Is a Military Conflict Between America and Russia in the Making?

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​So far, Moscow’s military operation in Ukraine has been limited, and not only in name.

by Dimitri K. Simes , NATIONAL INTEREST

As the war between Russia and Ukraine drags on into its fourth month, it is increasingly apparent that neither side is likely to achieve a decisive victory any time soon. It is similarly apparent that simply letting the sides bleed each other white, on the assumption that the conflict will remain a limited one, is reckless. The fresh dispute between Moscow and Vilnius over Lithuania’s decision to severely limit the transport of Russian goods to Kaliningrad is merely the latest example of how easily the confrontation between the two sides may spin out of control. The costs of indefinite hostilities now loom large, ranging from the disastrous local impact on Ukraine itself to severe global economic consequences—particularly in the food and energy sectors—going far beyond Ukraine, and Europe more generally—with the potential to destabilize the international system itself.

​NATO can undoubtedly strengthen Ukraine’s position by providing more arms and military training, enabling Kyiv to achieve limited tactical successes. But should these successes—contrary to current conventional wisdom—go beyond territories conquered by Russia after February 24 and start to look like a humiliating defeat for the Putin government, Moscow is more than capable of significant escalation, both through military mobilization and putting the economy on a war footing. Such a development might well force the United States to choose between suffering a major military setback in Ukraine or moving up the escalation ladder—closer and closer to the nuclear threshold. Those who dismiss Moscow’s ability to improve its military situation forget that Russia today is fighting not just a “special military operation” but indeed a limited war, one quite different from a full-scale war where Moscow would deploy all the resources it could muster—military, economic, and political—if absolutely necessary for the protection of the regime.

Washington, meanwhile, continues to raise the stakes by the week. The more modern heavy and offensive U.S. and NATO weapons go to the Zelenskyy government, and the more Washington and Brussels portray Ukraine as a key defender of Western interests and values, the faster they become the de facto proprietors of the Ukrainian project. The collapse of this project under the force of Russian arms, therefore, would not just be demeaning for the United States but would in fact undermine America’s global credibility and effectiveness. Such an outcome would be calamitous for the Biden administration and the Democrats on the eve of the November midterm elections, and there would surely be strong pressure to adopt further steps to accommodate Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s constant demands for increased weapons and support. How Moscow would view these efforts is not difficult to predict; President Joe Biden’s references to World War III are not hyperbole but reflect real dangers. 

​There has been remarkably little serious evaluation of how we got to this dangerous point. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is widely and frequently described as illegal and unprovoked. The charge of illegality is probably true if the criteria for a legal invasion require that one is either attacked first or receives approval for their military action through UN Security Council resolution. By these same criteria, however, NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia in 1999 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 were also illegal. In both cases, most other nations—Russia included—did not feel compelled to launch any significant counteraction, particularly to the point of making such opposition a defining element of their foreign policy. As far as unprovoked goes, it is difficult to view this charge as anything more than a convenient cliché. Since the 1990s, Russia has regularly raised alarms over NATO’s expansion toward its borders, including into nations with strong grievances against Russia, as a major threat to its security. One may disagree with the Russian perspective, but it was well-known and taken seriously by many American foreign policy experts, including George F. Kennan who voiced some of his reservations in this magazine.

In Moscow’s view, the current Ukrainian regime came to power in 2014 through an armed rebellion that succeeded in overthrowing the corrupt and inept but legally elected Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. This insurrection elicited warm support from leading European governments and the United States. To comprehend Russian ire, simply imagine if the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol—which involved far less bloodshed and casualties on both sides than the events in Kyiv in February 2014—had found the enthusiastic support of Vladimir Putin, or for that matter, if Moscow had succeeded in overthrowing the Mexican government and orchestrated its replacement with Russian supporters.

​Russia’s invasion of Ukraine did not come without warning or without attempts to address its concerns through diplomatic means. Quite the contrary. In late 2021, Moscow presented a list of security demands, most notably of official NATO membership for Ukraine and of what it viewed as NATO’s military absorption of Ukraine. Moscow formulated these demands in a way that was clearly unacceptable to the United States and its allies, but there was nonetheless an opportunity—particularly since there were no plans to offer NATO membership to Ukraine any time soon—to engage the Russians in a serious conversation on the issue and to try to find a mutually acceptable diplomatic formula. Instead, the United States and NATO contemptuously dismissed the Russian ultimatum—not just rhetorically, but with new rounds of sanctions and new arms supplies to Kyiv. It was the exact opposite of what Putin sought to obtain. The West’s response came in such a categorical and—as the Russians perceived—dismissive fashion that quite a few experts on Russian state television argued that the United States perhaps intended to provoke Russia, in order to push it to attack Ukraine and create a fresh quagmire like the one the Soviet Union experienced in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

