In 1853, British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston observed, "The policy and practice of the Russian Government has always been to push forward its encroachments as fast and as far as the apathy or want of firmness of other Governments would allow it to go, but always to stop and retire when it met with decided resistance and then to wait for the next favorable opportunity."
Palmerston's statement rings as true today as it did then. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and occupies Abkhazia and Tskhinvali (South Ossetia) to this day. It forcibly seized and annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and, seven years later, still has troops in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine. The recent military buildup along the Ukrainian border and in Crimea augurs yet another Moscow offensive coming soon.
Russia, it seems, is always on the lookout for the next favorable opportunity, and that opportunistic mindset—combined with the muscle Moscow can throw behind it—poses a very real threat to the United States.
Conventional Military Threat
Russia's conventional weaponry and warfare tactics directly threaten the 29 European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), as well as its partners. By treaty, the U.S. and other NATO members are obligated to "seek to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area" and are "resolved to unite their efforts for collective defence and for the preservation of peace and security." This one-for-all and all-for-one arrangement commits the U.S. to come to the defense of any NATO member attacked by any foreign power.
The problem is that Russia does not operate by the rules-based international order and is not interested in promoting European stability and well-being. In fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed in 2014 that he seeks to foster a new world order "that is more friendly to Russian interests." And he's been vigorously increasing and modernizing Russia's military might to help him accomplish just that.
Russia today boasts a vast amount of conventional weaponry and a total military reserve force of two million. These military assets have been strategically positioned to heighten their threat value. For example, Russia has highly militarized its Kaliningrad exclave, which borders NATO members Lithuania and Poland. Indeed, Russia's Baltic Fleet is headquartered there. As a result, Russian and NATO military aircraft often intercept each other over the Baltic Sea, keeping tensions high.
Russia also poses a hybrid threat, manifested through its cyber-hacking, its propagation of disinformation and its ongoing attempts to undermine the U.S. democratic system.
Moscow is a hacking superpower—arguably the best in the world. And Russian hackers clearly have their sights set on the U.S. For example, in September 2017, then-President Donald Trump ordered American civilian agencies to remove Kaspersky Lab anti-virus software from their networks because of concerns that Russian intelligence agencies could utilize it to spy on the U.S. government.
Last December, the U.S. government suffered multiple data breaches due to Moscow's hacking of SolarWinds software—an attack NPR described as "a master class in novel hacking techniques." And just this month, Washington revealed that hackers working for Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service "are actively exploiting five known vulnerabilities to target U.S. companies and the defense-industrial base."
Russia's hybrid threat also manifests itself through the propagation of disinformation in the U.S. and, even further, the undermining of the U.S. democratic system. The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence determined that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, with efforts aimed at hacking voting machine companies, manipulating voting systems and processes, and sowing disinformation and discord via social media channels.
And just this past week, the United States announced sanctions on Russia for interfering in the 2020 presidential election. Russia's purpose in interfering in U.S. elections is not to change the outcome, but rather to sow division in American society and undermine citizens' faith in the integrity of their electoral process. So far, Russia has largely succeeded in that mission.
Threat to U.S. Interests Around the world
Russia also poses a threat to U.S. interests around the world—specifically, in Syria, Libya and Iran.
In Syria, Russia continues to prop up Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator who has ruled since 2000. Besides supporting Assad in his continuing brutal war against his own people, Moscow in part helped to create the conditions that allowed the rise of the Islamic State in Syria—a development that severely undermined U.S. national security interests.
In Libya, Russia has been backing General Khalifa Haftar, chief of the Benghazi-based Libyan National Army. In April 2019, General Haftar's forces attacked the Libyan capital of Tripoli in an attempt to seize control from the United Nations-recognized government based there. In August 2020, a permanent ceasefire was implemented. It has held so far, but it is extremely fragile. A stable Libya is in U.S. interests, but the Russian mercenaries operating there are anything but destabilizing.
Regarding Iran, Russia has always given the nation diplomatic cover, likely because Russia and Iran share the "same views on various strategic issues in the region," at least according to Tehran. Russia defends Iran at the UN Security Council, despite the many security concerns surrounding Iran. And historically, Russia has helped Iran evade international sanctions.
Finally, of course, Russia poses a nuclear threat—the only existential threat facing the U.S. at the present time. That is not to say that Russia intends to eradicate the U.S., but it does possess the hypothetical ability to do so. Russia possesses more than 45 percent of the international nuclear stockpile—and delivery systems that would allow those weapons to strike U.S. soil in approximately 30 minutes. Submarine-based missiles actually could strike in less time—as little as 10 to 15 minutes. Russia is also developing entirely new nuclear capabilities and is growing its stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons.
Heightening the threat of this massive nuclear arsenal are Moscow's mindset and ambitions. As noted in the most recent U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, "Russia considers the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to be the principal threats to its contemporary geopolitical ambitions. Russian strategy and doctrine emphasize the potential coercive and military uses of nuclear weapons."
The fact that Russia considers the actual employment of nuclear weapons to achieve its ambitions should be a major concern to the U.S. If Russia feels threatened by the U.S., a nuclear strike in the future cannot be definitively ruled out.
So yes, the threat is real. The United States should respond in three ways:
- Keep supporting its NATO allies and international partners.
- Beef up its own nuclear weapons to provide a credible deterrent to future Russian nuclear calculations.
- Never trust Putin to be a trustworthy partner.
The U.S. must take the Russian threat seriously and not let down its defenses. Now, as in Palmerston's day, the Russian bear is ever on the prowl, seeking to go "as fast and as far as the apathy or want of firmness of other Governments would allow."
This piece originally appeared in Newsweek