The Magnitude of the Russian Threat

Russia’s cruel war of aggression upon Ukraine must finally awaken the West from its post-Cold War slumber. This is merciless Putin’s war, waged against an innocent sovereign nation, but there will always be aggressors, and it is up to democracies to stop them before they are so emboldened and powerful that they threaten freedom itself. As U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss put it in a recent speech, “For years now, Russia’s been building its capabilities, violating its commitments, and probing our weaknesses. … The free world must draw a line under a decade of drift.” While it is refreshing to hear a Western leader call out the West’s inertia, the sad reality is that the Russian threat is greater than Truss implies, and our “drift” in response to it should have ended long ago. So should our complacency toward the global march of authoritarianism spearheaded by the growing axis of Russia, China, and Iran.

The Russian threat grew while democracies weighed and meted out minimalist costs. Penalties for Russian wars in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria; paramilitary and disinformation campaigns in Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East; cyber operations to divide and destabilize the United States; assassinations, poisonings, imprisonment, and torture of those who dare to speak out; and violation of peace treaties, arms agreements, and international norms have been halting and incremental. Russia exacerbates and foments ethnic strife, corruption, and even antisemitism insofar as these variables help Russia increase its own power at the expense of the West. It uses menacing military exercises and energy blackmail for intimidation and control. Russia’s multipronged Europe strategy creates fear and dependency, and exploits chaos and division, in order to reap geopolitical rewards.

Rather than extract better behavior from a weakened Russia by leveraging America’s and NATO’s military, economic, and political predominance, the West downplayed Russia’s post-Cold War resurgence and responded inadequately and hesitatingly to Russia’s illicit acts, massive rearmament, and cold-blooded aggression. Thus, Russia regained much of the ground it lost when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Since Russia and China both define America as the adversary whose post-World War II order they are determined to replace, anti-democratic victories of the one serve the anti-democratic designs of the other. Russia’s and China’s growing entente reflects their decision to back each other insofar as the actions of each weaken the United States and advance their expansionist goals. China and Russia have cooperated in places as far afield as Afghanistan, Venezuela, and the Arctic. Testimony to the lethal potential of Russia and China combined, the Rand Corporation reported that U.S. forces were defeated by Russian and Chinese forces in European and Asian hot spots in the research organization’s war games.

Moreover, growing military and strategic partnerships between Russia, China, and Iran enhance the power of all three. These countries provide cover for the foreign policy misdeeds of each other and present, in the words of one analyst, an “anti-Western global front.” Russia and China use alignment with Iran to impair U.S. and Western influence in the Middle East. Russia and Iran joined forces to save the brutal Assad regime, thereby gaining new footholds in the region and exposing the West’s moral and strategic inertia. Russia, China, and Iran benefit from weapons and technology transfers, joint military exercises, and mutually beneficial breaches of sanctions. With its plum role as intermediary between Iran and the United States in nuclear negotiations, Russia has produced wins for Iran — wins that bode ill for the human rights of those targeted by Iranian proxies and the security of Iran’s sworn enemies. Concerning agreements between Russia and Iran include coordinated efforts to challenge U.S. space-based systems that play a critical role in intelligence-gathering and the monitoring of WMD programs and military activity.

China and Iran have demonstrated overall support for Russia’s war on Ukraine and no doubt expect Russia to return the favor. China has condoned Vladimir Putin’s inflammatory and opportunistic propaganda regarding NATO and has blocked U.N. Security Council action on Ukraine and other Russia-related matters. With designs on Taiwan and Asia that mirror Russia’s designs on Ukraine and Europe, China, of course, watches Russia’s audacious war with keen interest.

Although rarely reported, many top U.S. military leaders have in recent years identified Russia as America’s greatest threat. This, they say, is not only because of Russia’s dramatically growing military might and geopolitical influence; it is also because of Russia’s willingness to use force and determination to bring the West down. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis said the world order is “under the biggest attack since World War II” and that Russia is the “principal threat.” Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, Commander of U.S. Strategic Command John Hyten, and current Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier have all used the word “existential” to describe the kind of threat Russia now poses. April 2019 changes to U.S. Strategic Command’s “CONPLAN 8010” emphasized renewed great-power competition and Russia’s overtly hostile posture toward Europe and the United States.

Russia has made great advances in hybrid, conventional, and nuclear capabilities, has fielded hypersonic weapons, and has installed nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad. Russia’s deployed nuclear arsenal now exceeds that of the United States, and its militarization of occupied regions of the Black Sea includes advanced S-400 air defense systems. Russia is a master at using cyberwar, subterfuge, and sabotage to amplify the menace of its military power. The 2021 Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community concluded, “Russia will remain a top cyber threat as it refines and employs its espionage, influence, and attack capabilities. Russia continues to target critical infrastructure, including underwater cables and industrial control systems, in the United States and in allied and partner countries.” Incredibly, Putin periodically suggests the possible limited use of nuclear weapons to defend Russia from purported NATO aggression.

