war on the rocks

Searching for Strategy in Washington’s Competition with Russia

January 30, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from “Policy Roundtable: A Close Look at the 2018 National Defense Strategy,” from our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.

Reading the recently released 2018 National Defense Strategy, which trumpets the national security establishment’s emergence from “a period of strategic atrophy,” one can be forgiven for wondering what took so long. The new formulation emanating from the Pentagon, that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern of U.S. national security,” is both refreshing and long overdue. America seems to be the last of the great powers to self-consciously join a geopolitical competition that has been unfolding for some years with Russia and China.

Yet this strategy will not suffice to maintain the U.S. position in the international system. Indeed, it is a symptom of the very same strategic atrophy decried in the first lines of the document. The National Defense Strategy’s urgency is valid and its desire to focus on inter-state conflict meritorious. Its tone and framing is, in many ways, a good start. But it betrays a poor understanding of the nature of the problem and the adversaries with whom we are competing. My focus here will be on strategic competition with Russia, although I also offer a few remarks on China.

In principle, one can agree with Kori Schake’s positive review “that the document propounds a clear vision to the current challenges to U.S. security, the roles military force will play in protecting against those challenges, and the priorities for spending and activity to strengthen the enterprise.” The vision is clear, but it is not necessarily correct. There is great clarity in terms of contested domains, capabilities in demand, and the loss of military advantage. Unfortunately, this document is absolute gobbledygook on the challenge posed by revisionist powers and the way forward to arresting a concomitant decline in U.S. military power and influence. It does not seem to benefit from a firm understanding of international politics or deterrence concepts. There is a very retro 1980s vibe to this document, more looking backward to the competition that was — and in that sense, nostalgic — than forward to the competition that is and will be.

The National Defense Strategy both overstates the military challenge and, at the same time, misses the point on the strategic challenges facing the United States. Thus, it comes off somewhat as a blind swordsman, unable to cogently describe the threat, or the strategic environment, but confident that a larger sword is needed. Much of the Russian establishment is having a conversation on the importance of non-military means in determining the outcome of a contest prior to the onset of combat operations, i.e. winning without fighting. And while this conversation is unfolding, America’s strategy is fixated on conventional dominance, deterrence by denial, and chasing after unobtanium: the ability to win regional wars against peer nuclear states who field a strong nuclear and conventional deterrent. The Pentagon remains wholly committed to the fantasy of having conventional wars with nuclear states, where they will let us win, accepting defeat without a nuclear exchange.

The document offers a recitation of grievances against classic great power behaviors. There is no effort made to lay out Russian strategy as the Pentagon understands it, and what it is the two countries are actually competing over, versus what Washington simply doesn’t like and must contain. Therefore, the text lacks a concept of how the United States will attack Russia’s strategy, gain leverage, and – in the long-term – deter or compel Russia over those things that America finds of vital interest.

While this is an unclassified summary of a larger document, it seems the only discernible theory of victory is restoring America’s eroding military advantages. It’s clear how this answers the Pentagon’s need for more, but what this solves in terms of the Russia problem set, be it in Syria, Ukraine, or forms of competition below the threshold of war, remains a mystery. A more effective strategy would signal a clear intent to establish U.S. coercive credibility, demonstrate resolve, and lay out a plan to deter over that which matters, while at the same time assuring America’s adversaries that the competition is not existential, and thus can be bounded.

What are those things that really matter as far as Russia is concerned? What is the real challenge the Department of Defense should be seeking to solve? The first problem is that Russia is not adhering to the previously agreed rules governing European security, a region where the United States is highly exposed because of weak allies and extended deterrence commitments that are difficult to make good on after NATO expansion. Following that problem is the observed reality that, as the confrontation expands, Russia is undeterred from political, cyber, and information attacks on the U.S. homeland and its allies. Thus, an effective U.S. strategy would establish “rules of the road” for the current confrontation, just as the United States did during the Cold War. Either through deterrence or mutual agreement, the United States needs to find ways to constrain Russian advantages. Third, managing competition with Russia by pouring gasoline on it will make it harder for the United States to marshal  resources to manage a much stronger challenge looming from China. The United States is unappreciative of Russian resilience, believing demographic and economic challenges will somehow make this problem fade away. And finally, in managing a confrontation with both powers, there is a need to prevent U.S. responses from engendering a Sino-Russian entente, a strategic development for which the U.S. policy community is unprepared.

