Putin’s dilemma: Why pushing back against NATO “encroachment” makes Russia’s NATO problem worse

As readers of this blog know, I believe that Putin and his advisors are convinced that the United States is trying to encircle, contain, weaken, exploit, and even destroy Russia as a unified state. They are also convinced that the West’s rhetorical commitment to democracy is a smokescreen for U.S. hegemonic ambitions globally and in Russia’s rightful sphere of influence particularly. This understanding of U.S. objectives is also shared by the bulk of the Russian public. It’s what many Russians believed before the Ukraine crisis (and it helps explain why the Kremlin reacted the way it did to the Maidan events), and it’s believed all the more now that Russia has lost Ukraine as an ally and NATO is reinforcing its eastern defenses.

That Russian officials and the Russian public think this would be dangerous under the best of circumstances. Russia, after all, is a nuclear superpower with a large and very capable conventional military. What makes it particularly dangerous is the fact that the Kremlin’s security problems with NATO are not only getting worse but are likely to continue to do so for years to come. Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, its role in destabilizing the Donbas, and its intervention in Syria have been very popular domestically, at least to date. But they have also produced an American military “repivot” to Europe, a steady but significant increase in NATO hard power capabilities close to Russian borders, and a surge in military spending by most of Russia’s increasingly worried neighbors.

Given the Kremlin’s understanding of Western strategic intentions, its political stake in resisting what it considers a threat to its vital interests, and its reliance on coercive leverage to attain its strategic objectives in Eurasia, Moscow is almost certainly going to keep pushing back against NATO’s eastern reinforcements. In doing so, it has at least the following three options.

  1. It can continue to apply non-kinetic political, economic, and military pressure on Europe, NATO, and Russia’s non-NATO neighbors in the hopes of (1) inducing the United States and its allies to negotiate mutually acceptable arms control agreements and some kind of compromise on the security relationships of Ukraine, Georgia, and perhaps Belarus; and/or (2) bringing doves and pro-Russian forces to power in the West, who then block NATO’s deployments in East and Central Europe.
  2. It can again use military force to provoke a crisis (or crises) in relatively low-risk, non-NATO areas such as Georgia, again in Ukraine, the Arctic, other parts of the Middle East, or even along its long border with Finland, again in the hopes of creating divisions between hawks and doves in Europe or otherwise convincing NATO to change course.
  3. It can provoke a crisis with NATO itself that is dangerous enough to induce Western governments to negotiate stability-enhancing arms control agreements with the Kremlin or capitulate to Russian demands that it arrest or reverse its eastern buildup and informally recognize Russia as the dominant power in post-Soviet space.

Putin’s dilemma is that Options 1 and 2 have already been tried, have not worked, and are unlikely to work going forward. Option 3, on the other hand, is very dangerous. To succeed, the crisis would have to be acute enough to scare Western publics, but not so acute that the crisis led to outright war, a balance that would be very difficult to calibrate.

Happily, the odds are that the Kremlin is risk-averse enough not to deliberately provoke a crisis with NATO. But it might not be. And it is also possible that some kind of accidental clash leads the Kremlin to decide that, rather than avoiding escalation, it should seize the opportunity and provoke a crisis that then gets out of control.

At any rate, by pushing back against NATO “encroachment,” Moscow has been making its NATO problem worse. The effect is to further frighten Russia’s neighbors, who then improve their defenses while seeking additional military assistance from NATO. And NATO commits to more reassurance and deterrence measures not just along its eastern flank but with “partner” countries like Sweden, Finland, Ukraine, and Georgia.

That, I believe, should be the strategic takeaway for Moscow from its Syrian intervention as well. From a purely military perspective, the intervention has been highly successful, at least to date. It has also achieved many of the Kremlin’s objectives in Syria itself, and it has certainly made Europe’s migrant and security problems worse. But it has done nothing to ameliorate tensions with Ukraine, stabilize the Donbas, induce the West to accept the annexation of Crimea or scale back economic sanctions, or arrest NATO’s eastern flank buildup. Again, if anything it has had the opposite effect. The Obama administration recently asked Congress to quadruple spending on the Pentagon’s European Reassurance Initiative (ERI); NATO is going to announce additional reassurance and deterrence measures at its upcoming Warsaw summit; and NATO partner countries continue to increase defense spending and deepen cooperation with NATO.

