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The United States and Russia Are Already at War
The United States and Russia are already at war. At least, that’s what many in Moscow seem to think. This war is not fought like past conflicts. It’s prosecuted today primarily by non-military means. But, the secondary role of military operations does not lessen the danger it poses to U.S. strategic interests. Moscow is targeting the United States in ways that sidestep America’s traditional understanding of warfare. Its seeks to cripple the United States, shatter NATO, and fill the void left by America’s absence. President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration may offer opportunities to de-escalate the confrontation. But doing so successfully will depend on Washington’s ability to adapt to Moscow’s novel way of war.
War By Other Means
U.S. policymakers tend to view war as being limited to the military arena. Their counterparts in Moscow increasingly see things differently. There is in Russia a rising awareness that non-military means can be used with devastating effect. These non-military tools range from cyber-attacks to information campaigns to economic sanctions. Russian strategists no longer define warfare solely—or even primarily—by the deployment, distribution, and maneuver of troops in the field. They see warfare instead as the combined use of political, diplomatic, informational, economic, and—to a lesser extent—military efforts to destabilize the enemy, undermine their ability to respond in a timely manner, and exploit asymmetries to nullify any adversary military advantages.
This premise informs Russia’s understanding of joint operations. That is, the Kremlin recognizes that all coercive operations, not just military ones, must be joint if they are to advance its strategic interests. This recognition is built into the structure of the Russian national security sector itself. Control over Russia’s security institutions—including political, military, intelligence, and other ministries—is highly-centralized. This is done in large part so that the Kremlin can bring all elements of its nation’s power to bear in a unified manner as threats arise.
The destructive potential of non-military tools is already all too apparent. Take as an example the Russia-directed Democratic National Committee hack. Moscow’s first objective was to damage Hillary Clinton’s chances of being elected president. Far more perniciously, however, the Russian Federation sought to undermine the American system of government. Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that American political polarization inhibits Congress’ capacity to govern, undercutting U.S. global competitiveness and credibility. The Kremlin knows too—critically—that Americans tend to favor retrenchment so long as domestic political strife keeps their eyes focused inward. By stoking partisanship and inflaming populism, Moscow believes that it can severely weaken the United States’ ability to fight Russian adventurism.
Importantly, some might argue that this expanded definition of “warfare” is theoretically unsound and does little to capture the present state of U.S.-Russian relations. U.S. military scholars will remember that Carl von Clausewitz defined “war” as “an act of violence intended to compel [one’s] opponent to fulfill [their] will.” The Russian Federation’s intent to compel NATO to accede to its demands is self-evident. The veracity of this expanded definition therefore hinges on what constitutes “violence.” If non-military means can be used to cause suffering of such strategic consequence—measured in enemy deaths, economic ruin, or state collapse—then Russian advocacy for a broader definition may be well-founded.
A System in the Crosshairs
Russian military thought diverges from American on more than just the tools of modern warfare. How Russian strategists plan for war is also different. The U.S. Joint Staff’s operational planning construct—used to build American war plans—is designed for one-on-one contingencies. It treats both sides of an engagement as monolithic entities. The implications of such narrow thinking are evident in the U.S. counterterrorism effort. American initiatives against al Qaeda and ISIS nodes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere were conducted in earnest. But, Washington failed to devise an operational plan that treated these groups less as singular entities and more as parts of a complex, multi-theater movement. Conceptual missteps like this left space for the global jihad to adapt, persist, and grow.
Moscow’s policies suggest that it has adopted a different, more nuanced paradigm for war planning. According to this paradigm, the United States and NATO are not so much a compilation of states bound by mutual interest as one highly-interdependent system. And, that system is not just the Atlantic Alliance. It is the liberal order that underpins Western solidarity. To impose its will on the United States or other NATO members, Moscow is targeting these states directly. But it is also targeting the system. If the system can be unraveled, the polities within it will not only drift from one another. The nations will fall apart from within, accelerating that drift, and creating space for Russian maneuvering.
Russia’s unconscionable weaponization of the Syrian refugee crisis represents this paradigm in action. For instance, Moscow’s initiative may yet undermine the Hungarian liberal establishment and push the country towards a more permanently xenophobic political footing. If that happens, it will be like one of the twenty-eight screws holding NATO together unwinding just enough to weaken neighboring screws. The ongoing uptick in nationalism in Europe—aided by Russia-backed far-right European political parties—suggests that this is not an idle fear. Left untended, this unwinding could shatter the Alliance’s unified front.
