Traditional Victory Over Russia Is Unlikely. Instead, Expect To Manage Competition for the Long Haul

COMMENTARY Defense

Traditional Victory Over Russia Is Unlikely. Instead, Expect To Manage Competition for the Long Haul

May 16, 2022 20 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Patty-Jane Geller

Senior Policy Analyst, Center for National Defense

Patty-Jane is a senior policy analyst for nuclear deterrence and missile defense at The Heritage Foundation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin passes by after the Victory Day military parade in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2022. Yuan Xinfang / Xinhua / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

After many years of U.S. hegemony following the Cold War, Russia has gained—and is exercising—the capabilities to threaten the United States and its interests.

In addition to modernizing and numerically increasing existing nuclear capabilities, Russia is building entirely new nuclear capabilities.

Managing competition with Russia will require significant investment and effort that the American public and the current administration may be reluctant to make.

After many years of U.S. hegemony following the Cold War, Russia has gained—and is exercising—the capabilities to threaten the United States and its interests abroad. Russia invests in military capabilities to confront the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other neighboring states. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea demonstrated its use of hybrid warfare to accomplish its aims and project power across the Black Sea. Moscow is propping up Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad, defending Iran at the United Nations (UN) Security Council, and amassing military forces in the Arctic. It has authorized multiple cyber-attacks against the United States and continues to target vulnerabilities in the U.S. defense industrial base. It uses political warfare to sow discord in the United States, from interfering in U.S. elections to spreading propaganda about the “dangers” of U.S missile defense. Perhaps most significantly, Russia invests billions of dollars into adding to its nuclear arsenal and developing new nuclear capabilities, disrupting the nuclear balance with the United States. Consequently, the current and previous administrations have framed U.S.-Russia relations as a competition, which involves two states striving for global power and opposing interests. Such a competition implies that actors in opposition to each other are pursuing a victory. But what does it look like to win in a competition with Russia? 

Based on the U.S. history of war and conflict, Americans typically view winning a competition as a definitive change in status quo, or strategic realignment, that works in the U.S. favor. A model American victory might look like the outcome of the Revolutionary War, which resulted in the independent American state, or Japan’s transformation to a democratic ally after it lost World War II. It once appeared that the United States was making progress toward this model of strategic realignment for Russia after the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union fell. Much of U.S.-Russian policy through the 2000’s was rooted in the idea that with a little more nudging, Russia would complete the transition from unfriendly autocracy to democratic member of the rules-based international order. Such policy is evidenced by President George W. Bush’s push for a new era of improved relations with Russia, and President Barack Obama’s attempted Russian “reset.”

While the Russian threat has worsened in recent years, one school of thought argues that the United States can still achieve this strategic realignment once Russia achieves full internal political change. Activists like Vladimir Kara-Murza argue such change could occur in the near term. Another camp argues that the United States can end the competition if it stops antagonizing Russia. This school of thought accepts the premise that U.S. capabilities like missile defense provoke Russia to build up its forces and asserts that unilateral concessions will convince Russia to draw back its forces as well. Others go further to argue that the Russian threat is overblown and Russia is too weak to pose a serious threat, so there is no competition to “win;” instead, the United States should redirect unneeded resources away from U.S.-Russia competition.

This paper argues that Russia’s fundamental nature and interests will continue to threaten the United States for the foreseeable future and therefore a path to a traditional concept of victory is unlikely. It rejects the idea that Russia will achieve full internal change and become friendly to the United States due to its longstanding nature as an aggressive, paranoid, power-seeking, and autocratic state, no matter its leader. Based on this assessment, concessions or attempts at cooperation with Russia will fail. Indeed, history illustrates that Russia interprets these as weaknesses and exploits the opportunity to advance its position. 

>>> Where’s Biden on Growing Nuclear Threats?

As a result, the closest the United States can come to “winning” is successfully managing competition with Russia to mitigate the threat it poses and keep Russian aggression at bay. To manage competition, the United States must strengthen its capabilities and posture required to deter Russian mischief in all arenas of competition as well as avoid making concessions. This recommendation includes, but is not limited to, increasing U.S. defense budgets; strengthening nuclear deterrence; countering and maintaining resiliency to Russian political warfare; and actively responding to Russian aggression in the European theater.

Russia’s Nature Makes Favorable Change Unlikely  

U.S.-Russian relations have ebbed and flowed over the past century. Although different Russian leaders or world circumstances have made for a more cordial relationship with Russia at times, Russian history demonstrates that the interests and tendencies that cause conflict with the United States today are inherent to Russia’s character. These tendencies are therefore unlikely to change in a manner favorable to U.S. interests.