In what follows I flesh out why I think the Kremlin’s NATO problems are likely to get worse in the coming years, and I conclude with some thoughts about how the West should manage the crisis in relations with Russia.

The security implications of Russia’s economic travails

RF GPD growth by quarterOne reason why Moscow’s long-term security outlook vis-à-vis the West is likely to deteriorate in the coming years is obvious: the Russian economy is trouble. That was true before the Ukraine crisis, the collapse in oil prices, and the imposition of Western sanctions made the country’s economic travails even worse.

The security implications of this are also obvious. Going forward, the Kremlin faces increasingly tough decisions about whether to cut social programs, freeze pensions, provide financial assistance to Russia’s increasingly distressed regional governments, cut defense spending, and so on. So far, the Kremlin has made clear that it intends to prioritize defense spending, but budgetary pressures are mounting. In the coming fiscal year, government programs are being cut 10% across the board, with the exception of military outlays, which are being cut by 5%. But it’s unclear how long the Kremlin can keep prioritizing guns over butter.

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IMF GDP Growth Forecast for Russia through 2020

Meanwhile, the economies of countries that Russian defense planners worry about most – the United States, Poland, and the Baltic republics – have all been growing faster than Russia’s and are likely to continue doing so for at least the next several years. As it stands now, the Russian economy is approximately one-twentieth the size of NATO’s, so it can’t match overall Western defense spending under the best of circumstances. But Russia’s problem is made worse by the fact that its actions in Ukraine, along with the security challenges Europe is facing from the Middle East, are contributing to significant increases in NATO defense spending, both in absolute terms and as a share of GDP (more on this below).

NATO expansion and military cooperation with current or potential partner countries

As it thinks five or ten years down the road, the Kremlin no doubt assumes that additional countries are eventually going to join NATO – not just traditional but distant allies like Montenegro (sooner) or Serbia (perhaps later), but Sweden, Finland, Ukraine, and/or Georgia. The fact that this assumption may be wrong is beside the point. Making the kinds of worst-case assumptions that states usually do when considering security risks, Putin and his key security advisors will assess the odds as higher than they actually are, particularly given their assumptions about Western strategic objectives in Eurasia.


The FGM-148 Javelin Anti-Tank Missile: a key item on the list of possible U.S. lethal equipment for Ukraine

Meanwhile, NATO’s military cooperation with partner countries like Sweden, Finland, Ukraine, and Georgia has been increasing, and again the Kremlin has every reason to expect that cooperation to deepen. In particular, it will assume, probably correctly, that the United States and/or some of its NATO allies will at some point begin providing Ukraine and/or Georgia with “defensive” lethal weapons, and that the vague “defensive” constraint will eventually fade away. There is, after all, no legal reason why these countries shouldn’t receive external military assistance or purchase foreign-made weapons.

Moreover, the Kremlin doubtless assumes, again probably correctly, that whoever enters the Oval Office in 2017 is going to be more hawkish on Russia than Obama has been, and that U.S. military assistance to Ukraine and Georgia will increase accordingly. It is also well aware that this assistance can be purely bilateral – Washington doesn’t need Germany’s permission, for example, to sell weapons to Ukraine or increase military assistance to Georgia. Indeed any NATO country – not just the United States but Poland, the United Kingdom, or even the Baltic republics – can decide on its own to increase military assistance to Ukraine and/or Georgia.

As a result, the Kremlin has to expect its coercive leverage over its neighbors, including Ukraine and (to a lesser extent) Georgia, to gradually decline. As these two countries improve their defensive capabilities, Moscow’s ability to dissuade Western governments from providing additional military assistance will likewise decline.

