Analysis MAY 25, 2016
Despite genuinely wanting to resolve some of their conflicts, the United States and Russia’s mistrust of one another is not going away.
Both countries will focus on long-term security initiatives as they prepare for an enduring period of hostility.
Defense programs will center on key security areas, including deployments in Eastern Europe, missile defense and the strategic nuclear balance.
Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. That is the mantra the United States and Russia are abiding by as they plan for a tense few years ahead. In critical areas, including the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine and arms control negotiations, both countries would genuinely like to negotiate viable solutions. Nevertheless, the mistrust between the two runs deep, and vast differences of opinion and outright conflicts of interest will continue to undermine efforts to reach a comprehensive deal. With little hope of a positive outcome, the strategic decision-makers in Washington and Moscow are cementing their security positions against each other during this period of significant hostility.
The critical 2016 Warsaw summit, to be held July 8-9 among NATO members, is fast approaching. Out of the summit, the United States hopes a clear, united purpose will emerge for the divided security alliance. The key challenge for Washington will be to reassure its Eastern European allies, especially Poland and the Baltic states, that they will be supported against Russia, an ever-increasing concern now that Moscow has invested itself militarily in Ukraine. The United States has already taken measures to bolster forces on NATO’s eastern flank, but these forces are currently little more than a symbol of U.S. commitment.
The next step for Washington, and a key part of its long-term security plan for Europe, is to enlist greater support from crucial NATO partners for deployments on the bloc’s eastern flank. The United States needs help from its European allies to carry some of the burden of deployments and to act as a united front to deter Russia. But as Poland and the Baltic states call for a permanent deployment of NATO forces, the United States is having a hard time convincing its partners to deploy significant rotational forces, much less a permanent garrison, to Russia’s doorstep. Germany in particular has been difficult to convince, since its leaders hope to renew lucrative business ties with Russia. Moreover, the German population is generally wary of a confrontation with Russia and the prospect of sending forces to defend Poland and the Baltic states.
To bridge the gap between its Western and Eastern European NATO allies, Washington is pushing for a deployment model that eschews permanent basing in favor of permanent presence. In what is being called a heel-to-toe model, the United States is reportedly negotiating the presence of forces, which will consist of a battalion in each of the Baltic states plus Poland on a six-month rotation, to be announced in the Warsaw summit. The United States plans to offer two battalions but hopes its NATO allies will agree to provide the other two. From Washington’s perspective, a long-term and unified NATO effort on the alliance’s eastern front is the key to deterring further Russian action.
But what Washington portrays as defensive deployments and reassurance initiatives looks very different from Moscow’s perspective. Given Russia’s history of being invaded from the west, a growing NATO presence on its frontier is causing concern. Driven by these fears, Russia is already building up its forces to better position itself against NATO.
Initially, Russia began transitioning its military to a brigade structure for greater flexibility in dealing with unrest and insurgency to the south. But now Moscow has changed its strategy, rapidly restructuring its military into a division-level force that is focused on high-end conventional war against a potential enemy like NATO. Last February, Russia finished reactivating the 1st Guards Tank Army in Russia’s Western Military District, a spearhead force built around heavy armor and artillery for offensive and defensive operations on the Great European Plain. Furthermore, Russia is transitioning at least three more of its brigades into division-sized units close to its western frontiers.
What Drives the Conflict
Beyond conventional force deployments, a core variable that drives much of the conflict between NATO and Russia is the development and deployment of ballistic missile defense technology. This is epitomized in the debate over the U.S. initiative to deploy ground-based missile defenses in Eastern Europe, a program known as the European Phased Adaptive Approach. The plan dates back to 2009, and NATO has insisted since its inception that the initiative is meant to protect Europe from a potential Iranian missile threat and is thus entirely unrelated to Russia. But Moscow has vehemently opposed the program, claiming it poses a direct threat to Russian interests.
Essentially, the dispute boils down to Russia’s concerns over its long-term strategic security. For all the current focus on Russian military modernization, Moscow is keenly aware of its overall conventional military weakness against NATO and a rising China. In response, the Russians have progressively leaned on their powerful nuclear arsenal as the ultimate deterrent. In fact, Moscow has explicitly outlined in its Defense White Papers its willingness to use nuclear weapons against an existential non-nuclear threat, such as invading armies.
As the European Phased Adaptive Approach is presently constituted, NATO is correct that it is far too limited to pose a significant threat to Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal. From Russia’s point of view, though, U.S. investment in ballistic missile technology poses a serious long-term threat. To fully comprehend Russia’s concern, ballistic missile development has to be conceptualized in conjunction with other technological developments. In the future, for instance, Russia fears that the United States could field a deadly first-strike capability, in part oriented around hypersonic missiles. Specifically, an increasingly precise U.S. nuclear arsenal coupled with a reliable anti-ballistic missile network could enable Washington to launch a decapitation strike, which would severely damage Russia’s leadership structure and its nuclear arsenal in a first strike. It would also leave the United States able to intercept and destroy the surviving missiles that Moscow would launch in retaliation.
These fears are driving protests in Russia as well as Moscow’s defense spending. Despite its considerable nuclear arsenal, Russia continues to prioritize its strategic missile force. Last year, the Russians tested eight intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and in January, Russian officials announced plans to test 16 ICBMs in 2016, 14 of which will be entering service in Russia. On the testing schedule are the recently introduced Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missiles, which had considerable development problems, and other land-based ICBMs, such as the new SS-X-30 Sarmat. Moscow is counting on these missiles as well as new deployment tactics to ensure its nuclear arsenal can survive the U.S. anti-ballistic missile network.
Still, the United States and Russia have a joint desire to reach an understanding. Their negotiations over Syria imply as much. But given the high level of mistrust between the United States and some of its key NATO allies on one hand and Russia on the other, both Moscow and Washington will continue to invest security against the other. Given the high-tech missiles, anti-missile developments and the deployment of troops by both sides, the little Cold War, as it has been called, should be viewed with a long-term perspective, because it is unlikely to end any time soon.
(‘The U.S. and Russia Plan for Conflict’ is republished with permission of Stratfor)