Responding to Russia without war

By Bonnie Kristian

A war of words between the Obama and Putin administrations is well underway.

After the White House formally accused the Russian government of hacking American targets, including Democratic Party leadership, in an effort to influence the U.S. election, Moscow replied with accusations of its own.

“We have witnessed a fundamental change of circumstances when it comes to the aggressive Russophobia that now lies at the heart of U.S. policy towards Russia,” claimed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “It’s not just a rhetorical Russophobia, but aggressive steps that really hurt our national interests and pose a threat to our security.”

Since then, the CIA is reportedly preparing for a retaliatory cyber-attack on Russia after White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest indicated President Obama is considering possible responses to the alleged hacks. As that response is debated, now is the time for Washington to be prudent, not recklessly reactionary. Toughness must not be conflated with an ill-advised rush toward war.

Already this war of words comes in the context of tense diplomatic relations in Syria, where the United States and Russia find themselves on opposite sides of a grueling civil war thanks in significant part to confused American policy of at once opposing the Islamic State and Syria’s Assad regime, which is a major Russian ally.With key U.S. allies tossing out allegations of Russian war crimes in Aleppo, hotheaded missteps from Washington over the hacking debacle risk dangerous and unnecessary escalation.

Lavrov’s comments envision a paranoid Russia even now on edge where America (and the West more broadly) is concerned. The Russian perception that the United States is actively threatening their national security need not be accurate to have serious real-world consequences.

There “is a pervasive belief in Russia’s security community…that Russia already is at war—an undeclared, largely covert one—with the West,” explains Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. If Washington unnecessarily corners Russia with escalating rhetoric, cyber-plots, and skirmishes in Syria, our government could unintentionally foster a threat where one need not otherwise exist.

After all, as Galeotti adds, “All nation…are capable of the most brutal of measures if they truly believe themselves at direct and serious risk.” If the United States fails to keep Russia relations in proper perspective and instead indulges in undue escalation, provoking such brutal measures from an already paranoid and nuclear Russia is a real possibility.

It is in this context that it becomes vitally important to keep the threat Russia does—and doesn’t—pose in perspective. Militarily, the United States easily has Russia outmatched, as Politico has summarized:

The United States spends seven times the amount of money on defense as Russia ($598 billion vs. $84 billion), has nearly twice the number of active duty personnel (1.4 million vs. 766,000), just under six times as many helicopters (approximately 6,000 vs. 1,200), three times the number of fighters (2,300 vs. 751) and four times the total number of aircraft. We have 10 aircraft carriers, the Russians have one.

The military capabilities of key American allies in Europe likewise put Russia’s position in useful perspective; for instance, the U.K. alone outspends Russia on defense every year.

It is precisely because of this comparative weakness that Russia is so desperate to keep the friendly Bashar al-Assad regime in power in Syria, and willing to commit such atrocities to do so. The U.S. must make a realistic assessment of Russian fears and commitments and respond in a way that avoids unnecessary conflict.

Indeed, at present, “Russia actually represents a very limited threat to the United States of America,” as military historian and Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich recently argued. Some believe “Putin’s Russia can be equated to Stalin’s Soviet Union,” he continued, “and therefore every time Putin exercises a modest amount of muscle, that somehow that ought to lead to a U.S. military response. I think that that also would be a reckless way to approach Russia." U.S.-Russian relations are dry tinder, and we should not light a match.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, Politico, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

This piece was originally published by The Huffington Post on October 21, 2016. Read more HERE.