave as their intentions. Their military relies heavily conscription which is known to be a serious hindrance to affect personnel-driven operations. [25] They simply do not have the personnel power that the U.S. does. The soldier of Russia and the soldier of the U.S. cannot be compared in any functional way. The Russians fight in a way that makes it virtually impossible to counter an all-volunteer, professionally-trained force such as is the case for the U.S.

Much of their equipment remains from the Soviet Union. [26] While they attempt to modernize their technical capabilities, they are behind that of their Western counterparts to such an extent that they would prefer to hide that fact because it represents an embarrassment. It hinders their aspiration for global influence because many of their capabilities are from a bygone era.

Their nuclear capabilities are the only thing that comes close to U.S. capabilities. [27] Since the Cold War, Russia has developed nuclear capabilities to an extent that is worrying and should be monitored extensively. Again, the situation is not as dire as the U.S. military has portrayed it to be. No first-strike capability like that was sought in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis has been achieved. Moreover, Russian nuclear capabilities serve as a deterrent in the same way that the U.S. maintains nuclear capabilities to serve in a deterrence capacity. Capabilities and intentions are so distant in this regard that most fail to recognize it.

When it comes to competing via military might with the U.S. in the present moment, intelligence would indicate that Russia does not possess much of a chance. Russian capabilities are presently underwhelming in comparison to that of the U.S. While that does provide assurance that Russia is not a near-peer threat at the present moment, it does not underscore the reality of Russian intentions. The Kremlin possesses great ambitions for the country in attaining augmented military power. [28] There is no doubt about that. This will be a point where U.S. intelligence will have to constantly monitor Russia as it makes its climb in terms of military power that will eventually be equated to national prestige. [29]

At the moment, however, Russia does not represent a near-peer threat. It represents a threat, more generally. But so do many other countries and non-state actors. It can be effectively argued that some of these other threats are more dangerous at the present time as they are active threats against the U.S. and American interests. [30] Terrorism is one of these threats that has been discounted as of late. [31]

Meanwhile, counterterrorism operations are on the back burner. Conventional military units are not working to counter violent extremism like they were over the course of the past 15 years. [32] Direct action has no role in conventional military operations at the present moment because all conventional resources and doctrine has pivoted to deterring Russian aggression as opposed to executing the very needed operations against terrorism and insurgencies that are not only ongoing but are getting worse. [33] Only SOF and intelligence units are being applied to direct action counterterrorism operations. As such, a comprehensive strategy to terrorism is impossible to execute. [34] Moreover, such SOF units are being derailed from their original areas of focus and misused to only execute counterterrorism operations. [35]

If all of the conventional military forces of the U.S. are diverted to deterring Russian aggression as a principal concern because of the existence of a near-peer threat, then our country’s resources will not be allocated or used effectively. [36] Because this has been the trend in the U.S. military as of late, SOF are being triaged to handled counterterrorism operations to the point of being overburdened and plainly misused. [37] Upon the inception of SOF, these specially designed units were known to have the potential of being misused. [38] The founders and early pioneers of SOF knew this and warned military leaders of it. [39] That misuse is occurring now and it is hurting the national security of the nation.

Russia represents a threat to our national security. But it does not represent a near-peer threat. The sooner we understand that and orient our national security to reflect it, the safer our nation will be. With striking parallels to the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Russia is being treated as a political issue as opposed to what is really the case. Intelligence that may have some reality is being politicized in order to fit a political agenda and that is what landed the U.S. in a war with Iraq that it did not have to be in. The conflated Russian threat only gives Putin a better hand in the game of geopolitical poker in a way that he only wishes to appear larger and more powerful than he really is. Falsely making Russia out to be a near-peer threat does that for Putin. Meanwhile, this confuses our allies and diverts our focus from greater issues. Certain non-state actors and terrorist groups pose a greater threat to U.S. national security than does Russia. Accordingly, they should receive the attention that they deserve.