Russia has a history of aggression toward its neighbors that has often resulted in loss or humiliation. While the United States has largely avoided conflict within its borders due to its geographic isolation, Russia has fought with bordering states or territories throughout its history. As early as the 1100’s, what was then the Kievan Rus federation suffered brutal losses by fighting the Mongols. Later, Russia lost the Crimean War of 1853, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 after invading Japan, World War I, and the Cold War. The Russians also battled Napoleon in 1812 and Nazi Germany during World War II. This history of fighting and invasion strongly influences Russia’s national character.

Due to its vast and near-indefensible territory, Russia is aggressive and even paranoid about any potential threats to its sovereignty. In the 1100’s, the Mongols invaded when Russian princes rejected a Mongolian peace request out of fear and suspicion that the Mongols would advance into Russian territory. To protect its territory, Russia has sought to preempt invasion by expanding its borders or establishing a buffer zone of friendly actors. As Catherine the Great famously stated, “I have no way to defend my borders but to extend them.” During the Cold War, the Soviet Union maintained rule over its border satellite states to strengthen its defense against growing NATO forces. Even after the war, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin tried to establish a Commonwealth of Independent States with former Soviet satellite states to maintain influence and leverage surrounding its borders.

Russia maintains a sense of providential destiny to be a great power and avoid humiliation. This sense of entitlement has been expressed in different ways throughout Russian history. Russians take pride in their defeats by attrition of Napoleon and Nazi Germany, which they refer to as the Patriotic War of 1812 and The Great Patriotic War, respectively. During the Cold War, the Soviets saw themselves as the vanguard of worldwide revolution. Intertwined with Russia’s desire to expand its borders or maintain a buffer zone as part of its paranoid defense, expansion has also been integral to this sense of exceptionalism. As expert Leon Aron describes, unlike in Western Europe, Russian expansion occurred at the same time as state-building. For instance, early expansion was justified through the spread of Russian Orthodoxy, and later through the advance of communism during the era of the Soviet Union. This great power entitlement often clashes with the fact that Russia has “almost always been a relatively weak power” that faces humiliating defeats over time. As a result, it is in Moscow’s nature to avoid embarrassment on the international stage while pushing back on hegemonic powers like the United States.

Finally, Russia takes pride in its culture and civilization that dates back over 1,000 years. This pride often manifests itself in national and foreign policy. Nicholas I used the “Uvarov doctrine” based on Russian orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality to unify Russian society in the 1830’s when autocratic rule was becoming more unpopular. The Uvarov doctrine was again used in the early-1900’s to mobilize support for Nicholas II prior to World War I, and even referenced in the late-1990’s as Russian President Vladimir Putin began to consolidate power. Contrary to U.S. values of democracy and individual freedom, Russia prioritizes power vested in the state—autocracy in some form—to provide for the people, from the rule of Peter the Great, the succession of czars, the totalitarian Soviet Union, to Putin’s current rule. Similarly, Russia rejects any outside influence, reflected in its staunch anti-westernism during the Cold War that continues today. 

Russia’s Enduring Character Shapes Its Posture Against the United States

U.S.-Russia competition has persisted since World War II when the United States emerged as a great power. The establishment of the U.S.-led, rules-based world order and the NATO military alliance clashed with Russia’s own longstanding ambitions. While the U.S.-Russia relationship has evolved over time, Russia consistently acts in accordance with these interests defined by its enduring nature, and Putin’s regime is no different. 

Much of Russia’s aggression under Putin, including the invasions of Georgia, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and Syria, reflects Moscow’s paranoia over defending its sovereignty. While the American public might see Putin as particularly aggressive compared to other recent leaders, according to Aron, “Putin is merely the latest Russian ruler to embrace Catherine the Great’s mantra” of extending borders to defend them. To paraphrase political scientist John Mearsheimer, Russia invaded Georgia and Ukraine because the potential for those border countries to join NATO could threaten Russian sovereignty. Russia goes to extensive lengths to constrain U.S. missile defense out of a fear that the United States could gain the ability to defend against a Russian retaliatory strike. These efforts persist despite current and planned U.S. missile defense deployments remaining far too few to neutralize Russia’s massive nuclear arsenal and retaliatory capability. While seemingly illogical, vulnerability to a first strike poses an existential threat that feeds into Russian paranoia over any threat to its sovereignty. This paranoia suggests that the interest in mitigating U.S. strategic forces will not change.

