Putin’s Plan to Deter Hawks in Washington
Russia’s intensified military overflights have caused Western consternation. Moscow’s strategic bombers and fighters plow the unwelcoming Western skies, violating airspace across Europe, and taking cruises to the Caribbean, South East Asia, and the U.S. coast. American allies from Japan to Norway are forced to scramble constantly to identify and escort Russian aircraft out of their air identification zones. A recent spate of accidents has dampened Russia’s campaign of aggravation, but it demonstrated an important point: The power to annoy should not be underestimated. When used right it works. For a low price, it can shape your adversary’s perceptions.
Russia’s belligerent behavior is a campaign of annoyance designed to compensate for its lack of power projection. The point of this effort is for the United States to take it seriously as a strategic adversary, a threat on the existential plane, and to make the current confrontation over Ukraine harder to sustain for European allies. The overflights are not the sole cause of changing U.S. perceptions of Russia, but they have been a consistent and steady demonstration of hostile intent. They have made the U.S. national security establishment question existing assumptions that Russia does not seek actual conflict with NATO, and that Moscow would not engage in a reckless act of aggression. This provides some evidence that the strategy is working for Moscow.
Weeks ago, incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford called Russia an “existential threat” and its behavior nothing “short of alarming” during his nomination hearing. He was far from alone, and his comments were not an unscripted departure. Every senior commander up for nomination was reading off of a similar sheet of music. A few days before, two groups of Russian Tu-95MS-H strategic bombers paid a visit to the California and Alaska coastlines as a reminder. The United States is steadily, and uncomfortably, adjusting to this Cold War level of activity and the increasing sophistication of Russian long-range aviation. Russia may not have carrier strike groups, a large fleet of amphibious assault ships, or remotely comparable expeditionary forces, but it can alter the only superpower’s threat perceptions.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s statements last week further demonstrate that Russia’s efforts are having their desired effect. Calling Russia a “very, very significant threat,” Carter explained further that, although the threat itself is not new, “we have not regarded Russia as an antagonist,” and that Russia today behaves “in some respects and in very important respects, as an antagonist.”
Moscow’s objective is to change the U.S. perception of Russia, which is currently seen as a regional power in structural decline. Why would a superpower substantively negotiate and seek compromise with a country it expects will be weaker tomorrow? If time is on America’s side, then the logical approach is to manage the conflict in Ukraine, constrain Russia economically, and wait. There would be no trades on Ukraine’s fate, no grand renegotiation of the security arrangements in Europe, and little fear of Moscow’s rancor over increased U.S. presence on the territory of bordering NATO members. Russia also has little hope of deterring forward-leaning policies, such as additional troop deployments to Europe or arming Ukraine, if the United States perceives no possible risks to its own security. Simply put, the U.S. perception of Russia was a major problem for Moscow if it hoped to ever find a way out of this situation without capitulating.
Lacking conventional power projection, Russia’s nuclear arsenal is close to useless. Certainly it can destroy the United States, but that’s been a long priced-in reality in American thinking — one that is governed by deterrence, arms control, and strategic stability arrangements Russia does not wish to break. Moscow may be sneaking out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, but that cheating hardly flips the strategic board for the United States. Vladimir Putin intentionally drops bombastic statements about Russia’s nuclear readiness, and backs them by launching TU-22M3 nuclear-capable bombers. He’s not being flippant about the use of nuclear weapons, but playing a convincing part in an orchestrated display. In reality Russia isn’t expanding its nuclear arsenal outside treaty limits, or fidgeting with readiness. One of the advantages of ruling for over 15 years is you get to know your mark, and Vladimir Putin has used the power of annoyance effectively to get America’s attention. Outside of budget cuts, the word “nuclear” definitely raises eyebrows in Washington.
To shift thinking in Washington, Russia had to put itself on every commander’s radar, literally, and those of Western allies as well. Among a laundry list of uninvited visits, Russia’s Su-24 frontline bombers buzzed American ships in the Black Sea, and a Su-27 fighter aggressively intercepted a RC-135U reconnaissance plane north Poland, resulting in official U.S. protests. These incidents spurred headlines and cable news discussions, all of which have a magnifying effect on perceptions. Sweden’s foreign minister stated his people were “truly afraid” of Russia’s unpredictable behavior after their navy’s submarine hunt last October, which ignited a media frenzy, although no Russian sub was found in Swedish waters. The power to annoy works best when the target’s media dominates, and runs with the message.
These are not mere antics. They are the hallmark of a targeted policy of aggravation against a power that has become so unaccustomed to being challenged in the air domain that it is easily riled. Perhaps the best example of this was in March when U.S. officials asked Vietnam to stop allowing Russia to refuel its bombers in Cam Ranh Bay, in response to them circling Guam (U.S. territory) and flying around the Pacific. Given the extensive and historical defense cooperation between Russia and Vietnam, that particular request was ill-advised, but showed how prickly the United States could be. As incident follows incident, memos and PowerPoint briefings begin to add up. Russia steadily climbed through the ranks from a declining regional power to a strategic adversary.