From Russia With Inter-State Strategic Competition

At first blush the 2018 National Defense Strategy is a crowning achievement for Moscow. Russian leaders have long sought recognition as a strategic competitor. This document bestows that honor and – even better for the Kremlin – places Russia in the same bracket as China. Throughout the document testimonials can be found to Russian military and non-military power. At least privately, Moscow will welcome this strategy as an acknowledgment of its coercive credibility.

Still, the National Defense Strategy has an odd list of complaints about Russia, stating that “the use of emerging technologies to discredit and subvert democratic processes in Georgia, Crimea, and eastern Ukraine is concern enough, but when coupled with its expanding and modernizing nuclear arsenal the challenge is clear.” Is it clear? Upon reading this sentence, it did not seem that clear to me. The Russian challenge is hardly delimited to nuclear weapons and political warfare, nor are those necessarily combined. The actual impact and efficacy of the latter remains contested. Assuredly, the Russia-Georgia War of 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the almost entirely conventional fighting continuing in Ukraine are hardly the product of emerging technologies to subvert democratic processes, unless this is new jargon for tanks and artillery.

The National Defense Strategy portrays the United States as seeking to fight certain Russian capabilities, rather than understanding how the adversary approaches use of military and non-military instruments, their strategy, and the nature of the competition. The locus of Russian thinking today is on how to shape adversary decision-making from crisis to escalation in conflict, based on the right integration of capabilities and methods to either deter, deter-in-conflict, or compel the adversary. That is what winning is about in a competition between nuclear powers, especially when most conflicts between great powers are over other third countries, allies, and cases of extended deterrence, where there is an asymmetry of interests. They understand that war is a contest of wills, a conflict between two systems. While Moscow certainly does not have all of the tools required to make this a complete strategy, its head is in the right place on what a competitive approach can look like leveraging one country’s advantages and the other’s vulnerabilities.

The Pentagon’s vision for success appears to be the ability to win a conventional war with two powers, both of which have considerable local advantages, effective nuclear arsenals, and a potent capacity to impose costs on the U.S. homeland in domains that are offense dominant. The National Defense Strategy posits that “in wartime, the fully mobilized Joint Force will be capable of: defeating aggression by a major power; deterring opportunistic aggression elsewhere.” However, throughout the document the strategy conceives of deterrence as the capacity to win. Why is this a problem? Ask yourself three honest questions: Is nuclear war winnable against peer nuclear powers? Is a conventional war between peer nuclear powers winnable without it escalating to nuclear war? That is, would Russia let the United States “win” a general conventional war without using nuclear weapons first?


This is why Russia has a robust arsenal of tactical and non-strategic nuclear weapons, together with a modernized strategic nuclear force. Forget about domains, lethality, and all the jargon. The risk of conventional war escalating into nuclear war is a large part of the deterrence reality, one that has long served American and Russian interests. Whatever fears and nefarious thoughts we may harbor towards each other, escalation dynamics and the resulting risk instill sobriety. Confrontation short of armed conflict remains the principal challenge. The military balance is an important factor, but indirect competition plays a larger role in shaping the international landscape. Even in an idyllic world, where the United States gets to fight strictly conventional wars against nuclear powers, we must think about competitive strategies. Russia, which represents 3.1 percent of global GDP, poses an outsized threat. Moscow spends a fraction what the United States does on a fairly sustainable program of defense modernization. Consider China, which may come to rival both the U.S. defense budget and research and development budget in the not too distant future, and imagine how competitive conventional deterrence by denial is likely to be as an approach later into the 2020s.

Russia’s successful campaign in Syria is yet another demonstration of how adversaries can employ limited conventional power, integrated with other instruments, to achieve political ends. This is relevant not only because Russia has demonstrated the ability to put together its own coalition (something China has not), but because it is visibly adept at changing the policies of U.S. allies in a particular conflict, including Turkey, Israel, and even Saudi Arabia. While the National Defense Strategy sets out the goal of attracting new partners, it fails to acknowledge the threat being posed to existing alliances and partnerships from fairly successful international politics as practiced by our competitors. We did not come up short in domain superiority in Syria, or failed the race for military advantage, but rather failed to translate them into successful statecraft and international politics.

Reading the Strategy in Moscow

How will our Russian adversaries receive this document? As I mentioned above, they will first be flattered that they are now clearly recognized by the United States as a strategic competitor, indelicately binned with China, which is a much stronger power. Scanning through the strategy’s to-do list, the language on alliances and partnerships is rather nonthreatening from Moscow’s perspective, as it implies a ‘circle the wagons’ mentality around NATO, while any further alliance expansions seem aimed at Asia. This is what Moscow hoped to achieve: an America focused on vital interests rather than competing for Russia’s “near abroad.” Although the devil is in the details as to what ‘fortifying NATO’ truly means. The big text giveth and the small text taketh away.