2300-NATO-2colThere is another possibility that Moscow has to account for as it considers its geopolitical position five to ten years ahead: the external orientation of its ambivalent but strategically critical ally, Belarus. Belarus’s authoritarian president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has repeatedly criticized Ukraine’s pre-Maidan leadership for neglecting Ukraine’s defenses; he has refused to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea; and he has made clear that he doesn’t intend to allow something similar to happen to Belarus. He has also overseen a modest rapprochement with the EU – in February, the EU announced it was lifting some sanctions on Belarus for human rights violations. Predictably, Moscow interpreted this as yet another Western effort to undermine its position in Eurasia.

Meanwhile, Minsk appears to be reconsidering the extent of its defense cooperation with Moscow. It continues to gradually integrate into Russia’s air defense system, but it will retain control of the firing platforms (other than the relatively small number of Russian fighters flying out of Belarusian air bases). And Lukashenko has very publicly resisted Moscow’s request that Russia have its own air base on Belarusian territory.

As a result, the Kremlin has to be worried about Belarus’s external orientation. Indeed, I suspect it has contingency plans to intervene, one way or the other, should Lukashenko cross some unclear redline. Were that to happen, the Kremlin’s most likely response would be to support some pro-Kremlin coup or popular uprising. But a mass movement or “colored revolution” with anti-Russian overtones might well provoke a military intervention. At any rate, as the Kremlin thinks ahead, it doubtless views Belarus as an unreliable ally that, like Ukraine, could eventually get sucked into the Western orbit.

The U.S. repivot to Europe and NATO’s eastern flank buildup


NB: Figures from late 2014. NATO spending commitments have increased in period since.

As noted above, overall NATO defense spending, after years of decline, is now increasing, in part because of the growing threat to Europe from Islamist militancy but mostly because of the post-Ukraine threat from Russia. Taken together, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia are increasing spending by some 20% in 2016. For Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovenia, and (non-NATO) Serbia, the figure is around 9%. For Europe as a whole, defense spending will increase 8.3% this year, despite the adverse economic climate and fiscal conditions. Even Germany is taking steps – albeit modest ones – to improve its military capabilities: it plans to increase defense spending by 6.2% between 2015 and 2019. Meanwhile, Washington has been pressing its European allies to meet the Alliance’s defense spending target of 2% of GPD, which if realized would mean even more spending increases down the road.

BG-defense-spending-FY-2016-chart-2-825As for the United States, the defense cuts that followed the Great Recession appear to have bottomed out, and defense spending is probably again on a long-term upward trajectory, particularly if U.S. growth picks up. The Kremlin can take comfort in the fact that Washington has acute security problems in the Middle East and faces a growing military challenge from China. But the former has provided the U.S. armed forces with a great deal of combat experience in recent years, while the latter is helping to drive a major U.S. defense modernization effort. Given that both the U.S. and Chinese economies are much larger, and are growing faster than, Russia’s economy, Moscow is at risk of falling further behind the U.S., and eventually China, in the development of advanced weapon systems.


Expected Polish defense spending increases through 2022

Closer to home, Russia is witnessing a significant increase in U.S. hard power capabilities in Central and Eastern Europe. The White House recently asked Congress to increase funding for the Pentagon’s European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) from $800 million in FY2016 to $3.4 billion in FY2017. The appropriation will fund more U.S. rotational forces in Eastern Europe; more training and exercises with allies and partners (including Ukraine and Georgia); more military infrastructure in Europe in general, and along NATO’s eastern flank in particular; and more prepositioned heavy equipment in the theater, including enough for what the Pentagon calls a “full static set” of an Armored Brigade Combat Team.

Funding for the ERI has been coming out of the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations account, or “war budget,” so it will have to be appropriated again next year. But the Kremlin has no reason to doubt that Congress will continue to fund the U.S. repivot back to Europe, and indeed it’s likely that funding will increase with a more hawkish White House after November.

