Russian-American Relations: Exaggerated Threats

10.11.2017

In the current environment of Russian-American relations, several different types of threats are being conflated and exaggerated.  There is the threat of interference in each others domestic affairs-both Russian interference in the US elections and US interference in Russia's upcoming presidential contest.  This is a non-kinetic threat, and based on what we know of the mature political systems in both countries, the role of external actors in shaping the outcomes is likely to be very limited compared to internal domestic factors.  To the extent that any response is appropriate, it should be tailored to the nature and scale of the threat.  The deployment of additional armed contingents by NATO is unrelated to this threat, and not an appropriate response. 

To the extent that NATO deployments are an effort to counter new Russian military capabilities revealed in Ukraine and Syria, they are perhaps more justifiable and should not necessarily be seen as threatening from the Russian side.  After decades of downgrading its capabilities on Russia's borders, NATO cannot mount an offensive against Russian territory and NATO's ability to mount a conventional defense of existing NATO members is open to question.  None of these additional deployments change that basic fact, but they can be seen as compensating for relative weakness--a reflection of Russia's regional superiority. 

That said, both sides would be better served by more active efforts to de-escalate rather than improving their preparation for a combat that absolutely must be avoided.  The costs of deterrence--both to Russia and NATO--will simply rise with escalation, and neither side will feel any more secure.  At the moment, military threats on both sides are currently being overstated, but the ensuing paranoia and panic could lead in the relatively short to medium term to deployments that would revive the old Cold War threats.  This costly outcome can be relatively easily avoided with more careful diplomacy and an end to the destructive tit-for-tat retaliatory cycles that have characterized Russian-American relations for the past year.

The root of the problem was the crisis in Ukraine, and to a great extent de-escalation still requires addressing this core conflict.  Trump has resisted the implementation of further sanctions against Russia and has also ignored calls for providing arms to the Ukrainian government.  He finds himself in a similar position to Obama, having to push back against a bellicose Congress and his own Secretary of Defense.  Like President Obama, he has also failed to present a solution to the crisis or to negotiate directly with Russia as a way to move forward out of the conflict.  And unlike with President Obama, there is little hope for optimism that a settlement can be reached within the next three years.  With his campaign manager Paul Manafort under indictment for acting as a foreign agent of the Yanukovych government, and indictment pending for his former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, virtually all direct contact with Russia is viewed as part of a conspiracy.  This makes it even less likely that Trump will be able to play a constructive role.  At best, he can simply prevent counter-productive escalation.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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