It is true that Xi’s China has, in the last few years, taken a more overtly hostile stance against the United States and that China’s astounding military growth, pursuit of global domination, geopolitical expansionism, and extreme human rights abuses intensified during that time. In the year 2022, it is reasonable to prioritize the China threat. But re-pivoting to China was a mistake, for Russia and China both threaten the security of the free world and the stability of the democratic project. It would be foolhardy to underestimate the Russian threat, for Russia is on the warpath, and Russia has a great military capability and sophisticated tools of hybrid warfare. Perhaps the most trenchant fact is that Putin has time and again demonstrated his determination to use Russian power to fulfill his revanchist ambitions. Right now, Russia is the most actively menacing, effectual threat to the U.S.-led order.

Ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee Mike Turner asserts that, with the predominance Russia has achieved in Kaliningrad, Syria, and Crimea, Russia has created an “area of access and denial even greater than it had with the Warsaw Pact in the Soviet days.” With aggressive naval and air exercises and the co-opting of ports, Russia is positioned to intimidate international shipping and aircraft. Ukraine recently issued a formal protest against Russia’s partial blockade of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, which makes navigation in both seas “virtually impossible.” Noting how little the West has done to forestall this eventuality, Peter Dickinson of the Atlantic Council observes, “Moscow’s latest Black Sea gambit comes following years of escalating Russian interference targeting Ukrainian merchant shipping in the nearby Sea of Azov. Ever since the completion of the Crimean Bridge connecting the Russian-occupied Ukrainian peninsula with the Russian mainland, the Kremlin has introduced an expanding range of restrictions on Ukrainian and international vessels using ports along southeastern Ukraine’s Azov Sea coastline.”

With Russia’s malign military campaign against Ukraine finally receiving due attention, we must not forget Putin’s broader ambitions. Russia aggressively targets Poland and the Baltics with propaganda and cyber operations, has turned Belarus into a puppet state and front in the war against Ukraine, influences Georgia through the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, uses energy blackmail against Moldova and other countries, and installed “peacekeeping” forces to exploit tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, ultimately ending the conflict on Putin’s terms. Russia has pressured Bosnia, Kosovo, Moldova, Macedonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Kazakhstan, and Montenegro both politically and militarily and has repeatedly violated Baltic airspace with Russian warplanes. Putin seeks to subvert the West’s pro-democracy agenda whenever there is an opening — and there is often an opening.

Russia’s imperial designs clearly already extend way beyond Ukraine, and way beyond Europe. China and Russia wasted no time capitalizing on the United States’s precipitous and ill-begotten Afghanistan withdrawal. In the Middle East, Russia pursues destabilizing arms sales, cultivates paramilitary groups and sectarian conflict, and seeks permanent military bases. In the Arctic, Russia has built military bases and conducts numerous patrol and training operations. Then there are Russia’s increasingly overt attempts, often in tandem with China, to prop up anti-American dictators in the Western Hemisphere, especially Maduro in Venezuela, Ortega in Nicaragua, and Castro and Diaz-Canel in Cuba. Russia’s shadowy paramilitary “Wagner Group” operates between 3,000 and 5,000 mercenaries in Africa and about 800 to 1,000 in Mali.

Syria deserves special attention as we ponder what comes next in Ukraine. Russia, alongside of Iran and Hezbollah, backed the genocidal Syrian dictator, using air forces, militias, and a multiplicity of weapons and methods to oppress, terrorize, and massacre the Syrian people. Civilians and hospitals were and still are targeted by Russian bombs. The Syrian venture put Russia in the strongest position in the Middle East since the Cold War and allowed Russia to test hundreds of new weapons. Russia negotiated a 49-year “lease” on the air base at Latakia, where it stations highly advanced aircraft and surface-to-air missiles that potentially threaten Turkey, Israel, and Jordan, and NATO operations. Nevertheless, shrewd Putin managed to position himself as “peace broker” of the Syrian conflict. In spite of Russia’s relentless hostilities and duplicity, the West went along with one Russia-sponsored “peace conference” after another — a pattern that continues with the Iran nuclear talks.

As with the Geneva and Astana agreements regarding Syria, so, too, with the Budapest and Minsk agreements regarding Ukraine, the West paid homage to the accords even though Russia cynically disregarded them. In fact, Russia routinely disregards the very diplomatic agreements the West relies on. Recall that in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Russia committed “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and “to refrain from the threat or use of force”! If Syria and Ukraine are Russian testing grounds for the Western commitment to defend democratic values, protect innocents against Russian hostility, and respond forcefully to crimes against humanity, the West has not fared well.