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 5.21.16 PMMeanwhile, NATO has been following up on the commitments made at its Wales summit in September 2014. As part of its Readiness Action Plan (RAP), it has established a 5,000-strong Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), and there are plans to reinforce the VJTF with two additional brigades in the event of a crisis. Six NATO Force Integration Units (NFIUs), which are tasked with coordinating NATO exercises and operations in the frontline states, have been set up in Sofia, Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Bucharest, and Bydgoszcz (Poland). And NATO has increased the size and readiness of its rapid response forces other than the VJTF, while giving NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR) greater authority to deploy the VJTF and other NATO rapid response forces.

NATO’s eastern defenses are being enhanced in other ways as well. There have been renewed efforts to improve “interoperability” across the Alliance – that is, to rationalize and streamline weapons acquisitions, communications, logistics, and operational coordination among Alliance forces. It is also encouraging member states to reduce reliance on old Soviet and Russian-made equipment, and as a result Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia are phasing out much of their Soviet-era hardware and replacing it with equipment that meets NATO interoperability standards. NATO is also encouraging greater regional cooperation among the front-line states, including Sweden and Finland.

Deterrence by denial and deterrence by hostage taking

Another long-term threat to Russia’s coercive leverage is changing military strategy. Those countries that are particularly vulnerable to Russian military pressure – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden, Ukraine, and Georgia – may gradually shift to what defense specialists are calling a strategy of “deterrence by denial.” (Finland, which has a large force of 200,000 reserves, has implicitly embraced this strategy for some time.) The basic idea – which seems intuitive but has training, force disposition, and weapons acquisition implications – is to increase the immediate military costs and risks of an invasion.

An Estonian defense analyst has summarized the strategy as follows:

Deterrence by denial relies on trading space for time. It puts enemy troops at risk at the moment they step onto Estonian territory… And by bleeding him, it inflicts high human costs on the advancing aggressor. All in all, deterrence by denial persuades the enemy not to attack by convincing him that his attack will cost too much for what it gains.

He then explains what this would mean in practice.

By creating a high number of small units – perhaps no more than platoon-sized, or at the most, company-sized – and by equipping them with modern, simple-to-use but powerful defensive weapons, Estonia could readily raise a potent deterrence by denial.

These small units would utilize products of modern technologies, such as intelligence gathering and analysis systems, modern radios, target acquisition and reconnaissance capabilities, anti-tank missiles and shoulder-launched anti-air missiles (such as Javelin, TOW and Stinger), different kinds of drones, defensive and offensive cyber capabilities, and particularly its air-to-ground fire support assets (Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, JTAC). Traditional mortars, supported by modern counter-battery radars, should be part and parcel of the equipment.

Baltic Defense SpendingRegional security officials are doubtless reluctant to admit this, but the strategy would not only impose “high human costs on the advancing aggressor,” it would do so on the civilian population as well. Indeed, one way to make “deterrence by denial” particularly effective is to organize defenses in urban areas, thereby forcing an invading army to engage in tough urban warfare, with the “collateral damage” that usually entails. In effect, the message would be that Russian military planners could expect an invasion to risk multiple versions of the grinding assaults by Russian forces on Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, in 1994 and 1999. In both instances, Russian forces had to destroy much of the city before pacifying it, despite the fact that they were opposed by maybe a few thousand Chechen insurgents lacking armor, air cover, and external assistance.

In short, a strategy of deterrence-by-denial would mean that Moscow couldn’t count on the kind of rapid and low-cost military operations described in a recent report by the RAND Corporation. The report, which presented the results of various war-game simulations of a Russian invasion of Estonia and/or Latvia, concluded that at the longest it would take a Russian invasion force less than 60 hours to reach the outskirts of Tallinn or Riga. Its takeaway line was that the Alliance “cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members.”

That might be the case, but reaching the outskirts of either or both capitals would hardly be the objective. At some point, Russian forces would have to enter the respective capitals, and if Estonian and Latvian forces had set up defenses inside the two cities, Moscow could expect long and bloody battles. That would in turn make some kind of response from NATO all the more likely, including asymmetrical responses that did not entail an immediate effort to drive Russian forces from occupied territory.