The views, opinions, and findings of the author expressed in this article should not be construed as asserting or implying U.S. government endorsement of its factual statements and interpretations or representing the official positions of any component of the United States government.

End Notes

[1] Galeotti, Mark. "Hybrid, ambiguous, and non-linear? How new is Russia’s ‘new way of war’?" Small Wars & Insurgencies 27, no. 2 (2016): 282-301.

[2] Inkster, Nigel. "Information warfare and the US presidential election." Survival 58, no. 5 (2016): 23-32.

[3] Bukkvoll, Tor. "Russian special operations forces in Crimea and Donbas." Parameters 46, no. 2 (2016): 13.

[4] Sauer, Tom. "The Origins of the Ukraine Crisis and the Need for Collective Security between Russia and the West." Global Policy 8, no. 1 (2017): 82-91.

[5] Metz, Steven. "Has the United States lost the ability to fight a major war?." Parameters 45, no. 2 (2015): 7.

[6] Sanders, Andrew. "The US National Military Strategy." PADECEME 10, no. 19 (2017): 37-47.

[7] Byman, Daniel, and Ian A. Merritt. "The New American Way of War: Special Operations Forces in the War on Terrorism." The Washington Quarterly 41, no. 2 (2018): 79-93.

[8] Osborn, Kris. "The U.S. Army Has Big Plans If a War with Russia or China Ever Went Down." The National Interest, May 1, 2017.

[9] Chivvis, Christopher S. "Understanding Russian “Hybrid Warfare”." The RAND Corporation (2017): 2-4.

[10] Fink, Anya Loukianova. "The Evolving Russian Concept of Strategic Deterrence: Risks and Responses." Arms Control Today 47, no. 6 (2017): 14.

[11] Popescu, Nicu. "Hybrid tactics: neither new nor only Russian." EUISS Issue Alert 4 (2015).

[12] Colby, Elbridge, and Jonathan Solomon. "Facing Russia: conventional defence and deterrence in Europe." Survival 57, no. 6 (2015): 21-50.

[13] Sutyagin, Igor, and Justin Bronk. Russia’s New Ground Forces: Capabilities, Limitations and Implications for International Security. Routledge, 2017.

[14] Johnson, David Eugene. The Challenges of the" now" and Their Implications for the US Army. RAND Corporation, 2016.

[15] Mearsheimer, John. Conventional Deterrence (Cornell Studies in Security Affairs). Cornell University Press, 2017.

[16] Yarhi-Milo, Keren. Knowing the adversary: leaders, intelligence, and assessment of intentions in international relations. Princeton University Press, 2014.

[17] Kent, Sherman. Strategic intelligence for American world policy. Vol. 2377. Princeton University Press, 2015.

[18] Pecht, Eyal, and Asher Tishler. "The value of military intelligence." Defence and Peace Economics 26, no. 2 (2015): 179-211.

[19] Liwång, Hans, Marika Ericson, and Martin Bang. "An examination of the implementation of risk-based approaches in military operations." Journal of military studies 5, no. 2 (2014): 38-64.

[20] Berkowitz, Jeremy M. "Delegating Terror: Principal–Agent Based Decision Making in State Sponsorship of Terrorism." International Interactions 44, no. 4 (2018): 709-748.

[21] Collins, Stephen D. "StateSponsored Terrorism: In Decline, Yet Still a Potent Threat." Politics & Policy 42, no. 1 (2014): 131-159.

[22] Chilton, Kevin P. "On US Nuclear Deterrence." Strategic Studies Quarterly 11, no. 4 (2017): 2-14.

[23] Report from Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA): “Russia Military Power 2017.”

[24] Ibid., 46.

[25] Ibid., 11, 58.

[26] Ibid., 31.

[27] Ibid., 44.

[28] Blank, Stephen J. "Imperial ambitions: Russia's military buildup." World Affairs (2015): 67-75.

[29] DIA: “Russia Military Power 2017,” 31.

[30] Boot, Max. "More small wars: counterinsurgency is here to stay." Foreign Affairs 93 (2014): 5.

