Russia has become elevated in the minds of our foreign policy and military decisionmakers as the Number One Enemy. While President Obama mocked Mitt Romney for suggesting as much in 2012, today the possibility that Russia meddled in the 2016 election by exposing the Democratic National Committee’s double-crossing of Bernie Sanders is considered far worse than the double-crossing itself. And Donald Trump’s expressed hope in the campaign for more cordial relations with Russia has made him enemies among many Republicans as well, particularly neoconservatives and “realists,” who have counseled more confrontation with Russia through America’s and NATO’s conventional forces in Europe.
Whether the issue is missile defense, the fate of the Ukraine’s coup leadership, or Georgia’s attempts to reconquer its separatist province of Ossetia, the foreign policy establishment has sought specifically to employ conventional capability against Russia, whether in terms of sanctions, arms sales, military movements within the Baltic region adjacent to Russia, or against Russia’s ally in Syria.
Senator John McCain said in December 2016 during a visit to Ukraine, “I send the message from the American people—we are with you, your fight is our fight and we will win together.” Ohio Governor John Kasich, a supposed moderate, said in the Republican debates, “Frankly, it’s time we punched the Russians in the nose.” Carly Fiorina stated in the same debate, “What I would do, immediately, is begin rebuilding the Sixth Fleet, I would begin rebuilding the missile defense program in Poland, I would conduct regular, aggressive military exercises in the Baltic states. I’d probably send a few thousand more troops into Germany. Vladimir Putin would get the message.” Chris Christie said he wouldn’t hesitate to shoot down a Russian plane in a Syrian no-fly zone.
In short, two major assumptions undergird this dubious conventional wisdom. One, the idea that Russia is an implacable enemy of the United States. But equally important, the advocates of a muscular policy against Russia must believe that it can be dealt with through conventional military deterrence and, if necessary, conventional military action. Thus F-15s fly miles from Russian airspace over the Baltics, and U.S. warships cruise the Black Sea.
While I do not agree with the moral calculus of the first assumption, let’s set that aside for a moment, because the second aspect—the realistic availability of conventional military options against Russia—appears even more ridiculous when scrutinized.
We have seen military leaders indulge in magical thinking before, refusing to recognize when a revolutionary weapon rendered their strategies and tactics and sense of military valor obsolete. The ancient Japanese Samurai rather famously “gave up the gun,” finding firearms unmanly and contrary to the martial courage and elan of sword-fighting. This largely continued until practical westerners arrived in the 1800s armed to the teeth with cannon and firearms. French generals famously clung to the massed bayonet charge in the face of the machinegun and modern artillery of World War I. The dogfighter retained a privileged position in the Air Force, even as increasingly sophisticated surface to air missiles, air to air missiles, and now drones have arguably rendered him irrelevant.
With regard to America and Russia, the biggest game changer of all severely limits our ability to employ military power: Russia has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
Nobody worries much about nuclear war anymore. This is unfortunate, because it is both possible and one of the worst things imaginable. During the Cold War era, nuclear war fears were pervasive. American doctrine had evolved from the optimistic idea that a nuclear war could be fought and won—famously mocked in the classic film “Dr. Strangelove“—to the concept of “Mutually Assured Destruction,” which counseled the need for a sufficient nuclear arsenal to destroy the enemy, an attack gratuitous by design, occurring only after a nation-destroying first strike by the enemy. This mutual assurance, everyone hoped, would prevent the first move of an initial nuclear strike.
The development of a substantial conventional capability during the Cold War was to some extent an anachronism, born as much from interservice rivalry as any realistic military strategy. In addition, conventional weapons were in many cases “nuclearized.” Tactical nuclear artillery shells proliferated among ground forces, in addition to small nuclear air-to-air missiles. There was little doubt tactical nuclear weapons would play a large part in any battle between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces, and the risk of a limited nuclear war metastasizing into a global one appeared likely by most analysis. As noted in the National Interest, “[T]he Reagan administration launched a wargame in 1983 to test the Madman Theory to and analyze the viability of U.S. nuclear warfighting plans. Codenamed Proud Prophet, the exercise had NATO launch limited nuclear strikes against Soviet targets in response to conventional provocation. But instead of backing down, the Soviet team doubled down, launching a massive nuclear counterattack at the United States, to which the U.S. responded in kind. Wargame over.”
