Consider the phrase “great-power competition.” While that and similar terms are fairly common today in national security circles, how often were they used 20 years ago? And to what “competitors” do they apply? China and Russia. The former is not surprising; its growing economic strength and potential to employ it for political and military ends were apparent at the turn of the millennium. But Russia? Back in 2000, would you have foreseen its return to “great-power status”? The fact that it has begun to do so is a testament to the leadership of Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinOvernight Defense & National Security — Quick vote on defense bill blocked again Kremlin claims Ukraine may try to win back rebel-controlled regions by force Blinken threatens coordinated sanctions on Russia over Ukraine MORE.
Russia has schooled the rest of the world in the use of 21st century capabilities to enhance power and influence. The most obvious of these are cyber attacks, information warfare and social media weaponization. But it is how these have been used in conjunction with other means that has proved so effective, such as the integration of information operations with the use of armed forces in the Georgian and Ukrainian interventions. Moreover, Russian operations generally reflect an awareness of both strategic limitations and capabilities. The phrase “conflict below the threshold of war” is actually a banal statement; throughout history one can find cases of political violence occurring at levels of intensity below Western norms of conventional war. The phrase acknowledges contemporary Russia’s awareness of when and where it can utilize force without triggering reciprocal responses.
The greatest Russian strategic achievement, however, required no physical use of force. That was Russia’s interference in the 2016 election of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBaldwin calls Trump criticism following 'Rust' shooting 'surreal' Haley hits the stump in South Carolina Mary Trump files to dismiss Trump's lawsuit over NYT tax story MORE as U.S. president. Certainly, Russia’s interference was not the only reason for his election, but given the idiosyncrasies of the U.S election system — particularly, the Electoral College — Russian information operatives stoked and exacerbated just enough existing polarization and partisanship to help Trump secure victory. And for Russia, the rewards for those efforts were tremendous, nothing less than paralyzing the political effectiveness of their chief adversary. More than past presidents, Trump weakened the world order that reflected U.S. and Western values, generating opportunities for Putin to enhance and promote Russian influence.
Moreover, as news of the greatest breach in U.S. information systems attests — the recent SolarWinds hack — Russia’s use of cyber operations demonstrates their capacity to foresee and address changing strategic circumstances. Long before the 2020 presidential election, Russian operatives apparently acquired access to crucial U.S. government systems. It is unclear what information they acquired and how those systems may be compromised; the extent of the breach may never be publicly known. But they nonetheless have placed the Biden administration at a grave strategic disadvantage. Joe BidenJoe BidenManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Senate cuts deal to clear government funding bill MORE has made it clear that he intends to recapture and invigorate U.S world leadership — a task now greatly impeded by Russian information operations.
Here, too, Russian successes have been facilitated by American weaknesses — in this case, the sprawling nature of U.S. bureaucracy, a problem exacerbated by the lack of top leadership during the Trump administration. But even before 2017, cyber and information operations suffered from being diffused among numerous civilian agencies and military organizations, most of which had other primary functions and responsibilities.
Beyond cyber and information operations, however, there has been a persistent lack of U.S strategic focus. The Army’s obsession with large-scale combat operations (LSCO) is an example. One justification for more LSCO training and planning is the need to prepare for “worse-case scenarios,” without any apparent recognition that the resources and time devoted to this cannot be used to address more likely contingencies. Another is that such training deters adversaries from considering employing LSCO. But in the case of Russia, the question becomes: Why would it be deterred? Why would Russia need LSCO to achieve its strategic goals, when it already can effectively counter U.S. political action?
Instead, the question should be: What are the strategic and operational capabilities the U.S. government needs to best confront Russia and other political adversaries? Moreover, how should the U.S. government be organized to best develop and employ these capabilities? The answers may look radically different than what exists, but the questions need to be asked.
Another key difference between Russia and the U.S is the autocratic nature of the former, and the latter’s commitment to human rights and protections. That gives Putin’s Russia a great advantage in its capacity for action; it does not have to address the legal and bureaucratic hurdles that challenge U.S. administrations. Those hurdles are necessary to ensure the type of government Americans want and need, but they do not have to be such a great impediment to coherent strategic policy and action. Invigorating American strategic capabilities requires challenging longstanding bureaucratic structures and functions, civil and military; investing in better and more secure communications; and better educating officials about options for strategic and operational action, including their costs and benefits.
Only then will America possess a community of professionals who can develop and maintain a strategy that is coherent and effective enough to meet 21st century challenges. We need to act quickly, because our adversaries already possess — and are employing — effective strategy.
Matthew S. Muehlbauer taught military history at West Point and currently works for a U.S. professional military education institution. The views expressed here are his only and do not reflect those of the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.