Putin’s regime also reflects a desire to heighten Russia’s status as a great power. At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Putin described Russia as “a country with a history that spans more than a thousand years [that] has practically always used the privilege to carry out an independent foreign policy.” He infamously referred to the dissolution of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” because Russia lost significant acquired territory.

Maintaining its status as a nuclear power is also imperative to Russian great power pursuits. In addition to modernizing and numerically increasing existing nuclear capabilities, Russia is building entirely new nuclear capabilities, often referred to as “exotic” or “super” weapons, such as a nuclear-powered cruise missile and underwater drone that can reportedly carry a 100-megaton weapon. Many analysts argue that these weapons provide value in asserting Russia as a great nuclear power. Indeed, Putin recently boasted, “We have the most cutting-edge nuclear deterrence forces out of all nuclear powers.” Russia seeks to surpass the United States in nuclear capabilities to solidify its status as top nuclear power.

The Kremlin uses its footholds around the world to undermine American soft power and world leadership, which stand in the way of its great power pursuits. For instance, Russia challenged America in Syria by employing its sea-launched cruise missiles (that could also carry nuclear weapons) and using its traction there to project power in the Middle East. Russia also leverages techniques to spread disinformation and propaganda, including cyber operations, media manipulation, and covert botnet operations to influence key politicians, journalists, and academics. This Russian effort to exert its influence around the world and challenge the United States has not changed from the Cold War, during which the Soviet Union used political warfare to hamper American influence in Europe and foment instability within the United States and between the United States and its allies.

Putin justifies much of his aggression based on the long-standing Russian practice of rejecting external influence—in the contemporary case, Western democracy—in favor of historic Russian values and pride. Putin labeled Russia a “unique civilization” that has endured hundreds of years of great power wars. He considers rejecting western values critical to maintaining Russia’s greatness. When discussing the need to balance against U.S. unipolarity in 2007, Putin stated, “[W]e are constantly being taught about democracy. But for some reason those who teach us do not want to learn themselves,” referring to U.S. democracy-building efforts across the world. Just as Russia stopped the global domination efforts by the Mongols and Napoleon, it now sees the need to stop U.S. hegemony. This interest is vital to Russia’s historic character, and it is unlikely to change any time soon.

The Accident of Putin?

Scholars like Michael McFaul, President Obama’s Ambassador to Russia, argue that current competition with Russia is a result of the “accident of Putin.” They assert that the 1990’s were a missed opportunity to reform U.S.-Russia relations, and if long-time democracy advocate Boris Nemtsov were named prime minister instead of Putin in 1999, relations with Russia would look very different today. Based on this argument, the intensity of the competition with Russia depends heavily on the leader in power. While of course a given leader’s personality will have some impact on relations with the United States, Russia’s enduring nature demonstrates that so long as the United States obstructs Russia’s pursuit of its revisionist goals, competition will persist. Periods of improved relations between Russia and the United States only occur when Russia lacks the national power to aggressively pursue its overarching interests.

The 1990’s are often characterized as a period of friendly relations with Russia given Yeltsin’s initial desire to become closer to the United States and even his attempt to join NATO. However, Russia’s conflicting interests with the United States were the same then as now; the difference was Russia’s lack of power after the Cold War. For example, in the early 1990’s, the UN and United States pressured Yeltsin to withdraw all Russian troops from Estonia and Latvia. Yeltsin tried to make withdrawal dependent on securing rights for Russian ethnic speakers in those countries, the same narrative Putin uses to justify the current occupation in Ukraine. The difference was that Yeltsin caved to the U.S. threat to withhold much-needed aid if Russia did not withdraw troops, while the United States and NATO have not been able to compel the current Russian regime—much stronger than that of the 1990’s—to withdraw from Ukraine. After Yeltsin withdrew troops in Estonia and Latvia, he tried to maintain leverage in former Soviet states, even encouraging a Crimean independence movement to impinge on Ukraine’s claims to the Black Sea Fleet. Again, the difference between Russia’s interest in Crimean independence in the 1990’s and today is that it did not then have the strength to actualize this goal. Indeed, according to Russia experts Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy, “There was a general perception, in both the Yeltsin government and parliament, that Russia was being treated as a developing or second-tier country by the [W]est,” a sentiment that reflects Russia’s immense pride and desire to be treated as a great power.

Russia’s inability to pursue its aggressive interests in the 1990’s has since changed. As the United States drew down its military forces to pivot to counterterrorism in the 2000’s, Russia sought to rebuild its military. It invested in asymmetric capabilities like informational and cyber warfare and pursued a nuclear modernization program, which is now at least 86% complete. (In comparison, the United States is barely beginning its long-overdue nuclear modernization effort.) Russia also rebuilt its stockpile of non-strategic, or tactical nuclear weapons unconstrained by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) to the point where Russia now outnumbers the United States in this category by at least ten to one.

