RD debates: A new U.S. military strategic document adds Russia to a list of threats to American interests. What are the implications for U.S.-Russia relations? Should Moscow view the move as a threat, or dismiss the strategy as political rhetoric?


Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, center, and his South Korean counterpart Adm. Choi Yun-hee, rear center, in a car, inspect a guard of honor during the honor guard welcome ceremony at the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, March 27, 2015. Photo: AP

This week the United States added Russia to a list of probable threats to U.S. national interests in an update to its National Military Strategy.

The new strategy “addresses the need to counter revisionist states that are challenging international norms,” such as Russia.

“[Russia] also has repeatedly demonstrated that it does not respect the sovereignty of its neighbors,” the strategy continues. “Russia’s military actions are undermining regional security directly and through proxy forces.”

Among other threats listed in the strategy are violent extremist organizations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), North Korea and China.

 Read Q&A with Robert Legvold: "What a new Cold War between Russia and the US means for the world"

Talk of a new Cold War between Russia and the West has escalated following Russia’s takeover of the Crimean peninsula and the outbreak of war Eastern Ukraine in early 2014. Today, some in the media are even speculating about full-scale nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia.

Russia Direct interviewed experts and academics about the updated U.S. Military Strategy, asking whether the document actually represents a significant shift in U.S. policy towards Russia, and about the future of relations between the U.S. and Russia.

Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and Brookings Senior Fellow at Center on the United States and Europe

The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) released their 2015 national military strategy at the end of June.  The document notes that some states “are attempting to revise key aspects of the international order and are acting in a manner that threatens our [U.S.] national security interests.”  It cites Russia first, as a state that “has repeatedly demonstrated that it does not respect the sovereignty of its neighbors and it is willing to use force to achieve its goals.”

The JCS document reflects the fact that the U.S. military—and Washington in general—now see Russia as potentially posing a threat to U.S. security interests.  A growing concern over the past 18 months, given Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine, the large number of snap, no notice exercises, and the increased tempo of Russian military flights near NATO air space, is a possible Russian move to destabilize a NATO state in the Baltic region.

The probability of this may not be high, but it is not zero.  We thus have seen U.S. (and NATO) steps to bolster a conventional military presence in the Baltic states and Poland, including last week’s announcement that the U.S. Army will preposition a heavy armored brigade’s worth of equipment in the area.

This is not something that the U.S. military is eager to do. The Pentagon already has its hands full with the challenges posed by a rising China in the western Pacific and conflicts in the broader Middle East.  Having drawn down U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq after long campaigns in those countries, the military was hoping for a quieter period to restore unit readiness.  But Russia’s more threatening rhetoric and behavior now requires greater attention to the European area.

I don’t expect these moves to raise the risk of outright U.S./NATO-Russia conflict.  Quite the opposite.  A modest increase in NATO conventional military forces in the Baltic region should help make clear that the Alliance will defend the territory of member states—and hopefully avoid a Kremlin miscalculation, after a string of Russian miscalculations regarding Ukraine.

Andrei Korobkov, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University

The “Russian threat,” and its significance to the states bordering Russia, has been grossly exaggerated. Yet at the same time, contrary to the popular perception in Russia, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama appears to be dragging its feet with regard to the conflict in Ukraine. (However, it is also true that practically any U.S. administration that follows it is likely to have a more negative stance towards Russia.)

In fact, while defining Russia as a revisionist state, the new U.S. Department of Defense strategic documents show that the “Russian threat” is still viewed as having secondary importance within Washington’s overall strategic equation.

The conflict in Ukraine has served as a convenient excuse for the strengthening of NATO, the introduction of stricter discipline of the allies, and for the expansion of American presence in Europe. Thus the reemergence of the “Russian threat” was in fact rather convenient for the achievement of U.S. foreign policy goals in Europe.

Still — could there be a new Cold War? In its original form, probably, the answer is “no.” There is no clear ideological divide, or state of bipolarity. Meanwhile, new and highly decentralized threats have continued to emerge and proliferate.

The same American strategic documents indicate that the U.S. very seriously perceives the dangers associated with such states as North Korea and Iran, such movements as the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, and that it realizes the existence of common interests and the need to cooperate with Russia in these areas.

Whatever is said in public, there is also a growing concern about the strengthening of China and the potential for an alliance between Beijing and Moscow. The events following the introduction of the Western sanctions against Russia in 2014, including the expansion of the Chinese-Russian cooperation and the strengthening of the BRICS group of countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), have clearly created concern in Washington.

Witness the energetic and, for now, unsuccessful, attempt by the Obama administration to set up the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, an organization of Pacific Rim countries to be led by the U.S. while excluding China and Russia. Clearly, the U.S. leaders realize that China, not Russia, poses the major danger to the U.S. monopolistic position in the world.       

In my view, we can expect the continuation and even the rise in the temperature of anti-Russian polemics in the U.S. in the second half of 2015 and in 2016. At the same time, there will also be attempts, at least during the remaining Obama term, to retain some degree of cooperation and dialogue.

Michael OHanlon, senior fellow and director of research at Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Department

I would describe the inclusion of Russia as a possible threat as follows—not a fictional issue or scenario, but also not a likely military contingency.  Rather, Russia is acting now in a way that makes it important for us to think hard about military issues vis-à-vis Moscow.

We need to think hard about deterrence and stability in Central Europe, and what the role of our military may be in enhancing such things. Clearly, Russia is not like North Korea or ISIS; it is still a partner of the USA and West on many matters (and also, of course, it's far more powerful than North Korea or ISIS).

But there is a category of military planning issues regarding Europe that is now much more salient and serious than believed a couple years ago. That's my interpretation. I still think the chance of Russia vs. US/NATO war is extremely small.

Andrei Tsygankov, a professor of International Relations and Political Science at San Francisco State University

Russia indeed is now viewed as a threat to U.S. interests. President Barak Obama already introduced this perception last year in his State of the Union address. The Pentagon’s strategy further consolidates the view by the U.S. ruling class.

While viewing Russia as a threat makes a war with the United States difficult to exclude, it is a remote possibility. The two countries seem to be merely returning to deterrence which may mean a greater predictability and management of hostilities than the currently highly unstable and volatile relations.