Conflict and Leadership
How US Intelligence Community Views Rivalry With Russia and China

Twenty years ago, the American government believed that terrorism would be the key enemy, ten years ago the Obama administration pointed out that technological threats and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction would be the key challenges. But now, the American establishment has returned to the idea that the main threats come from nation states, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov. 

Each year, the Office of the US Director of National Intelligence issues the Annual Threat Assessment Report, which compiles the views of all 17 intelligence services. This unclassified document is prepared for submission to Congress for the attention of the Special Commissions for Intelligence and Armed Forces. 

The report is a cumulative view of the American intelligence community on the “most direct and serious threats to the United States” that the intelligence community expects next year. Each of these threats, according to the authors of the report, warrants an immediate response. At the same time, the report itself, although it contains a list of threats, omits assessments of the vulnerabilities of US rivals. These estimates are most likely contained in other classified documents that are used in the planning of the activities of the US intelligence services. 

Although the foreword to the report states that the sequence of topics does not reflect the priorities of US intelligence, the structure of the report speaks for itself. It has four chapters on individual countries and two chapters on transnational threats. Four key chapters focus on China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, respectively. These were the only countries which were written about in separate, dedicated sections. 

The structure of the country profile remains the same. It covers six key topics: the country’s regional and global activity, its military potential and available weapons of mass destruction, measures that the country is going to take in space, its potential in the field of cyber technology and its ability to conduct intelligence operations and operations to spread influence and intervene in the political processes of other countries. 

Describing the general state of the world, the report states that a global transfiguration is taking place, as a result of the rivalry between the great powers, which was superimposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the degradation of the environment and climate, and the increasing power of non-state actors. 

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For the vast majority of the world’s population, there is a need for the provision of critical global public goods, such as public health, climate action, and sustainable development, beyond the classic “hard power” themes more related to issues of military scope. This is so since multilateralism is the only framework that can guarantee common solutions for all countries and peoples to challenges that, like the pandemic, are quite different in nature from those of the past, writes Ambassador Ricardo E. Lagorio.
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Opening the country chapters, the authors of the report start with China, which they describe as a “near-peer competitor” — a rival, approaching the level of the United States, which challenges it in several ways, economically, militarily and technologically, as well as strives to change global norms. The report states that Beijing views the crisis in US-China relations as part of an epoch-making geopolitical shift. 

The report states that the regional activity of China is most of all focused on its immediate borders: the Sino-Indian rivalry, the situation in the South China Sea, the issue of Taiwan and the rapprochement between China with Russia are highlighted. Separately, it is said that China is committed to promoting new international norms in the field of technology and human rights, emphasising the importance of state sovereignty and political stability over the rights of the individual. 

More briefly, the report describes China’s military capabilities, which are still regional in nature. Regarding Beijing’s weapons of mass destruction, the report states that WMD programmes are experiencing the fastest growth and diversification. In space, China is developing the means to destroy objects in low orbit, as well as the ability to operate in space. Addressing cyber threats, the report states that China is developing the capacity to strike critical US infrastructure, and in terms of influence operations, China aims to raise doubts about the United States’ commitment to allies in East and Southeast Asia and is also attempting to undermine democracy in Taiwan. 

The second section is devoted to Russia, and it is more detailed with respect to the sphere of threats that Russia poses to the United States. However, the report begins with an extraordinary admission that, according to American intelligence, Moscow is looking for opportunities to increase pragmatic cooperation with Washington on its own terms, and Russia is not interested in a direct conflict with the US military. The report says that Russia is seeking to forge an understanding with the United States on mutual non-interference in domestic political affairs and to recognise Russia’s sphere of influence over much of the former Soviet Union. 

The global and regional activity of Russia is described in sweeping terms, with particular emphasis on the growing strategic cooperation between Russia and China. It is indicated that in the Middle East and North Africa, Moscow seeks to strengthen its positions, and in the Western Hemisphere it actively interacts with Venezuela and Cuba in order to gain a foothold in Latin America. It is also said that Moscow’s influence in the territory of the former Soviet Union is substantial, and can be used without a significant mobilisation of resources. American intelligence states that Russia can use its armed forces to conduct operations far from its borders, but not for an extended period of time. 

Russia’s WMD arsenal is rated as being the largest and most developed in comparison with the US arsenal, a fact that is not expected to change in the foreseeable future. Russia is also cited as being the top cybersecurity threat and one of the most serious intelligence threats. In space, Russia is called the key rival of the United States. 

Although the focus of the intelligence report is limited to one year, its findings suggest that the two key challenges to American interests are country-specific and geographically distinct — China and Russia. Although considerable attention is paid in the report to other threats — climate change, environmental problems, the consequences of a pandemic, technological risks — the high priority of threats emanating from nation states indicates that the United States has rejected the illusions of previous decades that the nature of international life in the 21st century will be qualitatively different. Twenty years ago, the American government believed that terrorism would be the key enemy, ten years ago the Obama administration pointed out that technological threats and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction would be the key challenges. But now the American establishment has returned to the idea that the main threats come from nation states. 

However, this statement contains the main problem of American strategy in the 21st century. How can the US prevent the rapprochement of two key rivals on the basis of opposition to the US? So far, the proposed approaches of the United States all these years have only contributed to the rapprochement between Russia and China. Moscow and Beijing view the United States as a key threat to international stability. In its attempt to retain leadership, the United States is aiming to sabotage any constructive initiatives that come from Moscow and Beijing, stirs up tensions along their borders and tries to oust Russia and China from the global community. 

These steps, of course, will not go unanswered. It is possible that on the horizon of ten years, we will see the conversion of strategic cooperation between Russia and China into something more. So far, American strategic thought is unable to provide an answer to this problem.

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