Russia’s General Staff will be fixed closely to the lines discussing plans for forward stocks and munitions, layered missile defense, autonomous systems, and some ambiguously worded plan to strike within air defenses to take out ‘mobile power-projection platforms’ (whatever that means). Russia is concerned about the size of the U.S. footprint in Europe, how quickly it can be expanded, and the creep of strategic infrastructure towards its borders, i.e. missile defenses. The question in Moscow will be how Washington intends to achieve a ‘favorable regional military balance’ and which of its capabilities will be forward deployed to help realize this vision versus those intended to be surged into theater.

On the other hand, plans for defense in cyberspace and space will probably be viewed as cost prohibitive projects in offense dominated domains where Russia is a near peer, and likely to remain competitive at a much lower price. The strong, but strategically questionable, desire to chase down Russian coercive credibility on nuclear escalation is also not especially worrisome for Moscow. Russia’s doctrine allows the use of nuclear weapons not just in retaliation for nuclear attacks, but in cases where a conventional attack jeopardizes the existence of the state. It is intentionally ambiguous on what that means, but is principally defensive in nature and based on conditions with a strong asymmetry of interests.

This is a logical offset to U.S. conventional superiority, founded in the view that America’s conventional arsenal poses a strategic threat given how many regimes Washington has taken apart with it in the past 25 years. It is also central and inherently credible, whereas America’s nuclear deterrent is extended, and therefore less so. As the issue rests around resolve, and the interests at stake in the conflict, it is therefore very unlikely that Washington can alter anything by acquiring a modicum of nuclear weapons of a similar nature. The capabilities will add options, but options we would be wise not to use in a threshold of conflict where Russia will have much greater resolve, and escalation dominance.

That said, a fixation on sticks to try and acquire capabilities of a similar kind is natural. Blame too much wargaming and scenario-based thinking. The Pentagon just has to convince itself that somehow, just somehow, it can have a purely conventional war and win. On the whole it can do little harm to buy such things, unless raising entrapment concerns among allies is considered harm. They may prove useful to offset China in the long term. The rest of the proposed measures can be summarized as the traditional ‘get more stuff better’ approach, together with a sprinkling of jargon and liberal application of the word ‘competitive.’

Order Obsession: Russia and China Are Not the Same

The strategy disappoints in its imprecise and confounding language on the strategic challenge posed by Russia and China. It states: “It is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian National Defense Strategy — gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” This is where the National Defense Strategy oversimplifies and muddies the challenge. For one, Russia and China do not want the same thing, nor are their natural drives to maximize security via buffers or establish regional hegemony any different from other great powers. The question rests on sources of conduct. Russia is more focused on maximizing security, which has important but bounded consequences for U.S. interests, whereas China has grander visions for expanding its power and say in the international system.

China may pose a genuine challenge to U.S. global leadership, but Russia seeks great power exemptions and traditional privileges, such as a sphere of influence, buffer states facing NATO, and the recognition that its security needs supersede the political independence of its neighbors. However, there is no evidence of a special shared vision for an authoritarian world order between Moscow and Beijing. On the contrary, it is Washington that seems frequently confused as to the difference between the post-World War II order, which was established and underwritten by great powers left standing after that conflagration, including the Soviet Union, and the post-Cold War order, which saw a further expansion of American influence and political ideology in the international system.

The good news is that historically, an existing international order cannot be quickly destroyed and replaced with a new one absent a great power war. The orders we have come to know, whether it be the Concert of Europe in 1815, the post-World War I order under the League of Nations, or the post-World War II order centered around the United Nations and other institutions, were the products of great power wars. Such a dramatic transition is unlikely for the simple reason that great powers today are peer nuclear weapon states who deter each other. The nature of the order can change over time through erosion, compromise, or new institutions, as it is hardly set in stone, but there is no clear path for either Russia or China to rapidly overturn the foundations of the current international system.

The United States also cannot readily retreat from the current international order and simply allow it to crumble. As this new strategy illustrates, America is pinned by its own vast alliance and partner network. The American commitment to the international order is structural, intertwined with institutions, alliances, and the desire to maintain primacy in international politics.

