We face greater threats than conventional forces from Moscow; NATO strategy should reflect that

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What keeps US policymakers awake at night? The former US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Christine Wormuth, was recently asked this question. She responded (at 1:50:55 in this video) that she worries about “the conventional imbalance [of military forces] we have right now in Europe.” Wormuth cited a prominent study published by the RAND Corporation demonstrating Russia’s military capabilities, as well as their ability to conquer the Baltic States within 60 hours. Wormuth concluded that the United States and its NATO allies have “a lot of work to do” to establish a credible conventional deterrent against Russia within Eastern Europe, but is this truly the case?

While the RAND study and Wormuth’s comments are not without merit, Russia’s comparative military strength in Eastern Europe is far from the most dangerous threat from Moscow. Wormuth’s argument represents a widespread and misguided way of thinking about how to confront Russia’s revisionist foreign policy. For instance, even the current Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs has published articles defending this strategy.

{mosads}However, as Russian military analyst, Michael Kofman eloquently argued, “strategic decisions should be too important to be left to the wargamers who see the world through hex-squares.” In Kofman’s piece, he makes a compelling case that US military strategy will be harmed by matching Russia’s military strength in Eastern Europe and that pursuing this strategy could hinder the US’s attempts to deter further aggressive behavior by Russia in other domains and regions.


On the one hand, the geographic isolation of the Baltic region makes protecting these countries a challenge, and risks deployed NATO assets to encirclement in a potential conflict. On the other hand, the Russian military has made few discernable preparations for the conquest of NATO territory, nor does its military have the capacity to survive in a prolonged conflict against NATO military forces. Furthermore, the Kremlin has given few indications that it believes it can benefit from fighting a conventional conflict against NATO. In the 21st century, most of the cases of Russian hard power deployment abroad have been in response to Moscow’s perceptions of the impending collapse of a friendly ruling regime, such as in Syria and Ukraine, which it perceived a critical threat to Russian national security.

Accordingly, it is essential to examine Russia’s actual threats to US national security. Russia’s recent interference in US and European elections, alleged assassination attempts in the United Kingdom, and use of energy supplies to coerce neighbors, extend beyond the threat of a potential conventional military confrontation. Nonetheless, the 2018 National Defense Strategy emphasizes doubling down on the United States’ conventional competitive military advantage.

Instead, US policymakers should focus on challenging Russia in undeclared regional conflicts with its neighbors, its numerous cyber-attacks on the US and its allies, and its use of political warfare to divide democracies across the Atlantic. Most notably, in a recent report for Axios former senior members of the US intelligence community noted that Russian hackers have penetrated the US energy grid— “empowering them to create chaos with massive blackouts.” Furthermore, these officials agreed that there is no greater threat to US national security than a massive cyber-attack on critical domestic infrastructure.

On this note, the US National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2035 report describes the nature of Russia’s challenge to US interests in Eastern Europe and does not foresee Russia’s conventional military superiority as a significant threat to US interests. Instead of focusing on the menace of Russia’s military power, the US intelligence community correctly identifies Moscow’s most destabilizing actions abroad as the use of “grey zone” military tactics with the goal of 1) creating buffer zones on its borders, 2) weakening its neighbors that favor US interests and 3) supporting Russia’s allies.

The report does suggest that Moscow will continue to prioritize military spending. However, it argues that Russia will invest in national defense with the goal of “strategic deterrence.” Beyond Eastern Europe and Eurasia, the report claims that Russia will continue to unleash cyber-attacks on the US as it enjoys an “asymmetric advantage” in this domain, and will continue to attempt to manipulate US politics. The recent indictment of the Russian military intelligence officers who hacked the Democratic National Committee is an excellent example of this cyber threat. It details how these individuals collected and weaponized stolen information to manipulate US politics, with the goal of furthering Moscow’s foreign policy interests. Russia has also conducted numerous cyber-attacks against its neighbors—especially in Ukraine—where it has also invested considerable resources in a grey zone conflict to weaken the current pro-western government there.

Indeed, protecting US interests in cyberspace and countering Russia’s use of grey zone military tactics are all more pressing issues than the threat of a conventional attack on US-NATO allies in Eastern Europe. Moreover, there is little doubt that as “great power competition” increases in the 21st century the resources of the United States will become more constrained. In the next 50 years, US policymakers will face challenging decisions about where to allocate conventional military superiority, particularly due to China’s growing military and economic power. Consequently, US national security will be better served countering the Kremlin’s coercive behavior beyond conventional military power.

William McHenry is an Eastern Europe & Eurasia Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He also is a Program Associate for PONARS Eurasia. His work at PONARS Eurasia focuses on connecting scholarship to the policy community focused on Russia and Eurasia. He holds an M.A. in International Affairs from the American University, School of International Service.

Tags Foreign policy of Vladimir Putin International security NATO

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