[31] Kosnik, Mark E. "The military response to terrorism." In United States Military History 1865 to the Present Day, pp. 111-137. Routledge, 2017.

[32] Robinson, Bruce H. "Blood Year: The Unraveling of Western Counterterrorism."  Hein (2017): 43.

[33] Byman, Daniel. "Beyond Counterterrorism." Foreign Affairs 94 (2015): 11.

[34] Shamir, Eitan, and Eyal Ben-Ari. "The rise of special operations forces: Generalized specialization, boundary spanning and military autonomy." Journal of Strategic Studies41, no. 3 (2018): 335-371.

[35] Zenko, Micah. "Donald Trump is pushing America’s Special Forces past the breaking point." Foreign Policy 1 (2017).

[36] Johnson, David Eugene. The Challenges of the" now" and Their Implications for the US Army. RAND Corporation, 2016.

[37] Campbell, Jason H., Richard Girven, Ben Connable, Jonah Blank, Raphael S. Cohen, Larry Hanauer, William Young, Linda Robinson, and Sean Mann. Implications of The Security Cooperation Office Transition in Afghanistan For Special Operations Forces: An Abbreviated Report of the Study's Primary Findings. No. RR-1201. RAND Corporation Santa Monica United States, 2017.

[38] Spulak Jr, Robert G. A theory of special operations: the origin, qualities, and use of SOF. No. JSOU-R-07-7. Sandia National Labs Albuquerque NM, 2007.

[39] Winters, Edward G., and Kent A. Paro. The Misuse of Special Operations Forces. Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA, 1994.


Categories: Russia

About the Author(s)

J. Robert Kane studies intelligence and terrorism. He is an intelligence officer and researcher who has worked on Middle Eastern targets. In addition to research funded by the U.S. Government, he has conducted studies at New York University, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. He can be found on Twitter at @jrobertkane.


To thedrosophil:



Firstly, when did you write your paper on the state of the Russian military?  Because your impression seems to be from the decade immediately following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  From 2008-on, Russia’s ability to mobilize and deploy its forces rapidly has improved markedly, as has its joint operations and precision-strike.  Improvement is of course a relative term...


Secondly, I completely agree that the US Army is indeed “shilling” to take point in Europe and in the Western Pacific.  For instance, RAND’s “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank” (Shlapak & Johnson, 2016) simulates a Russian invasion of the Baltic states that can only be responded to by EUCOM’s in-theater assets, and in which USAREUR is outnumbered, outranged, and outgunned.  RAND completely ignored the 40% of US strategic bombers and attack submarines allocated to the Atlantic (after the Pacific Pivot), Carrier Strike Groups that could be brought in, and the nuclear and conventional submarines of other NATO members (e.g. UK and France).  Not once did the authors note that Russian ground forces have more organic firepower because air superiority and close-air support is not envisioned, and because these forces are intended to operate close to their supply lines to Russia rather than as global expeditionary forces (as with NATO and especially the US Army).  In the Western Pacific, the US Army is hoping that if it can prove its cyber/electromagnetic warfare capabilities and sink Chinese ships with guided shells from land-based artillery, it can achieve primacy in the “Multi-domain Battle” (AirSeaBattle plus Army) expected to occur in the air and on/below the surface of the sea. 


However, none of this means that Russia is not a “near-peer” threat.  Russia is more than capable of achieving local superiority and inflicting a conventional defeat on US and/or allied forces in Eastern Europe or the Arctic (less so in the Western Pacific).  One only needs to refer back to 1861-1863 or 1941-1942 to see what damage a less-than-peer adversary can inflict on US forces.  More recently, I think of Egypt’s Operation Badr in Sinai against Israel (1973) and Argentina’s Operation Rosario in the Falklands against Britain (1982).  Neither the Confederacy, Japan, Egypt, or Argentina, respectively, believed that they could win a total full-blown war against their adversaries.  Rather, they believed that they could capture territory by way of offensive warfare, and inflict significant-enough defeats to deter counter-offensives.  Whereas the former two were taking risks based upon their estimates of American political will, the latter two nearly succeeded militarily.  Had Egypt held its positions and not renewed its offensive, and had Argentina had better bomb fuzes and a more daring navy, both Israel and Britain, respectively, would have had no good conventional options left. 


