Putin has a history of behaving in an irrational manner in the perspective of many Americans. courtesy Wikimedia Commons

It’s time the U.S. takes a stronger approach to Russia

The U.S. response to Russia’s aggression is historically weak. It’s time for the U.S. to change tactics.

As Russian forces in Ukraine continue to make blunder after blunder, Putin continues to remind everyone of his willingness to use nuclear weapons. Although the fact that he’s saying he is willing to doesn’t mean that he actually is planning to — the principles of nuclear deterrence require that he at least signals willingness to use them under certain circumstances, otherwise they’re not a credible threat and he might as well not have them — it begs the question, if he decides to use tactical nuclear weapons, how should the United States respond?

Ellen Mitchell of The Hill reports that the most likely response would have a conventional and a diplomatic component. Use of nuclear weapons would likely put diplomatic pressure on neutral and weakly-Russian-aligned countries to enact economic and diplomatic sanctions. Additionally, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization effort to destroy conventional (non-nuclear) assets in Ukraine and the Black Sea would probably ensue. Ukraine would also be provided with some systems which have been withheld from Ukraine thus far, such as Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) surface-to-surface missiles, which are faster and have a longer range than anything previously supplied to Ukraine, but are also fewer in number than the guided multiple launch rocket system (GMLRS) missiles they currently have.

That certainly sounds… adequate. But despite the dysfunction of the Russian military, frequently outwitted by a much smaller nation using such devious, cunning and novel tactics as “logistics chains” and “combined arms warfare,” the rump state of the USSR has always been able to play a weak geopolitical hand rather strongly, and I believe one reason for this is that the West has generally been unwilling to apply any strong punitive actions to Russian aggression in the past. Both the W. Bush and Obama administrations more or less opted for the fearsome “strongly worded letter” strategy in response to the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia and the 2014 invasion of Crimea.

Given that development theory was the consensus in Washington at the time, these responses are understandable, but with the benefit of hindsight we can see that 1) the invasion of Ukraine absolutely did not take place in a vacuum and 2) a firmer response to these earlier, smaller acts of aggression, perhaps involving economic sanctions or limited military support to the invaded regions, could have contributed to deterring an invasion of Ukraine. Although the Western response to the latest invasion of Ukraine has been considerably stronger than responses to either Georgia or Crimea, it still seems like a tit-for-tat, proportionate response.

Perhaps a more effective solution to Russian nuclear use, then, would be to “up the ante” and, in addition to conventional targets, sink a Russian nuclear submarine or otherwise damage Russia’s capacity to use nuclear weapons. Some might say that this would only push Putin into further nuclear escalation but I believe this assumption relies on the belief that Putin is behaving in an irrational manner when in fact he is guided by a different calculus than Western leaders, which is internally consistent even if it appears crazy.

The RAND Corporation has analyzed Russian grand strategy in depth, and has concluded that Russian elites are very concerned with maintaining dominance within the former Soviet bloc, and plan to exploit perceived decline in the West to fulfill this aim. One critical reason why Russia is opposed to former Soviet countries joining NATO is not because that represents a direct threat to Russia, but rather to Russia’s ability to coerce, dominate and brow-beat those countries, hence the invasion — which is perfectly rational from a Russian perspective. Thus, if we eliminate the perceived weakness by indicating a willingness to escalate, Russia will have no choice but to update its strategy, taking into account the knowledge that the combined military and economic potential of the West vastly exceeds his own and can credibly threaten him. The ultimate result would not be further nuclear escalation, since Putin knows that an all-out nuclear exchange would leave Russia even more devastated than the West.

Hopefully, we won’t need to find out whether I’m right or wrong. Even with an uncontroversial, standard response from the West on Russian nuclear use, there are plenty of reasons why it would still be a very bad idea on Putin’s part. Because of that, I’m inclined to believe that his recent statements don’t indicate that he intends to use nukes, and are strategic posturing more than anything else. Nonetheless, the Western approach to Russia has barely changed since the end of the Cold War. Perhaps it’s time we ask ourselves if we can change Russia’s behavior by changing our own strategy.

Post Author: Dominic Cingoranelli