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News | Aug. 15, 2015

Putin's Russia and U.S. Defense Strategy

By Paul Bernstein Workshop Report


The workshop addressed two questions bearing on the development of U.S. and NATO strategy toward Russia. First, how has Russia framed the problem of deterring and defeating a conventionally superior nuclear-armed major power and its allies? Second, what should the United States and NATO do to strengthen their deterrence and defense postures? In exploring these challenges with a diverse group of experts, the workshop also sought to give impetus to a community of interest that should work collectively to ensure that defense planning is informed by a detailed understanding of contemporary Russian attitudes, doctrine, and capabilities. In order to focus in depth on the deterrence challenge, the workshop did not undertake a comprehensive review of all the issues shaping Russia’s relations with the west. A number of worthy and important questions were therefore not discussed in detail, including the genesis of the current confrontation with Russia, the full range of recent developments in Russian military capability and doctrine, Russian domestic politics, and how to integrate the military and nonmilitary dimensions of national and international strategy toward Russia. 




Russia’s strategy for deterring and, if necessary, defeating NATO features a spectrum of nonmilitary and military capabilities that would be mobilized with the goals of shaping the political and operational environment, prevailing in a local conflict, denying or disrupting a counterattack, and controlling a process of escalation. Some elements of this strategy have been on display in Ukraine, though a Russian attack against a NATO member would be a far more complex and risky test of Moscow’s concept for conflict. Still, Russia has been developing, deploying, and exercising capabilities that would allow it to execute local military operations against NATO members that would be difficult to defeat or overturn quickly.

 Russia’s challenge to European security may result in a political atmosphere reminiscent of the Cold War, but responding to Russia’s potential threat to NATO’s eastern members does not require a return to a Cold War military footing. It does, however, require NATO to develop a responsive strategy and supporting capabilities. Some of the needed capabilities for enhanced deterrence and defense exist, but beyond taking some initial steps to address the local military imbalance in the east, the Alliance has done little to develop a comprehensive strategy that would convey both resolve and enhanced preparedness to defend the sovereignty and independence of its members.

Such an effort will generate controversy in the Alliance given different perspectives on key issues related to strategy, resources, and capabilities and the sensitive nature of some matters (e.g., NATO’s nuclear deterrent). Alliance leaders will need to navigate these challenges in order to ensure meaningful steps can be taken while maintaining political unity. Additionally, strengthening deterrence and defense in ways that make a difference may create risk. In the near-term, it may not be possible to adopt a more credible and capable posture without heightening tensions with Russia. Here, too, strong leadership will be needed both to mitigate risks and reassure publics.

The Alliance must also strengthen its institutional resources for coping with what may be a long period of confrontation or tense relations with Russia. Current deficits in intelligence, expertise, operational planning, analytic tools, and decisionmaking need to be narrowed. 

Click here to download the full Workshop Report.