Indeed, the prevalence of inter-state competition below the threshold of conflict, including proxy wars, is a symptom of stability in the system rather than the growing disorder marked by the recently announced National Defense Strategy. It is visible because the relative power balance has changed, but the overall escalation dynamic makes it impossible for revisionist powers to overturn the order even if they so desired. Equally there is little to suggest that Russia or China have malign designs to rework the economic foundations of the current order. Unfortunately, the fact that the order itself may survive doesn’t answer the fundamental question for the United States on if and how it will be able to retain leadership and influence in the order that persists. Neither does the 2018 National Defense Strategy.

The current strategy fails to speak to the structural confrontation that already exists with Russia, and the one brewing with China. As a consequence, the Pentagon’s vision to “expand the competitive space” is in stark contradiction with its desire to maintain the international order and deter adversaries. That is how orders not destroyed by wars can erode away, as realpolitik and competition takes primacy over institutions and norms. Increasing inter-state competition, with both parties, will only result in a further deterioration of what Washington considers to be norms or rules of the road, and the creation of alternative structures by other powers in an effort to reduce the competitive space. It will also lead to proxy wars, a negative sum gain for the international system and U.S. interests.

The entire document is whistling past the graveyard on the more strategic matter at play, which is that the inter-state competition described is not a free for all. It is principally taking place between Russia and China on the one hand, and the United States on the other. Iran too is likely more worried about the U.S. than its regional adversary Saudi Arabia. The net product of a strategy aimed at winning against both powers – and incidentally the chief rogue states, Iran and North Korea, with whom the long-term competitors are too on friendly terms – can very well be a Russia-China entente. More often than not, alliances are made by powers in response to threats. That is, only the United States can make a Russia-China entente take place by posing a much greater threat to both of them than they do to each other and engaging in a set of actions that make that threat more ‘same’ than different from a strategic perspective.

Although widely panned by the policy community today as improbable, the prospect that these two countries will increasingly work together politically, economically, and in the security space is looking ever more likely. Some may consider it hedging, or a ‘soft alliance,’ but there are many levels of pacts, ententes, and agreements beyond formal alliances that can change the course of history. Russia in particular has few other options to sustain the confrontation, China may come along in due time. In general, the probability of an event happening tends to increase with each policy official who is certain it is impossible.

The National Defense Strategy is a good indicator that while Washington recognizes the rise or resurgence of competitors, it’s still in denial about itself, and the likelihood that a strategy to retain primacy is probably both unrealistic and unnecessary to maintain leadership. Well, it’s probably necessary for defending a preferred force sizing construct and service priorities. That said, it’s unclear if the strategy settles the question on whether Russia is a long-term challenge or a strategic adversary. The grievances listed are frankly scenario based, and largely confined to Russia’s behavior in Europe. It is hard to break a mainstay of the policy community’s assumptions that Russia will go away sometime in the 2020s. Whether because it will run out of money, people, or spontaneously transform into a democracy with no conflicting national interests, there is always a hidden expectation that Russia will depart the scene and allow the Pentagon to have the more intimate competition with China that it so very much desires.

A Better Set of Answers

As leading historians, like Stephen Kotkin, have argued, Russia is a perpetually weak great power. It has moments of resurgence, thanks to state campaigns of internal mobilization, but then frequently falls behind. Yet it is also eminently resilient. There is a strong likelihood of Moscow posing a sustained if not increasingly bellicose challenge all the while Beijing looms in the forefront.

At the same time Russia is a highly vulnerable country, always suspecting the United States wants to further fragment what’s left of its sphere of influence and develop capabilities to nullify its nuclear deterrent. Having never recovered psychologically from Operation Barbarossa in 1941, Russia’s military is always fearful of a first strike. This is fertile ground to plow, as Russia will spend heavily to defend against U.S. airpower superiority, expand its nuclear arsenal as an offset, and seek to fortify regions like the Arctic at exorbitant prices. Moscow fears the strategic potential of the U.S. long range conventional arsenal, and is still a long way away from establishing its own conventional options to retaliate in kind.

There is also ample room for strategic ambush as Russia increasingly eyes the expansion of its role in the Middle East, to become an alternative power broker on the cheap. Great powers are often their own greatest enemies. They overreach, drive their neighbors to balance and make allies with adversaries, and leave room for strategic riposte. Although current investments in military reforms and modernization have a strong inertia effect, the United States can engage in a host of policies that sap Russian ability for internal balancing, thus making it increasingly less competitive beyond the 2020s. Russia in the Middle East is less a challenge, and more an opportunity to take advantage of.