Moscow’s use of the Syrian refugee crisis to destabilize Europe underscores Russian strategists’ view that the U.S.-Russia security competition is not a binary affair. It shows as well Moscow’s related understanding that the U.S.-Russia competition is not even itself just one conflict. It’s the summation of multiple ongoing and interacting conflicts. As Robert Kaplan writes, Russian policymakers see their “near abroad” as a single operational theater—a single “conflict system,” as Kaplan has described it—with ongoing operations in one area directly affecting campaigns elsewhere. This allows them to use efforts in Syria, for instance, to affect NATO politics in Brussels and the corresponding correlation of resolve in the Baltics. This can be seen as a collision of systems wherein Moscow uses events in its own conflict system to help scuttle European liberalism.
The Best Defense is a Good Offense
Russia’s efforts to derail liberalism reflect Moscow’s growing anxiety about the evolving security environment. They reflect in particular Russian strategists’ belief that the line separating offensive and defensive action no longer exists, or at least is no longer relevant.
Top Russian military thinkers indicate that Russia’s geographic proximity to NATO will leave Moscow with little time and few options for responding in the event of a NATO attack. Likewise, the United States’ ability—at least as perceived by Moscow—to launch a successful strategic first-strike using ballistic missile defense and prompt strike capabilities imperils Russia’s nuclear deterrent. That peril will only grow as new cyber and counterspace threats come online in the coming years. So not only will Moscow not have space for maneuver in the event of crisis. It won’t have time to respond either.
In this context, defensive—or even retaliatory—options have little real merit. Russian strategists have stressed this point for many years in Military Thought, the journal of the Russian General Staff. Once the United States has initiated an attack, that attack will be so swift and effective that the Russian Armed Forces will have little left to defend or retaliate with. As a result, Moscow increasingly believes that offensive action is required to protect the Russian state.
That’s already obvious in some cases, like the Russia-led DNC hack, weaponization of Syrian refugees, and investments in European nationalism. It’s less obvious in others. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, for instance, was first and foremost an effort to forestall the West’s installation of a client on Russia’s border. But, Moscow also ably manipulated the Ukraine crisis to weaken the Atlantic Alliance, especially by revealing some members’ hesitance to assume risk in deterring further Russian aggression.
So long as the U.S. threat looms in Moscow’s vision, Russia will likely continue to take offensive action to weave chaos in and among the United States and its allies. That will be done using an array of non-military tools, complemented by select military operations. Russian actions will target individual states. But they will be best understood as part of a broader effort to undermine the Western system—the liberal order—itself.
Adapt and Overcome
President-elect Donald Trump has stated his desire to normalize ties with the Kremlin. Mr. Trump may be uniquely positioned to realize this goal. He and President Putin have long indicated substantial respect for one another. Moreover, Mr. Trump’s business background may allow him valuable insight into the set of interests and values influencing Putin’s behavior. And, his noteworthy political acumen may equip him to manage Putin’s machinations in surprisingly effective ways.
But, U.S.-Russian enmity is rooted not solely in personalities but in longstanding, often divergent visions for the future of Europe and the surrounding regions. To reconcile those visions is a tall order. Some elements of the U.S. position may be open for compromise. Mr. Trump may elect, for instance, to remove support for Syrian rebels or allow Russia greater freedom of operation in its periphery. But, there is only so far Washington can go without jeopardizing core interests, like its ability to reassure and protect allies in Europe. That fact is surely not lost on Putin, who has nonetheless already issued calls for President-elect Trump to press NATO to withdraw troops from Russia’s borders.
The coming years promise to be trying. So, too, will those that follow. The Kremlin is playing a long game. President Putin and his advisors recognize that American politics can be volatile. They know as well that U.S. skepticism of Russia runs deep in both parties. And—setting aside the question of U.S. intentions—they know Washington will likely continue investing in missile defense, prompt strike, cyber, and counterspace systems that could hold their nuclear deterrent at risk. Russian policymakers are therefore unlikely to abandon efforts to throw U.S. and European politics into disarray. Given the turbulent 2016 U.S. presidential election, they may even see working with President-elect Trump as an opportunity to further exacerbate political disunity in the United States and Europe. Perversely enough, Moscow may view helping Mr. Trump succeed—or at least be seen to succeed—as a way to further polarize American politics and encourage the election of like-minded populist candidates elsewhere.
The United States should therefore hedge its bets. That means investing in ways to deter Russian attacks on the very heart of Western society. U.S. policymakers must start by understanding Russia’s game. That includes recognizing Russia’s intent to cripple the United States, tear NATO apart, and take control of its periphery. It requires as well appreciating the devastative potential of non-military weapons, their important role in Moscow’s evolving conception of warfare, and the ways they—and their military complements—are being used to erode the liberal order. The successful deterrence of further aggression—and de-escalation of that which has already transpired—will ultimately rely on U.S. strategists adapting to overcome Moscow’s innovative way of war.