Like the stock market crashes that periodically wipe out so many fortunes, military crises are hard to predict.Washington’s track record as a seer of future threats is remarkably poor. From the bombing of Pearl Harbor in the 1940s to North Korea’s invasion of the South in the 1950s to the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s to the collapse of South Vietnam in the 1970s to the breakup of the Soviet empire in the 1980s to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in the 1990s to the 9-11 attacks and rise of ISIS in the new millennium, America’s policy elite never seems to see looming danger until it is too late.
So don’t be surprised if the economic sanctions Washington has led the West in imposing on Russia look like a bad idea a year from now. At the moment, a combination of sanctions and plummeting oil prices seems to be dealing the government of President Vladimir Putin a heavy blow — just retribution, many say, for its invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea last year. But as Alan Cullison observed in the Wall Street Journal this week, sanctions sometimes provoke precisely the opposite response from what policymakers hope. In Russia’s case, that could mean a threat to America’s survival. Let’s briefly consider how Russia’s current circumstances could lead to dangers that dwarf the challenges posed by ISIS and cyber attacks.
A paranoid political culture. Russia’s moves on Ukraine look to many Westerners like a straightforward case of aggression. That is not the way they look to Vladimir Putin’s inner circle of advisors in Moscow, nor to most Russians. That inner circle is drawn mainly from the Russian security services — Putin himself spent 16 years in the KGB — and to them the revolution in Ukraine was a U.S.-backed coup aimed at weakening Russia. Putin describes the Crimea as a birthplace of Russian culture, and his government has repeatedly warned against the expansion of Western economic and political influence into a region historically regarded as Moscow’s sphere of influence. Putin relies heavily on the Kremlin bureaucracy to provide him with intelligence (he avoids the Internet), so his briefings tend to reinforce the view that Moscow was forced to intervene in Ukraine by Western subversion aimed at undermining his rule.
A nuclear arsenal on hair trigger. Between the two of them, Russia and America control over 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons. However, Moscow is far more dependent on its nuclear arsenal for security, because it cannot afford to keep up with U.S. investments in new warfighting technology. So Russian military doctrine states that it might be necessary to use nuclear weapons to combat conventional attacks from the West. Many Russians think that attacks on their country are a real possibility, and that their nuclear deterrent — which consists mainly of silo-based missiles in known locations — might have to be launched quickly to escape a preemptive strike. Moscow staged a major nuclear exercise during last year’s Ukraine crisis in which it assumed missiles would have to be launched fast on warning of a Western attack. A senior Russian officer has stated that 96% of the strategic rocket force can be launched within minutes.
A collapsing economy. Much of Putin’s popularity within Russia is traceable to the impressive recovery of the post-Soviet economy on his watch. Since he came to power in 2001, the country’s gross domestic product has grown sixfold, greatly increasing the size and affluence of the Russian middle class. But that growth has been based in large part on the export of oil and gas to neighboring countries at a time when energy prices reached record highs. Now the price of oil has fallen at the same time that economic sanctions are beginning to bite. The ruble lost nearly half its value against the dollar last year, and the economy has begun to shrink. Putin blames sanctions for 25-30% of current economic hardships. Many Westerns believe a prolonged recession would weaken Putin’s support, but because he can blame outsiders, economic troubles might actually strengthen his hand and accelerate the trend toward authoritarian rule.
A deep sense of grievance. Blaming outsiders for domestic troubles has a long pedigree in Russian political tradition, and it feeds into a deep-seated sense that Russia has been deprived of its rightful role in the world by the U.S. and other Western powers. Russia may have little past experience with democracy, but it was a major power for centuries prior to the collapse of communism. Like authoritarian rulers in other nations, Putin has built his political base by appealing to nationalism, fashioning a revisionist view of recent events in which Russia is the victim rather that the author of its own misfortunes. He has called the break-up of the Soviet Union a tragedy of epic proportions, and apparently really believes it. By tapping into a deep vein of resentment in Russian political culture, Putin has created a broad constituency for standing up to outsiders even if it means prolonged economic hardship and the danger of war.
A vulnerable antagonist. Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen says America faces little danger from Russia’s current troubles, but that’s because she thinks in economic terms. In a broader sense, America potentially is in great danger because Putin and his advisors really believe they are the target of a Western plot to weaken their country. The biggest concern is that some new move by Russia along its borders degenerates into a crisis where Moscow thinks it can improve its tactical situation by threatening local use of nuclear weapons, and then the crisis escalates. At that point U.S. policymakers would have to face the reality that (1) they are unwilling to fight Russia to protect places like Ukraine, and (2) they have no real defenses of the American homeland against a sizable nuclear attack. In other words, the only reason Washington seems to have the upper hand right now is because it assumes leaders in Moscow will act “rationally.”
The unspoken wisdom in Washington today is that if nobody gives voice to such fears, then they don’t need to be addressed. That’s how a peaceful world stumbled into the First World War a century ago — by not acknowledging the worst-case potential of a crisis in Eastern Europe — and the blindness of leaders back then explains most of what went wrong later in the 20th Century. If we want to avoid the risk of reliving that multi-generation lesson, then U.S. policymakers need to do something more than simply wait for Putin to crack. That day will never come. In the near term, Washington needs to work harder to defuse tensions, including taking a more serious look at the history that led to Moscow’s move on Crimea. Over the longer term, Washington needs to get beyond its dangerous aversion to building real defenses against long-range nuclear weapons, because it is just a matter of time before some dictator calls America’s bluff.