Indeed, there are many such asymmetrical responses that Russia would have to anticipate should it attack a NATO country. Western governments could immediately block Russia’s access to the SWIFT clearing system for international transactions; they could impose full-bore economic sanctions on Russia; the U.S. and its NATO allies could cut off Russia’s access to the Mediterranean and Atlantic through the Bosphorus and Baltic seas and attrit Russia’s naval assets beyond its coastal defenses; and so on.

suwalki-gapThere is one response in particular that would pose a particular problem for Russian security planners: a NATO assault on Kaliningrad. Kaliningrad is typically seen as a major military asset for Moscow – the exclave can be used for coercive leverage over Germany, Poland, and the Nordic countries, and also to enhance Russia’s area access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities in the eastern Baltic. But it is also something of a liability because it would be very difficult to reinforce from the Russian mainland. One way for NATO to enhance deterrence in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, then, would be to develop the capability to quickly overwhelm Kaliningrad’s defenses – for example, by using electronic warfare, stand-off cruise missiles, and strikes from stealth aircraft.

This, in fact, appears to be what NATO commanders are doing. Last year, U.S. forces conducted Patriot surface-to-air missile exercises with Polish troops near the border with Kaliningrad. Given that Patriot batteries can be deployed with little notice, the implication was that in the event of crisis, Patriots would be quickly dispatched to Poland’s north. Moreover, Poland has a significant military modernization program underway, and last year Warsaw announced it would purchase eight Patriot batteries, several of which were expected to be operational within two or three years. Warsaw’s new government has demanded that the terms of its deal with Raytheon be renegotiated, but even if the deal falls through, Poland will likely purchase another highly capable surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. Poland is also acquiring a large number of the U.S.-made AGM-158 JASSM, a stealthy air-launched cruise missile that would pose a significant threat to Kaliningrad and its S-400 air defense system.

patriot in poland

Patriot launcher on March 21 during exercise Panther Assurance 2015 at Sochachew, Poland. (Photo: US Army)

All this is to say that NATO and its partner countries may end up with what amounts to a “deterrence by hostage” strategy with respect to Kaliningrad and the Baltic states. Moscow would risk losing Kaliningrad if it invaded a Baltic state, and in doing so it would be exchanging something it couldn’t absorb – and indeed wouldn’t want to absorb – for something it very much values.

All of this would of course be extremely dangerous – if deterrence failed, a Russian-NATO military clash would get very violent very quickly. But that is precisely the point. NATO’s deterrence strategy would then look something like its strategy during the Cold War. The objective would not be to defeat Russian conventional forces at the border but to make the costs and risks of a Russian invasion exceed any possible gains. The ultimate outcome would be less coercive leverage for Moscow.

NATO’s European Ballistic Missile Defense System

The intensity of Russian objections to NATO’s European ballistic missile defense (BMD) system has varied since the George W. Bush administration first announced U.S. intentions to build a BMD system for Europe. There were in fact moments when it looked as if Washington and Moscow might even collaborate on a system that would defend Europe and Russia against a regional power such as Iran. But it is safe to say that Russia has objected to one degree or another from the inception of the program.

BMD nato missile finalWith the advent of the Ukraine crisis, all military cooperation between NATO and Russia has ceased, and Moscow’s objections to even the scaled-back version of European BMD – the Obama administration’s European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) – are now unequivocal. This is particularly so in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal. The Kremlin’s position is that Washington always insisted that EPAA was directed against Iran, not Russia, which means that the program is no longer necessary and should be cancelled. The fact that Washington hasn’t done so confirms that Washington was lying all along. As Putin put it last November:

Now the Iranian problem is off the table – treaties have been signed and ratified. Yet the work on missile defense continues, as before… References to Iran and North Korea nuclear threats are just a cover for the true purpose [of NATO missile defense]. That is to neutralize the potential of other nuclear states, not the U.S. or its allies – primarily Russia. The U.S. is attempting to achieve strategic military superiority, with all the consequences that entails.