Dominance and the pursuit of winning has often been a fool’s errand with Russia. As Napoleon watched Russian leadership set their own capital ablaze in 1812, before his painful retreat, he learned the lessons that having conventional overmatch and winning against Russia are poorly related. Since Moscow ultimately decides what winning is, and in the current scenario it looks like a nuclear exchange that the United States probably does not win by any measure of that word, the concept is meaningless as a strategic framework for dealing with this power. Contrary to the deeply held beliefs of the authors of this strategy, deterrence is not absolute, but relative. Absolute deterrence is almost unachievable with Russia given the geography, and in time may be equally impracticable with China given the balance of military power.

However, there is no indication that Moscow is especially interested in that which the United States is desperately seeking to defend, attacking NATO conventionally, while the National Defense Strategy has little to offer on how to counter prolonged strategies of erosion, subversion, and fragmentation. It tries to solve Russian aggression, a low probability event, and has little for the more likely problems and indirect means of competition already in progress. Furthermore, it offers nothing in terms of assurance to the competing powers. The strategy’s indelicate proposition that the United States will “expand the competitive space” while being “open to opportunities for cooperation but from a position of strength and based on our national interests,” is tantamount to a demand for submission, from a superpower declining in absolute and relative strength. Absent assurances that the competition can be bound, that it is actually over something and not over everything, not only will Russia not be deterred, but it will be encouraged to expand the confrontation absent any other way forward.

The strategy’s slogan that “the surest way to prevent war is to be prepared to win one,” is also misplaced. In retrospect, most of the participants of the two world wars also planned to deter by preparing to win. They sought the force structure and posture intended to resist each other’s attacks in a contest for superiority. Strategies aimed at victory and those at deterrence are not the same thing, though the latter is frequently used in policy texts to smuggle in the former. Overzealous pursuit of dominance and forward based military presence may not be the surest way to victory, but it is often the surest way to create security dilemmas and force bidding contests against powers with tremendous regional advantages.  Not only can such answers cause the very wars they seek to prevent, but they hold the potential to spend the United States into oblivion.

This strategy reflects a good understanding of America’s policy establishment. There is plenty red meat for the grist here. It is consistent with its intellectual progenitors, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Elbridge Colby’s long-held vision that the key to conventional deterrence

is maintaining an advantage in conventional military power, particularly with respect to a given potentially contested area. In particular, scholarship indicates that conventional deterrence has been most effective when adversaries judged that a potential defender’s conventional forces could resist their attacks, particularly in a relatively short timeframe.

This perspective discards much of the work of greats like Bernard Brodie, that deterrence is not about the myopic pursuit of dominance or superiority, nor is deterring necessarily identified with winning (how can it be with nuclear peers?), but the ‘win to deter’ view clearly undergirds the strategic vision in the National Defense Strategy.

America is hardly the first power to face a decline from unipolarity, struggling to find competitive strategies to maintain primacy, while finding its extended network of alliances and partners under threat from capable challengers. Nor is the United States the first to launch ruinous campaigns to the Middle East and Central Asia, only to find it should have husbanded those resources for strategic adversaries. The 2018 National Defense Strategy offers clear answers to these long-term challenges, a direct assault with what resources are left to muster for the coming decades, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s “once more onto the breach, dear friends, once more; or close the wall up with our English dead,” from Henry V.

Yet the answers found in the current National Defense Strategy are unconvincing. They are better suited for winning table top wargames than winning strategic competitions with actual adversaries. Albeit provocative, it might be easier to conceive of European Command and Pacific Command as the modern day Western and Eastern Roman Empire, taking bets on where conventional deterrence by ‘winning’ and a strategy based on direct competition will prove unsustainable first. Reading the current National Defense Strategy, one wonders how “dynamic force employment,” a “lethal, agile, and resilient force posture,” can truly redress the negative secular trends in the strategic environment described by the text. Is resilience compatible with agility? Expanding alliances and deterrence commitments with dynamism? Clawing back dominance across all domains and spectrums of conflict with sustainability? Expanding the competitive space while trying to keep the international order from weakening due to the expanding competition?

The secretary of defense rightfully reminds us that “no strategy can long survive without necessary funding and the stable, predictable budgets required to defend America in the modern age.” Yet perhaps there is a silver lining in this admonition, since it’s unclear that such a strategy focused on direct competition can be sustained by America’s economy in light of other national priorities. Perhaps it is best we stay emergent and lean, keeping our strategy iterative, and adjusting as the future unfolds. This strategy is a good step forward from the strategic miasma in which we were, but it is unlikely to take us where we can, or necessarily should go.


Michael Kofman is a Senior Research Scientist at CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. Previously he served as Program Manager at National Defense University. The views expressed here are his own.

Image: James N. Mattis/Flickr