The “accident of Putin” camp also references the reset in U.S.-Russian relations from 2009-2013 under Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. According to McFaul, Medvedev complied with Obama’s attempted reset because he sought Obama’s respect. However, McFaul concedes that Medvedev did little to actually implement democratic reforms, despite talking often about democracy. Under Medvedev’s administration, Russia turned off the natural gas supply to Ukraine; remained hostile to U.S. missile defenses even as Obama cancelled additional deployments; and vetoed UN action against the Syrian regime in 2011. The 2010 New START agreement accomplished little for this reset because the treaty’s cap on nuclear warheads enabled Russia to increase its forces to the outlined maximum while the United States made reductions. Russia also exploited the flawed treaty by building nuclear weapons the treaty did not limit, like nuclear-tipped hypersonic glide vehicles. While Medvedev’s tone seemed to offset competition, Russia’s great power interests persisted. 

Despite a complete change in government after the Cold War and an attempted reset in relations, Russia never strategically realigned. As historian Stephen Kotkin eloquently explains:

In this context, it is useful to recognize that there has actually never been a period of sustained good relations between Russia and the United States. (Declassified documents reveal that even the World War II alliance was fraught with deeper distrust and greater cross purposes than has generally been understood.) This has been due not to misunderstandings, miscommunication, or hurt feelings but rather to divergent fundamental values and state interests, as each country has defined them. For Russia, the highest value is the state; for the United States, it is individual liberty, private property, and human rights, usually set out in opposition to the state. So expectations should be kept in check.

Because Russia’s aggression stems not from a particular leader but from its enduring character, the United States can expect to continue competing with Russia even after Putin.

U.S. Concessions Have Not Moderated Russian Behavior 

Russia interprets U.S. concessions as weakness that provides opportunities to further pursue its ambitions. Indeed, Russia’s goals extend beyond minimizing any threat posed by the United States to actively improving Russia’s status as a great power. A weakened United States will not persuade Russia to back down; rather, it will allow Russia to further propel its ambitions forward. The history of U.S.-Russian relations is replete with examples of this occurring.

Indeed, Russia historically continued to build up its forces and pursue its adventurist ambitions even when the United States reduced its own forces and backed off the international stage. For example, as part of the Obama administration’s attempted reset, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) asserted that Russia and the United States were no longer adversaries and emphasized the reduction of the role of U.S. nuclear weapons. In fact, since the Cold War, the United States drastically reduced its nuclear stockpile, unilaterally removing thousands of non-strategic nuclear weapons from its arsenal, halting nuclear weapons testing, and allowing its nuclear enterprise to atrophy. Today, there is no room to delay building back necessary capabilities.

If, as one theory of victory posits, Russian aggression were solely a response to the U.S. threat, then the United States’ decision to shrink its nuclear capabilities should have assured Russia it had no need to further expand its arsenal. However, Russia instead dramatically increased its number and types of nuclear capabilities. The 2018 NPR stated, “While the United States has continued to reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons, others, including Russia and China, have moved in the opposite direction. They have added new types of nuclear capabilities to their arsenals, increased the salience of nuclear forces in their strategies and plans, and engaged in increasingly aggressive behavior…”

Moscow argues that U.S. missile defense capabilities hamper Russia’s ability to retaliate against a U.S. nuclear strike and uses this flawed logic to justify new nuclear capabilities. In 2018, Putin cited U.S. missile defense as his impetus for developing six exotic new nuclear delivery systems, even though the United States has made only minor upgrades to its missile defense system over the last two decades. By that logic, were the United States to limit its missile defenses, Russia would not advance its offensive systems. Yet history illustrates that the exact opposite occurs. From 1972 to 1982, a time when the United States completely dismantled its existing homeland missile defense system, the Soviet Union added 10,000 warheads to its deployed arsenal – one of the largest force increases in its history. As famously stated by former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown during the Cold War, “When we build, they build. When we stop, they build.”

President Joe Biden’s administration has made multiple concessions for Putin to exploit. In response to Russia’s buildup of military forces near the Ukrainian border in the spring of 2021, the United States announced it would send warships to the Black Sea. Concerned with escalating tensions with Russia, Biden recalled the ships, and just days later, Moscow announced it would restrict access to the Black Sea for six months. The Biden administration’s extension of New START also feeds into Putin’s hands because it allows Russia to continue exploiting the treaty’s flaws and provides no incentive to halt its nuclear buildup. In fact, Putin already deployed to the Middle East a Kinzhal hypersonic missile—a new weapon not limited by New START—while the United States draws down its forces in the region and negotiates with Iran.