Russia, he continued, would respond by strengthening its own missile defenses and developing “strike weapons that can penetrate any missile defense shield.”

As Putin’s statement suggests, the Kremlin position is that EPAA, and the U.S. global missile defense system of which it is a part, destabilizes the strategic balance by posing a threat to Russia’s second-strike nuclear capability, particularly when combined with advanced precision conventional weapons. Russia’s strategic assets, the argument goes, could eventually be vulnerable to a crippling first strike, even one that remained below the nuclear threshold.

BMD PhasesWashington has responded by arguing that EPAA is necessary despite the Iran nuclear deal because Teheran has conventional ballistic missiles capable of reaching Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania. It is also suspected of developing missiles capable of reaching most of Western Europe. These missiles, the argument goes, would serve a strategic purpose by enhancing Teheran’s coercive leverage over European capitals in the event of a crisis (or, more likely, of a Western strike on a possible Iranian nuclear program). Unstated but probably equally importantly, EPAA has been very expensive, it forms a part of the U.S. global defense system, and it has been politically difficult to deploy. As a result, it would be difficult to ramp up again if needed should Iran or another regional power threaten Europe with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in the future. The Obama administration would therefore pay a high political price – both domestically and in Eastern Europe – if it abandoned it.

Regardless, the U.S. position is that EPAA poses no meaningful threat to Russia’s second-strike capability. Its interceptors won’t have the range to hit Russian ICBMs headed toward the United States, and in any case the system would be quickly overwhelmed by the size of Russia’s strategic arsenal. Russia has 528 deployed ICBMs, as well as submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), long-range bombers, and several thousand tactical nuclear weapons that can be delivered by artillery systems, cruise missiles, or short-range ballistic missiles. Finally, American officials argue that Russia has the technical ability to easily, and cheaply, defeat EPAA with counter-measures such as chaff or decoys.

Indeed, Western security officials appear to assume that Russian objections to EPAA are mostly political. This assumption, I suspect, is incorrect. On the contrary, my sense is that Russian concerns about the military implications of EPAA and U.S. ballistic missile defenses are genuine, and they are also both predictable and understandable.

SM-3 launch from a U.S. BMD AEGIS destroyer

SM-3 launch from a U.S. BMD AEGIS destroyer

EPAA is based on the U.S.’s long-standing AEGIS air and missile defense system for U.S. surface vessels. The sea-based arm of the shield (AEGIS Afloat) consists of four U.S. Aegis-equipped destroyers based out of Rota, Spain. The Montreux Convention limits naval vessels belonging to non-Black Sea littoral states to one-at-a-time, but individually the Rota ships have regularly passed through the Bosphorus and participated in exercises with NATO allies Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria as well as with Georgian and Ukrainian forces. Dutch, British, French and Italian warships are also expected to contribute to NATO’s BMD system. Moscow also has to consider the possibility that NATO allies Bulgaria and Romania, which are not limited by the Montreux Convention, may also contribute significantly to NATO’s air and missile defenses in the Black Sea. And of course NATO surface vessels are free to patrol the Baltic Sea and other bodies of water near Russian coasts. By 2017, the U.S. expects to have 35 AEGIS BMD-capable surface vessels.

BMD Aegis-ashore-site-site-chartThe land-based component of the EPAA (AEGIS Ashore) will consist of two facilities, one in Deveselu, Romania, and the other in Redzikowo, Poland. The former became partially operational late last year and will be fully operational this spring. The Redzikowo facility is scheduled to come on-line in 2018. Each will be equipped with Aegis SPY-1 radars, the Aegis BMD 5.0.1 command, control, and communications system, Mk 41 missiles launchers, and 24 SM-3 Block IB interceptors. They will be fully integrated into NATO’s Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defense (ALTBMD) system, as will other land-based BMD elements from other NATO countries, including possibly Poland (for example, if and when Poland deploys Patriot batteries).

