Averting the U.S.-Russia Warpath

    James N. Miller, Richard Fontaine, Alexander Velez-Green

    Security, Europe

    A Russian serviceman walks past the Buk-1M missile system at the Army-2015 international military forum in Kubinka, outside Moscow, Russia

    Even as U.S.-Russian tensions have risen, fundamental shifts in the military-technological environment threaten to erode strategic stability between the two nations.

    FOR NEARLY twenty years following the end of the Cold War, military confrontation between the United States and the Russian Federation seemed implausible. Even during periods of tension, as during the Kosovo crisis in the late 1990s, few believed that disagreement between Washington and Moscow could lead to a serious crisis, no less war. Before the first decade of the new century had passed, however, Russian officials were accusing the United States of working to isolate Russia. Such apprehensions have mounted steadily in Russia in the years since. At the same time, Russian behavior, including interventions in Ukraine and Syria, military posturing and harassment in Europe, and interference in Western elections, has led many in the United States to conclude that, while a U.S.-Russian conflict is by no means inevitable, the risk of such a confrontation is growing.

    Even as U.S.-Russian tensions have risen, fundamental shifts in the military-technological environment threaten to erode strategic stability between the two nations. In the coming years, both sides’ extensive dependence on information technology, coupled with likely perceptions of lower risk for the use of “nonkinetic” and nonlethal attacks, are creating new incentives to use cyber and/or counterspace weapons early in a crisis or conflict. At the same time, the advent of novel cyber, counterspace, precision-strike, missile-defense and autonomous military systems could cause one or both nations to lose confidence in their nuclear second-strike capabilities—thereby eroding the stability afforded by mutually assured destruction.

    WASHINGTON AND Moscow hold divergent—and, in some cases, directly contradictory—views of the international security environment. Whereas Russian leaders see their country as behaving in a fundamentally defensive manner, the United States and NATO perceive a revanchist actor intent on reimposing its will in eastern Europe and Central Asia.

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