American and European diplomacy could have produced meaningful results, but not without military mettle and unwavering consequences for the wars, hostile acts, and atrocities Russia had already committed, among them the annexation of Crimea and paramilitary, information, and electronic warfare operations in Ukraine’s Donbas. The endless Western search for a “diplomatic offramp” to the Russian-made “Ukraine crisis” shows the West still hasn’t learned that Russia, like Iran, uses diplomacy to buy time and cover for further aggression. Over-relying on “talks” with Russia, NATO, the European Union, and the U.S. failed to impose tough preemptive sanctions on Russia’s threat of all-out war on Ukraine, to give Ukraine the lethal weaponry (including surface-to-air missiles and tanks) it requested in a timely manner, or to establish decisive deterrence in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

Instead, from last summer, when Russia first amassed more than 100,000 troops at the Ukrainian border, to the beginning of this year, the Biden administration “paused” critical military assistance to Ukraine and unnecessarily issued verbal assurances that no U.S. troops would defend Ukraine, thereby neglecting preemption. President Joe Biden furthermore abandoned opposition to the Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline that jeopardizes Ukrainian and European independence and pressured congressional Democrats not to support related sanctions. Further neglecting preemption, Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken threatened tough sanctions on Russia’s illicit finances, energy blackmail, and military escalation only if Russia “further invaded Ukraine,” instead of for Russia’s already-alarming military and cyber wars, subversion and corruption, and violations of treaties, human rights, and international norms. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky lamented in Munich, “We don’t need your sanctions after the bombardment … or after we will have no borders and after we will have no economy or part of our country will be occupied.”

While the Biden administration began to release held-up military aid to Ukraine in January, it would have been wise to fortify Ukraine, and demonstrate American military might and resolve, much earlier. It is devastatingly consequential that the administration did not deliver Ukraine desperately needed Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and did not give NATO countries the “green light” to send Ukraine fighter jets until early March, well after Russia had begun bombing Ukrainian cities. Biden deserves credit for encouraging NATO to speak with one voice against Russia’s Ukraine aggression, but his actions have not done justice to his words.

Germany’s policies were appallingly Russia-enabling. Germany repeatedly refused to back out of Nord Stream 2, to give Ukraine defensive weapons, or to fulfill its NATO defense spending commitments. Germany even blocked Estonia from sending German-made weapons to Ukraine. Finally, on Feb. 22, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced he was “suspending” Nord Stream 2. It is hard not to conclude that Germany didn’t care much about Ukraine and other countries in Russia’s sights but does fear major war.

It is not that the West is weak. The United States and Europe still, collectively, have powerful economic, political, military, moral, and strategic advantages. They have the pull and attraction of freedom, of the democratic way of life, of the myriad opportunities for creativity, enterprise, invention, intellectualism, spirituality, and expression that authoritarian regimes deny. Rather, it is that the West too often squanders the geopolitical leverage it has, using it only too little, too late, and too rarely speaks up forcefully for democratic ideals and the trans-Atlantic alliance. In the meantime, Putin’s Russia never hesitates to wield strength, spout pro-Russian anti-democratic propaganda, and expand Russian power. Thus, we find ourselves in what NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg calls “the most dangerous moment in European security for a generation.”

Indeed, Putin will not stop at Ukraine. His far-flung aggression and zealous rhetoric show that he wants not only a sphere of influence, but an empire. Moreover, the Russian threat is part of a larger threat of what can now be called an axis of anti-democratic powers.

We are witnessing moral, strategic, and military failure of historic proportions. The West must relearn the post-World War II lesson: When we bury our heads in the sand in the face of escalating atrocities and hostilities, we are more likely to be forced into war by events spiraling out of control. We must rediscover the realities of hard power, and the spirit of democratic resolve. Let us hope Ukraine can win this war and that this war can be contained, but let us acknowledge that as Putin tested, provoked, and confronted the West, the West missed countless opportunities to deter him.

The conflict in Ukraine is both a war and a warning, which the West cannot afford to misjudge. It is concerning that, even now, as the United States and Europe finally impose the sanctions promised for “further invasion,” the sanctions are not resounding and comprehensive. The West must permanently shut off Nord Stream 2, ban imports of Russian oil, freeze many more assets of Kremlin oligarchs and Putin himself, close Russia entirely, not partially, out of SWIFT, expel Russia from international organizations such as Interpol, and hasten measures against cyber and electronic warfare. Also concerning are reports that Biden fears giving Ukraine all the weaponry it needs risks “escalating” the war; given all of Russia’s escalation in the face of Western inertia, this is upside down. The United States must give Ukraine the full package of military materiel it urgently requests, share critical intelligence with Ukraine, and provide front-line states with forbidding modern defense capabilities. Russian atrocities must be cataloged with the aim of prosecuting Russia for war crimes. Voice of America-type programs for the digital age should appeal to the consciences of Russians.

Horrific scenes from Ukraine shock us and break our hearts. Westerners didn’t think this was the world “we” live in, but here is Russia’s ferocious war, right on our doorstep. The West is finally awakening to the Russian threat to our security and our humanity, with the EU’s newly robust stand especially notable, but time is of the essence. The West now has no choice but to seize every opportunity to isolate, resist, and weaken Putin’s Russia.

This article was originally published in The Washington Examiner on March 10, 2022. Read the full article here.