Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has had a series of unusual relationships with Russia. The current crisis makes it tempting to revert to the familiar Cold War approach of confrontation and containment, but the Russia we face today looks very little like the Soviet Bear of the ’80s. And we’re different, too. A decade spent fighting terrorists has left us with a completely different skill set than the Cold Warriors of previous generations. While some elements of confrontation need to be resurrected, containment should be consigned to history. Instead, we should focus on constraining Russian behavior within international norms—like respecting the territorial integrity and diplomatic autonomy of neighboring countries.
Years of counterterrorist and counterinsurgency operations have left their mark on the U.S. military. While we have a relatively veteran force, experience gained in Iraq and Afghanistan doesn’t readily translate to proficiency facing a peer adversary who spent those years modernizing their force and developing new weapons, some of which are arguably the most advanced in the world. We also lost our focus. During the Cold War, every training program familiarized troops with the Soviet military. We still have a few who remember those days, but not nearly enough. Our intelligence apparatus also shifted resources away from Russia, and it will be difficult to reconstitute the exquisite insight we enjoyed during the Cold War.
Defaulting to a containment approach over the last few years gave us Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and the current mess in Ukraine. Containment not only reinforces domestic Russian narratives about American and NATO hostility, it also acknowledges the existence of a geopolitical line beyond which the Russians have a free hand. And admitting such a line exists opens the argument about where it lies. That’s exactly what’s happening in Ukraine. The blood and treasure Russia has sacrificed indicates they are willing to pay a high price to move the line west. Even Russia’s nominal allies have become wary of accepting this argument, as they know they could be next. Our own allies, in NATO and elsewhere, will also be reluctant to accept a return to this Cold War strategy, which cannot succeed without them.
A clearly stated strategy of constraining the Russians to international norms will be easier to sell to our allies, the United Nations, and even Russia itself. This approach has begun to bear fruit with the Chinese and is far more likely to succeed. This does not mean we should rely on diplomacy and sanctions alone. The Russians have made it clear they understand hard power—and value it. But they seem to have forgotten how expensive it is. Now that sanctions are starting to bite, a more muscular posture designed to draw Russian responses will inflict costs they can ill afford. Refusing to respond could make Moscow look weak, especially to their domestic audience. Finally, we must reinvigorate the information instrument of national power to make our case to the world at large and counter Russian disinformation. Above all else, the Kremlin fears a population that understands exactly what its government is doing to maintain control.
Our new National Security Strategy mentions Russian aggression and acknowledges Dr. Joseph Nye’s “smart power” concept outlined in The Future of Power (Public Affairs, 2010) of blending hard and soft power to achieve desired outcomes. It also clearly states our commitment to international norms. It does not, however, articulate in terms Russia understands what we are willing to do to encourage compliance. By employing all the instruments of national power, we may be able to influence Russian decision-making. Through diplomacy we can reinforce the importance of all nations abiding by international norms, while information highlights Russian violations of these norms and actively counters disinformation. Additionally, military instruments can reassure our allies with forward presence and provide Ukraine the aid it needs to maintain its footing in the face of Russian aggression. Finally, economic measures to liberalize the oil market and sustain low oil prices along with moves to increase pressure with sector-focused and targeted sanctions could profoundly affect Russian options.
Only a firm, coordinated response employing all the elements of national power can constrain Russian behavior within international norms. Anything less will inevitably lead to more frozen conflicts and hybrid warfare in the former Soviet Union.