With the end of the Obama administration fast approaching, American adversaries are looking to provoke confrontations and stir up trouble. Domestic power transitions are an ideal time to test opponents: The incumbent is largely a lame duck, and the incoming leader will require time to adapt and adjust. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that Putin is looking to test the United States. With an upcoming election that is particularly acrimonious, the Kremlin is doing everything it can to destabilize the U.S. both domestically and internationally. The provocative tactics being used by Moscow cannot be ignored, as doing so would only encourage further aggression and undermine America’s position in the world. Thus, a measured but firm response is necessary to remind Putin that Russia is still just a second-rate power that cannot afford to take on the West.
Russian revanchism is not a new phenomenon. Over the past few years, Putin has ordered troops to seize Crimea and destabilize Eastern Ukraine, escalated the conflict in Syria, and constantly harassed NATO countries, especially those in the Baltics (1). However, recent months have witnessed an escalation in hostility from the Kremlin. The most obvious and concerning part of Putin’s strategy has been the targeted release of damaging information against U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton (2). Whether one agrees with Clinton or not, it is clear that foreign hacking and meddling in American domestic politics is entirely unacceptable. The rancor and vitriol in this year’s presidential election is reaching unprecedented levels, and this worrying trend is only being exacerbated by Russian-backed conspiracy theories. Beyond the clear and measurable damage that the Kremlin is causing in U.S. presidential politics, there is also a philosophical reason for opposing Putin’s meddling. Namely, the President of the United States should be determined by the American people, not Russian plutocrats. Allowing an adversary to launch a targeted and clear misinformation campaign risks domestic instability and is anathema to American democratic values.
Unfortunately, Russia is not just testing the United States domestically. It is also engaging in deliberately provocative actions in the realm of arms control. Indeed, just last week, Putin announced that Russia is suspending a plutonium disposition agreement with the United States (3). Negotiated at the end of the Cold War, this agreement was designed to safely dispose of weapons grade plutonium in a transparent and verifiable way. Agreements like this are important because they offer an effective way to decrease the number of nuclear weapons in the United States and the Russian Federation, thus leading to verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons stockpiles and easing nuclear tensions. As Jeffrey Lewis, a non-proliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, argues, “Putin’s decree states that Russia isn’t planning on turning the plutonium back into weapons just yet. But there is no reason it couldn’t” (4). In other words, while there is no immediate threat in Russia’s withdrawal from the agreement, it presents potential problems in the future and severely undermines cooperation over nuclear security.
And Russian withdrawal from the plutonium disposition agreement is not the only nuclear-related provocation Putin has conducted. Russia has also deployed Iskander-M short-range missiles to the Kaliningrad Oblast. Kaliningrad, formerly East Prussia, is a small Russian exclave between Poland and Lithuania. From this position, Russian missiles could potentially hit all three Baltic republics as well as Eastern and Central Poland. Beyond its immediate threat to NATO countries, this deployment also has symbolic significance because the Iskander-M is likely in violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the U.S. and Russia. Thus, the deployment is not just a destabilizing and provocative move, but it also represents another attempt by Russia to ostentatiously violate and ignore arms control agreements designed to limit nuclear brinksmanship (5).
Of course, none of these actions alone are likely to start a conflict or justify a serious response from the U.S. and NATO. However, when they are viewed together, it becomes clear that they are not simply accidental and meaningless encroachments against international norms. They are components of a deliberate strategy designed to undermine Western stability and increase Russian influence through eroding the American-led liberal order.
It’s important to note that some analysts believe Russian actions are not intended to be provocative but instead are a consequence of Western incitement (6). However, this view ignores significant historical facts that suggest that Putin, not system-level dynamics, is to blame for the recent chill in relations. NATO expansion occurred largely in the 90s and early 2000s. Thus, the idea that NATO's move east is the cause of Putin’s paranoia is ahistorical and deeply misleading. If Russia was actually concerned about NATO, it would have reacted far sooner. Moreover, it is hard to see how NATO poses any significant threat to the Russian Federation. NATO defense spending has plummeted, NATO has no military units permanently stationed near the Russian border, and American and European leadership have deliberately tried to engage with Russia and support its integration into the broader European security and economic system. Efforts at trust-building and cooperation were quite fruitful for many years, especially during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. Putin’s election, however, changed everything and can be directly linked to the collapse in NATO-Russian relations. The problem is clear. It isn’t NATO or Russia, it is Putin (7).