Don’t Stop Worrying
Of course, not all war is total, nor does it all take place between nuclear-armed superpowers. Most of the wars fought since World War II involved a confrontation between small nations or between a large, nuclear-armed nation and a small nation. These are the various wars of “National Liberation”: Vietnam, Malaya, El Salvador, Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the last 15 years, we have employed conventional forces—particularly infantry and special forces—against the elusive threat of Islamic extremists. But, because of nuclear weapons, no direct combat occurred during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, who instead competed for power and influence by supporting proxies in the Third World, whether in Vietnam, Angola, or elsewhere.
Much of the military debate on force structure both during and after the Cold War involves the question of how much and how heavy a conventional capability makes sense, when most of the wars actually fought in the last 50 years (and likely to be fought in the next 50) are these “brushfire” conflicts, where the enemy is typically a lightly armed militiamen.
Nonetheless, the possibility of a large, conventional conflict with a “peer adversary” animates much of the domestic military discussion, even today. The army’s armored division remain preeminent, with calls for replacement of the modernized M1 tanks and M2 infantry fighting vehicle to address Russia’s development of the Armata tank and related “next generation” conventional weapons. Yet nuclear weapons would render much of our current military domestic capability—armor, infantry, tactical bombing, artillery—irrelevant in a conflict with Russia.
It is simply fanciful to think Russia would allow any significant attack on its homeland without a nuclear response. Their stated nuclear strategy has recently expanded from employing nuclear weapons defensively in a “global war . . . in which sovereignty and [the] very survival of Russia are at stake,” to “regional war,” with the latter defined as “a war with a powerful state or a coalition [namely the United States and NATO], which Russian forces cannot win or terminate on favorable conditions.”
Thus, for the same reasons North Korea’s provocations remain a complex situation with few good options, our most potent tools with which to influence Russia remain diplomatic and economic. And part of that diplomacy, no doubt, should consist of a more sober appraisal of our shared interests with Russia, the avoidance of provocation and risk-taking actions involving conventional military action that could spiral out of control, and embracing cooperation in venues, such as Syria, where our shared interests in defeating ISIS can lead to opportunities for mutual understanding and a reduction of tension.
When Mutually Assured Destruction became a recognized fact as much as a strategy during the Cold War, Kissinger-led détente became the order of the day. Even Reagan, much praised for showing a great deal of moral clarity and strategic foresight in his conduct during the Cold War, was fearful of nuclear war and sought arms-control measures with Soviet leadership. No one thought then, even after the downing of a Korean Airliner by Soviet air defenses, that conventional retaliation was a realistic possibility. Then, as now, the risk that a conventional conflict would lead to a nuclear exchange simply created too much danger to employ conventional forces in the way we might with other adversaries.
Flirting With Disaster
Perceptions and rhetoric matter in foreign affairs. Small problems can be blown out of proportion. Manageable threats can become unmanageable by a mutually reinforcing cycle of escalation. And, with regard to Russia, the omnipresent risk of hubris, particularly with regard to the use of conventional forces, could lead to an unintended nuclear war.
In foreign policy and war, other nations get a vote. A sensible foreign policy considers this risk of misperception and manages it through diplomacy. For example, India and China have large arsenals, both conventional and nuclear, but we have friendly relations with the former and businesslike relations with the latter. But with regard to Russia, the intemperate rhetoric of the “adults” in the foreign policy establishment—whom I would say are cynically exaggerating “Russian hacking” to score domestic political points —is leading to an increasing flirtation with employing conventional forces in a hostile way.
While certain generals may prefer to prepare to refight the campaigns of General Patton and Curtis LeMay, like the Japanese Samurai confronting Admiral Perry, they have to adjust to the game-changing impact of nuclear weapons. Any use of conventional force against Russia proper would be an incredibly irresponsible one, in light of Russia’s large and sophisticated nuclear arsenal and their likely employment in its defense.