The number of examples of Russia exploiting U.S. concessions to pursue its ambitions exceeds the scope of this paper. These cases demonstrate that Russia’s ambitions are such that it sees windows of opportunity when the United States exhibits weakness. 

Managing U.S.-Russian Competition

As history demonstrates, Russia will continue to pursue its great power interests despite U.S. attempts at cooperation or even concessions so long as it has the power and tools required to do so. Since Russia is unlikely to strategically realign, the United States should not expect to stop Russia from pursuing its revisionist interests around the world. Instead, the best way to engage is to manage the competition to mitigate Russia’s ability to threaten the United States and moderate Russian aggression. At the very least, the United States needs to avoid making the unilateral concessions that provoke Russia to pursue further mischief. The United States should primarily focus on strengthening its position to check Russian aggression. While this paper does not seek to provide a comprehensive policy guide to Russian relations, the following recommendations illustrate ways to manage the competition.

First, Congress and the administration should increase defense budgets to keep up with inflation at minimum and ideally meet the recommendation of three to five percent real growth as recommended by the 2018 National Defense Strategy Commission. The Heritage Foundation’s 2022 Index of U.S. Military Strength concludes that the military can only marginally meet the demands of the current threat environment, and as this paper discusses, Russia takes advantage of U.S. shortfalls. Sufficient defense budgets will enable the United States to make needed improvements to its forces by procuring more naval ships and aircraft, modernizing old equipment, and investing in advanced capabilities such as hypersonic weapons and artificial intelligence.

Second, the United States must pursue a modernized nuclear posture that can deter the Russian nuclear threat. This recommendation requires fully modernizing U.S. nuclear forces and avoiding policy proposals like a “no first use” declaratory policy that only exudes U.S. weakness and damages credibility of deterrence. The United States must also adjust its force posture to account for the increasing nuclear threat, including by pursuing the sea-launched cruise missile-nuclear proposed by the 2018 NPR. Any unilateral reductions in nuclear forces will only further encourage Russia and remove any incentive to negotiate a future arms control agreement. As Senator Deb Fischer (R–NE), the Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces aptly summarized: “Why would our competitors agree to new rounds of arms reductions if they knew the U.S. was cutting its forces anyway, regardless of whether they agreed to do the same?”

>>> Russia and Realism, American-Style

Third, the United States must prioritize countering Russian political warfare, a tool Russia has long used to gain an asymmetric advantage and exploit the gray zone area between war and peace. In the 1980’s, the Soviets undertook an intensive political warfare effort to forestall U.S. deployments of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe. Yet in a show of perseverance, the United States successfully deployed Pershing II nuclear-armed missiles in Europe, a victory that eventually compelled Russia to agree to the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 that banned all missiles of this kind. The United States must exercise this resiliency to political warfare efforts to manage competition with Russia today.

Fourth, the United States must actively and forcefully respond to Russian aggression and coercion in Europe. For Ukraine and Georgia, this means increasing U.S. Navy presence in the Black Sea, increasing exercises with Ukrainian forces, and strengthening ties with both countries. The United States should also at least maintain a force presence in Eastern Europe and complete the Aegis Ashore missile defense project in Poland. While Biden allowed Russia to complete construction of its Nord Stream II pipeline, the United States must maintain sanctions pressure to prevent the dangerous project from becoming operational. The United States must find the best ways to demonstrate its resolve to deter Russian aggression in Europe and around the world because a lack thereof only begets Russian aggression.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, managing competition with Russia will require significant investment and effort that the American public and the current administration may be reluctant to make. The first step to managing Russian conflict is accepting that the United States is not likely to achieve an idealistic, decisive victory in the form of strategic realignment. Success will be measured, not as elimination of the Russian threat, but as a consistent containment of the threat over time. It might entail achieving arms control that limits Russia’s most dangerous nuclear forces, preventing further illegal Russian occupation in Europe, and killing the Nord Stream II pipeline. But the United States should prepare for Russia to cheat on a future arms control agreement, amass forces outside of its borders, and seek other economic arrangements that harm U.S. national security. The United States must avoid making the same mistake it made after the Cold War and draw down its forces when Russia becomes weak. Perhaps a less aggressive leader will replace Putin and restore some cooperation with the United States, but Russia’s long-standing interests will likely continue to cause it to clash with the United States. Long-term competition management from a position of strength will remain the United States’ best option. 

This piece originally appeared in The Hamiltonian