Despite the Obama Administration’s best efforts, relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, to put it mildly, have soured. As has become crystal clear over the past 18 months, the source of the problem in U.S.-Russian relations for the last 15 years was not, as President Obama insisted in his presidential campaigns, the hostility of the prior administration to Moscow’s interests but rather the open antipathy of the leadership of the Kremlin to the values of the West: free markets, the rule of law, the sanctity of treaties, democracy and human rights. It turns out that Vladimir Putin called to tell President Obama that Russia had its foreign policy back and it looked pretty much like the Soviet Union’s in the 1980s.
If the current situation were not so dangerous one might even have some sympathy for the Obama Administration. The White House really believed that the two sides had pressed the big red reset button. Washington thought it had given Moscow pretty much everything it wanted. The so-called Third Site missile defense deployment in Europe had been cancelled. A new strategic arms treaty that allowed Russia to modernize virtually its entire nuclear arsenal was signed. In response to persistent Russian complaints, the administration cut back the scope of its proposed European theater missile defense program, cancelling the development of an interceptor capable of countering ICBM-class threats from Iran. Further NATO expansion into the territory of the former Soviet Union was taken off the table.
Russian transgressions of international norms seem to increase by the day. The invasion of Crimea violated the sovereignty of Ukraine which had been guaranteed by a treaty to which both Russia and the United States were signatories. This action and the destabilization of eastern Ukraine constituted the first instances in more than 70 years in which force was employed to change national boundaries in Europe. It was a Russian air defense system operating in eastern Ukraine that downed the Malaysian airliner. Russian combat aircraft have made a habit of “buzzing” U.S. and NATO aircraft and ships in international airspace and waters. Russia has laid claim to large portions of the Arctic region and is building the military infrastructure to defend its assertion of rights. The United States recently and reluctantly had to acknowledge that Russia was in violation of the INF Treaty. Russian leaders casually toss out threats to employ nuclear weapons against Western countries should they take steps to improve their defensive capabilities. Just yesterday, President Putin rattled his nuclear sabre yet again, noting that Russia had no need “at this point in time” to employ nuclear weapons in its attacks on ISIS. The intended recipient of this message was not ISIS, but Turkey and the rest of the NATO Alliance.
The United States and its allies are struggling to put together a strategy to deal with this new Cold War. At last year’s summit in Wales, NATO formulated a Readiness Action Plan intended to respond to Russian threats by increased military presence and activity for assurance and deterrence, increases in defense spending and enhancements to military capabilities. U.S. ground forces are being deployed on a rotational basis to states along the Alliance’s eastern flank. NATO is putting in place a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force to ensure the ability to respond promptly to any efforts by Moscow to recapitulate their Crimea operation against a NATO state.
More must be done in order to answer the Kremlin’s efforts to intimidate the West. Russia is playing a very weak hand. There is no way that Moscow can win a protracted Cold War or even a conventional confrontation with an Alliance that has 20 times Russia’s GDP and four times its conventional military power. This is a major reason that it places such heavy reliance on its nuclear forces and on threats to use nuclear weapons to dominate a local crisis. It hopes that should such a crisis occur, NATO will accept a small defeat rather than risk a big war. It is primarily with the goal of intimidation in mind that Russia has devoted so many scarce resources to developing advanced ballistic and cruise missile capabilities. This is also why it has gone to great effort and expense to launch cruise missiles against ISIS targets from both the Caspian and eastern Mediterranean. The real target of these attacks was NATO’s leadership.
NATO needs to counter the Russian offensive arms buildup with an asymmetric deployment of advanced defenses. In particular, it should invest in additional air and missile defenses. Russian military leaders know that if they cannot execute a disarming conventional first strike against NATO, they will lose the war. It makes no sense for NATO to deploy forces and stockpiles in Eastern Europe if they are vulnerable to a surprise conventional first strike.
NATO is just at the beginning of the deployment of its European missile defense architecture; the first Aegis Ashore site is expected to be operational in 2016. But only two sites are planned. In truth, NATO needs a dozen or more such sites, a combination of the Aegis/SM-3 system and THAAD batteries. In addition, NATO should invest in defenses against advanced cruise missiles, such as that provided by the U.S. Patriot system and the German-Italian MEADS with broad applicability across Europe. Investments in advanced fighter aircraft such as the F-35 will contribute both to NATO’s defense against air breathing threats and to its counteroffensive potential. With no quick, cheap victory possible, Russia is unlikely to risk a confrontation with NATO.
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