How big a military threat is Russia, really?

Some US generals see Putin's moves in Ukraine and Syria as dangerously aggressive. Others see calculated efforts aimed at blunting Western influence but not directly challenging the US.

Yuri Maltsev/Reuters
Russian submarines sail during a rehearsal for the Navy Day parade in the far eastern port of Vladivostok. Russia is modernizing its submarine fleet.

In a recent talk at one of America’s premier war colleges, the nation’s top military officer warned incoming students about the dangers of Russian aggression.

Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its meddling in Ukraine, and its aid to the Syrian regime. Even in the face of a severe economic squeeze, "they are modernizing their nuclear enterprise, they are modernizing their submarine force," he said. Such warnings have become increasingly dire in foreign policy circles.

Is Russia really the dire military threat that it's made out to be? 

Many longtime Russia analysts concur that there is certainly a role for a robust military posture but that Russia's moves don't merit the level of alarm that they have generated.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he has “no interest in challenging our military where we make it clear we don’t want to be challenged,” says Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Instead, “the Russians are terrified of us. They see themselves as pushing back against US hegemony – and they really do see this, this isn’t just rhetoric.... We are what they build against.”

For just this reason, the Russians have been beefing up their conventional arsenal, building hypersonic missiles and new submarines.

Russia’s moves to date “have been select and calibrated,” write retired Gen. David Petraeus, former head of the CIA, and Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, in this month’s Foreign Affairs magazine. Crimea, after all, was historically Russian and “is populated by a majority of Russian speakers, and is home to Russia’s only Black Sea naval base.”

What’s more, when Mr. Putin moved into Syria last fall, “He did so only after having determined that the Obama administration was keeping its own involvement limited,” they argue. While these actions “may have been cynical and reprehensible” they “were not completely reckless or random, nor were they particularly brutal by the standards of warfare.”

In short, they conclude, Russia’s actions “do not likely portend a direct threat to more central NATO interests.”

The debate comes as the West generally and the US in particular decides how to counter Russia's increasingly bold moves – on a number of threat levels.

The conventional threat

Where conventional forces are concerned, the US military is quickly becoming the force charged with “serving as a strong deterrent to Russian aggression,” the director of strategy for US European Command, Maj. Gen. David Allvin, said last month.  

This warning comes, as such military warnings generally do, with a hefty $3.4 billion request in the Pentagon’s latest budget for the so-called European Reassurance Initiative that will, among other things, fund the deployment of more US troops and weapons to Europe. 

Few analysts suggest the US should do nothing. The debate is over how forcefully to react. With US Army troop levels down to 30,000 in Europe, it makes sense to beef up the forces there, General Petraeus and Mr. O’Hanlon write. But “stationing a major NATO force in the Baltics … not only is unnecessary but also could provoke Putin as easily as deter him, given his temperament and his desire to restore Russia’s status."

“I think there’s no reason to make the Russians think we wouldn’t fight for our allies,” says Ms. Oliker.

There is, too, the threat of nuclear force. “I don’t think that Putin will challenge the US through nuclear means over areas that are peripheral to his interests,” says Kim Kagan, president of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, where Petraeus is a member of the board of directors. “But the nuclear threat is there and our policymakers need to take that seriously.”

Then there is Russia's "gray zone" aggression, including interference in domestic politics and election campaigns, Oliker notes. “Conventional weapons aren’t very useful for that, nor are navies, which [the Foreign Affairs article] suggests we pour more money into.”

Between war and peace

Yet knowing how to confront gray zones has been tricky for the Pentagon because the US government “strictly separates phases of peace and war,” Dr. Kagan adds. “We’ve created a model of conflict suited for the Cold War era and possibly for the early post-Cold War era, but not to this era of intense competition.”

Part of what the Pentagon has been trying to do to counter Putin is to engage in propaganda, or “information warfare,” as it’s known in military parlance. In this realm, narratives matter, and some analysts express concern that worrying too much about whether a US military move could be interpreted as provoking Putin somehow rationalizes the Russian leader’s behavior, and plays into the Russian narrative.

“On the one hand, I understand what the Foreign Affairs article is saying [about not unnecessarily provoking Putin]. On the other hand, I feel if we cast our policy because Putin will claim we are the aggressor, then we will find ourselves limited in what we can do and where we can do it  – because there is no action that we can take that Putin will not characterize as provocative,” Kagan says. While a little prudence “is a good thing in foreign relations, I do think Putin has been looking for a red line, and he’s found few.”

The question, however, is what Putin will do with red lines, says Julianne Smith, former acting national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden – specifically, whether “like a cornered cat,” he’ll respond in a dangerous and unwelcome way. “What worries me most – and what they miss a bit in the [Foreign Affairs] piece, is the potential for a seemingly small incident to spiral out of control.”

To this end, Ms. Smith, now the director of Strategy and Statecraft Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, has conducted a number of war game exercises that look at scenarios in which routine Russian actions spiral out of control.

“Putin frequently conducts military probing exercises where he orders Russians jets to come precariously close to either key infrastructure sites, commercial jets – or buzzing our ships in the Black Sea,” she says. “These probing incidents are nothing more than bluster and acts of intimidation, but they have the potential to go terribly awry.”

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