After finding a way to be taken seriously, Russia’s second problem is time. It is engaged in a strategic confrontation with the West, but decidedly at a disadvantage, facing the stacking pressure of low oil prices, economic recession and Western sanctions. Moscow is stuck in Ukraine with no victory in sight and its leadership could be one financial downturn away from dealing with an economic disaster. Russian leaders fear that sanctions and other punishments might stay in place longer than this crisis merits as a general policy of asphyxiation. As Milton Friedman once said, “[N]othing is so permanent as a temporary government program.” Hence, Moscow’s campaign makes European militaries worried and its leaders nervous that an accident could happen and escalate into a larger war. Russia is suffering and it wants to make sure everyone else is uncomfortable too.
For Moscow, the strategic bomber flights are cheap inputs, yet grab newspaper headlines and raise concerns among ordinary people. European citizens and their representatives get the sense that this state of affairs is not without tangible costs for them. That message is important for Moscow, though it’s something everyone should keep in mind. Russia is not being reckless, it is appearing so in a calculated manner.
The flights play well with his domestic audience, and Putin has never been as popular at home as he is now. Western media is inadvertently supporting this campaign. Headlines describing Russian bomber patrols in international airspace as a great menace paints Moscow as a global contender. There are few good news stories in Russia today, and even fewer opportunities for Moscow to appear as a major global power. One of the things it can still do, which most countries cannot, is pester the only superpower with long-range aviation. The Western response has only reinforced the concept behind these operations. Russia’s state broadcasters, such as RT, miss no opportunity to highlight how Moscow can thumb its nose at the West with impunity.
These bomber flights are not without practical uses for Russia’s general staff. They train the air force along potential strike routes, investigate radar coverage, and measure fighter response times and air defense placement. However, Russia’s strategic bomber force is small and old, consisting of 16 Tu-160s, 60 Tu-95s, and 60 Tu-22M3s. It can’t sustain operations for long, the aircraft frames date back to the Soviet era, and replacement parts are hardly plentiful. The bombers are vulnerable; even if equipped with modern long-range cruise missiles the fundamental military balance remains unaltered. NATO has to adjust to new capabilities but there is not much new to fear. By flying at such a high operational tempo Russia is not furthering its military capability, but wearing it out. In the past two months Russia’s air force has suffered six crashes among different aircraft, a sign it is flying beyond what its maintenance can support, but this is a small price to pay to change the strategic thinking in the United States. Russia’s air force is second only to the United States in size, and with $130 billion dedicated to modernization, it is procuring new aircraft faster than its Western counterparts.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine remains the chief reason for why the West sees it as an adversary. The impact of this nuisance campaign should not be overstated. But to underestimate it is to fail to understand both Russia’s tactics and ourselves. Russia’s leaders want to be considered as the existential threat that the USSR was, a country the United States negotiated and compromised with, instead of chiding, sanctioning, and ignoring. Some have argued that this approach is ultimately self-defeating. However, these analyses of Moscow’s mistakes smack of overconfidence.
Russia has convinced the United States that if mistakes are made, conflict escalation to the point of war between itself and NATO is possible. Russia’s conventional superiority in Ukraine and vis-à-vis bordering NATO members is quite real, as is its nuclear capability, whereas NATO’s “reinvigorated purpose” is mostly a wonderful slogan. A handful of aircraft conducting Baltic air policing (a mission recently cut by 50 percent) does not concern Russia the way NATO members shudder at the Kremlin’s bomber patrols. A “re-invigorated” Europe has hardly translated into substantive financial or security assistance for Ukraine either. Russia is stuck in Ukraine, not finished. Its job of making sure Ukraine doesn’t succeed is ultimately easier than the West’s goal of making sure it doesn’t fail. Furthermore, it has already ensured Ukraine will not be invited to NATO; now it’s just trying to keep the United States from becoming committed to the conflict.
Russia expects no reconciliation and no improvement of relations with the United States in the coming years. Its plan is to deter hawks in the U.S. administration and convince the military establishment that it is serious. NORAD, Strategic Command, and other organizations tasked with ensuring the survival of the United States will not rest easy under the assumption that Moscow is bluffing, or that Putin is a poor strategist. The latter may actually worry them more. Meanwhile countries more personally vested in the survival of Europe, like Germany, will steadily diverge in policy over Ukraine as Russia ratchets up the tensions. Moscow realizes that it cannot attain the respect or acceptance of the United States. So it is cultivating fear. In 2014, President Obama described Russia as a “regional power” acting “out of weakness.” Thanks in part to its air force, in a year Russia has catapulted itself to the top of the U.S. threat list without having to add a meter of power projection capability.
Michael Kofman is a Public Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute and an analyst at the CNA Corporation. Previously he served as Program Manager at National Defense University. The views presented here are his own.
Image: An F/A-18 Hornet from Carrier Air Wing 11, embarked aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz escorts a Russian Tu-95 Bear, long rang bomber aircraft on Feb. 9, 2008 south of Japan.