The backers of EPAA claim that when fully operational it will be capable of destroying short-range (SRBM), medium-range (MRBM), and some intermediate range (IRBM) ballistic missiles. A longer-range version of the SM-3 (Block II) is scheduled for deployment in 2018 and will improve the system’s capabilities against IRBMs and perhaps even against ICBMs (presumably in part depending on their flight paths). Pentagon officials have suggested that three NSFs equipped with a full set of SM-3 Block II interceptors would provide an effective shield against a limited number of missiles for all of Europe.

Regardless of whether these claims are accurate, it is easy to understand why Russian defense planners would be worried about the military implications of EPAA and the emerging U.S. global BMD system. That is so even if one dismisses their concerns about any immediate threat to Russia’s second-strike strategic capabilities.

In the first place, additional European NSFs may be built in the future, or the existing ones may be provided with additional capabilities, including short-range defenses against Russian missiles. Their Mk 41 launchers can be equipped with SM-2 or extended range SM-6 missiles, which are designed primarily for air defense, as well as with Tomahawk cruise missiles and anti-submarine missiles. More immediately, U.S. and other NATO Aegis navel vessels are being integrated into the NATO air defense system.

In short, Russian defense planners face the same kind of challenge from EPAA and U.S. ballistic missile defense development that Soviet defense planners faced with the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or “Star Wars”) in the 1980s. As currently envisaged, EPAA may not threaten Russia’s second-strike capabilities, but Russian security officials can’t assume that will be the case ten or twenty years down the road. Moreover, given the U.S.’s technological superiority and its ability to pay for the development of advanced weapons, they doubtless worry that U.S. BMD development increases the risks that Russia will fall behind in advanced weapons that can impact not just the strategic nuclear but also conventional and theater nuclear balance in Europe.


To sum up, what makes the military relationship between NATO and Russia particularly dangerous is that the Kremlin’s security position is likely to deteriorate, which gives it an incentive to try to halt or reverse NATO’s eastern buildup sooner rather later. But it has very limited options for doing so. Everything it has tried so far hasn’t worked – indeed, from its perspective it has made the problem worse. The risk, then, is that the Kremlin concludes that its only recourse is to embrace Option 3 and provoke a crisis with NATO.

If so, Western decision-makers should be aware of those risks as they seek to improve deterrence along NATO’s eastern flank. In my view, they should also address head on the issue that is driving the crisis in relations with Russia: Europe’s security architecture and the breakdown of arms control and confidence building measures in the European theater. Trying to reduce tensions by seeking cooperation on other issues or in other arenas – for example, in Syria, the Middle East in general, North Korea, or what have you – won’t work because they are essentially peripheral issues for the Kremlin. A genuine stabilization of the relationship – let alone full normalization – won’t happen unless and until some kind of mutually acceptable compromise is reached on the core issue of European security.

If so, my view is that Western priorities in managing its relationship with Russia should be as follows.

  1. Deter Russia from attacking a NATO member state without provoking a war.
  2. Deter Russia from attacking a NATO partner state without provoking a war.
  3. Take whatever unilateral measures are possible to enhance strategic stability (in the broad sense, including at the conventional, theater nuclear, and inter-continental nuclear level) in the Russia/NATO relationship. At the same time, make clear to Moscow that the West seeks a renewed arms control agenda directed first and foremost at reducing the risks of war, and secondarily at reducing the economic costs of the current arms race and at improving political relations.
  4. Seek to gradually normalize the political and economic relationship using economic and security carrots as well as sticks, while accepting that Russia is not going to become “European” anytime soon (if ever). At the same time, accept that full normalization will require some kind of compromise over the security relationships (but not internal political structures or economic orientation) of Ukraine and Georgia (and possibly Belarus), as well as some kind of compromise between Kyiv and Moscow over the status of Crimea.

To be sure, all easier said than done.