The Russian threat should not be exaggerated, but it should not be dismissed either. 


Thu, 08/23/2018 - 11:54am

I'm more of less with Kane on this one. While studying for my MSc in Strategic Studies, I wrote one of my term papers on the state of the Russian military. It's <I>embarrasing</I> how dysfunctional the Russian military has become, and that's after some pretty questionable performance <I>before</I> the Cold War stalled. The idea of Russia as a "near-pear threat" only makes sense if you're part of the U.S. Army establishment that's shilling for a return to force-on-force operations, which requires one to consider the strategic environment almost entirely without context. Even the health of Russia's nuclear assets ought to be open to interpretation.

My only gripe with Kane's argument is that too few people are willing to acknowledge it as reflective of reality.

Kane makes a bold claim that the US military has “pivoted” or “re-orientated” to Russia, at the expense of counterterrorism.  Given that Islamist terrorism is not a significant or existential threat to the US, Kane’s argument that Russia is not a near-peer adversary is actually irrelevant to his argument in favor of focusing on counterterrorism rather than conventional deterrence.  With respect, I disagree with Kane on all points.



First, Russia is a near-peer threat.  It is America’s only nuclear peer, and the only threat capable of destroying America.  Conventionally, Russia is less of a threat than China, but could still achieve local superiority over US forces and inflict a major defeat.  China and Russia comprise the only near-peer conventional threats that the US military faces at present – even if they are not conventional equals between one another – and yet Kane does not refer to China once while dismissing the Russian threat.  We cannot know Russian intent, but we have to ask: has Russia demonstrated increased political will to engage in aggression abroad?  Has this willingness increased from 2008 to 2014 to 2015-present?  The answer to both questions is: yes.  I highly doubt that Russia would attack NATO.  Yet, however infinitesimally small the possibility of Russian aggression Article V against NATO was and is, it has nevertheless increased.    



Second, where is the evidence that the US military has pivoted to East-Central Europe?  As far as I understand it, the Pacific Pivot has not been changed, and 60% of US conventional strike assets are deployed for contingencies in the Pacific, either against China or North Korea.  I am open to any correction in this regard. 



Third, I welcome delegating the counterterrorism mission to the intelligence and special forces communities.  I distinctly remember when 5th generation fighter production was curtailed in favor of MRAPs for Afghanistan and Iraq, the epitome of US high-end capabilities being cannibalized for low-end missions, which was especially pronounced during the 2008-2011 period when it was already clear that the US would be drawing down its forces in CENTCOM.  The 2003-2011 period enabled adversaries and rivals – China in particular – to narrow the capabilities gap that the US enjoyed.  Neither China nor Russia have demonstrated a capability equivalent to even Desert Storm, which was over a generation ago; however, they are working hard to do so.  China is working in the US-Russia INF blacked-out area to be able to launch a crippling Pearl Harbor-style attack on US forces in the Western Pacific.  Russia needs to be disabused of the temptation to start mischief in Narva or the Arctic, and China needs to be disabused of the idea that Xi can cement his legacy by capturing Taiwan. 



Fourth, threat-inflation is an unfortunate political necessity if the US military is to receive adequate resources from Congress.  It is part of the bargaining process.  If “x” amount of military resources are required to incrementally increase or tweak NATO’s deterrence in East-Central Europe, “z” amount of resources will have to be asked for.  It is the only way to negotiate the special interest souk



Last, the Islamic world is simply too large and too populous for the US to reconstruct as a collection of strong, democratic, inclusive, and allied states.  Therefore, Americans should be content with SOF/intelligence “whack-a-mole”.