The U.S. response to Putin’s aggressive and provocative action must be clear and costly, though limited enough to prevent a damaging escalation that spirals out of control. First, the U.S. should engage in a proportional response to Russian cyber-attacks. As recently outlined by James Stavridis, Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, the U.S. could easily hack into the private networks of Putin and his cronies, releasing sensitive information to the Russian public. Other responses could be to weaken Russian internet censorship capabilities or even to attack Russia hackers directly, destroying their hardware through America cyber-attacks (8). Putin has been able to largely control Russia due to his clientelistic networks and massive public support. Were the U.S. to damage the image of Putin and his elite, oligarchic friends, this support would likely suffer, forcing Putin to focus on shoring up the domestic front. It would also remind Putin that American power still greatly exceeds that of the Russian Federation. Putin has been able to get away with a number of provocative actions due to tepid Western response, not because Russia is particularly capable. A tit for tat response would remind Putin that a war of small but constant escalations will always favor the U.S.
However, the U.S. should be careful to limit its military buildup in Europe. As Michael Kofman of the CNA Corporation has pointed out, Russia will always be able to achieve a tactical victory over NATO forces in Eastern Europe (9). Thus, marginal increases in troop levels only risk provoking Putin and furthering his narrative of NATO provocations. Nevertheless, the U.S. should continue to leverage European fears to catalyze European defense spending, shifting the balance of power ever further toward NATO. Although this wouldn’t directly deter a Russian fait accompli, it would significantly raise the costs of a drawn-out conflict between NATO and Russia, thus deterring at the strategic level.
Finally, the U.S. should look to continue mutually-beneficial cooperation in anti-terrorism and nuclear security. Success in these fields would be positive sum, as both countries have much to gain from degrading terror networks and limiting the risks of “loose nukes” and proliferation. Furthermore, it would contribute to confidence building and undercut the perception that the U.S. is attempting to exclude Russia from the international system, thus weakening some of the more aggressive conspiracy theories peddled by the Kremlin. In short, a successful response to Russia requires carefully calibrated and proportioned responses to Russian violations of international norms as well as a renewed commitment to cooperation and trust-building in mutually beneficial areas. The U.S. cannot afford to ignore Russia’s egregious violations of international sovereignty, but it also cannot afford to overreact and precipitate a second Cold War.
(1) Russian behavior has become so egregious that even the traditionally cautious Germany is calling for even greater sanctions. See, for example, Wehner, Markus. “Merkel will für weitere Sanktionen gegen Russland werben.” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. October 15, 2016. Web. October 16, 2016.
(2) Sanger, David E. “U.S. Says Russia Directed Hacks to Influence Elections.” New York Times. October 7, 2016. Web. October 15, 2016.
(3) “Going Nuclear.” The Economist. October 8, 2016. Web. October 15, 2016.
(4) Lewis, Jeffrey. “The U.S. and Russia are Prepping for Doomsday.” Foreign Policy. October 7, 2016. Web. October 15, 2016.
(5) Marcus, Jonathan. Russia's missile deployment in Kaliningrad ups the stakes for Nato.” BBC. October 9, 2016. Web. October 16, 2016.
(6) Mearsheimer, John J. “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault.” Foreign Affairs. September 2014. Web. October 15, 2016.
(7) Stoner, Kathryn and Michael McFaul. “Who Lost Russia (This Time)? Vladimir Putin.” The Washington Quarterly 38(2) (Summer 2015): pp. 167–187.
(8) Stavridis, James. “How to Win the Cyberwar Against Russia.” Foreign Policy. October 12, 2016. Web. October 14, 2016.
(9) Kofman, Michael. “FIXING NATO DETERRENCE IN THE EAST OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE NATO’S CRUSHING DEFEAT BY RUSSIA.” War on the Rocks. May 12, 2016. Web.
Image: © Alexandr Anastasin | Dreamstime.com - Grand Kremlin Palace.
Sam Seitz is a student at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, where he studies International Politics, German, and European Studies. He has served as an analyst for the Roosevelt Institute at Georgetown University, specializing in defense and diplomacy, and runs the blog Politics in Theory and Practice. Sam’s areas of interest are, broadly speaking, security studies, alliance networks, European politics, and the intersection between comparative politics and international relations. Sam is also a devoted fan of the University of North Carolina’s men’s basketball team.