​At the time, President Zelensky was right to be skeptical of President Biden’s warnings that a Russian invasion of Ukraine was imminent because such an attack was neither imminent nor even decided on by Putin. Russia used its military maneuvers with Belarus to position its forces and make a point—to use them as military leverage against Ukraine—but there were not enough forces for a full-scale military invasion, as demonstrated when the invasion actually took place. Not only key people in the Russian government but also top military commanders were unaware in advance that an invasion was imminent, which contributed to the confused beginning of the Russian military operation. A major reason so few people—even those close to Putin, including top foreign policy and national security officials—knew of the invasion until almost the last moment was because no such decision had yet been reached. As one senior official considered familiar with the Russian leader’s thinking told me, Putin “in fact has hoped against hope that at the end of the day, serious negotiations would start, and no military action would be necessary.” Instead, Washington called Moscow’s bluff, leaving Putin with the painful choice of either looking weak and discredited or pushing the button for an invasion.

​It was, of course, President Putin who ordered the attack, and it is he who must accept responsibility for the consequences. As Pope Francis recently observed, however, leaders in Washington, London, and Brussels—leaders who were so cavalier with Russian demands even when NATO membership was never in the cards for Ukraine—created what certainly appeared to Russians as an intentional provocation.

​As the clock was ticking for Moscow to make a decision about what to do after the West rejected its ultimatum, a number of leading Russian experts suggested that Washington and Brussels’s rejection of Russian demands was so categorical and indeed unnecessary—Ukraine, after all, was not on the track for NATO membership, and the Biden administration forswore the use of military force to protect it—that the most logical explanation was that Biden and his advisors were in fact intentionally provoking Russia to attack Ukraine. This argument was made, for instance, on a Channel One talk show by Konstantin Remchukov, an independent-minded but well-connected publisher of the prominent newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. At the end of the day, Putin clearly decided that—provocation or not—he on balance needed to proceed with what is called in Moscow the “special military operation” against Ukraine.

After four months, it is fair to say that the operation has not unfolded in quite the way the Russian government had hoped, either militarily or politically. The Ukrainian military has thus far put up stiffer resistance than the Biden administration had expected in February when the United States quickly evacuated its embassy in Kyiv and offered President Zelensky assistance in fleeing his capital. The Biden administration is no doubt pleased with the unprecedented unity it has achieved inside NATO and, more broadly, the collective West. That unparalleled show of unity came on top of uniquely severe and broad sanctions against Russia. Equally extraordinary is the $5.6 billion in military aid pledged by Washington to Kyiv since February. Such military assistance from the United States as well as its allies—forty countries altogether—has allowed the Ukrainian army to achieve truly impressive results in combat against the Russian military with its far-superior artillery and air force.

​The key problem for the Biden administration is that the Putin government has also accomplished impressive successes of its own. Standing virtually alone against the collective West—including the most developed democratic nations in North America, Europe, and the Pacific—Russia today remains undefeated and defiant. After initial setbacks that forced Moscow to curtail its initial objectives, Russia has achieved tactical successes on the battlefield in the Donbas and southern Ukraine. Even after freezing half of the Russian central bank’s gold and hard currency reserves, Western sanctions have so far done little damage to Russia’s ability to maintain a reasonably normal level of economic activity and to sustain high levels of production of arms and munitions. Apart from the collective West, moreover, most nations have simply refused to isolate Russia. Even those that voted at the United Nations General Assembly in support of non-binding resolutions critical of Russian actions did so in most cases under Western pressure rather than out of real conviction. Even on a symbolic level, crucial countries such as China and India have refused to condemn Russia, making clear they want to maintain normal relations with Moscow and indeed strengthen their economic ties to the extent possible, without blatantly violating Western sanctions and triggering painful reprisals. Perhaps most importantly, the West’s unity around severe and comprehensive sanctions has come at a steep price: the consolidation of the bulk of Russian society around Putin. Numerous opinion polls—including those conducted by independent and opposition-minded groups—suggest that after four months of hostilities, nuclear-armed Russia stands united and ready to face the Western challenge.

​So far, Moscow’s military operation in Ukraine has been limited, and not only in name. From the very beginning, there were simply not enough troops for a wholesale invasion, particularly for an ambitious attack on Kyiv which the Russian military initially undertook. This fact was one reason why the Zelenskyy government expressed skepticism at the time that Russia was planning a full-scale invasion. While Russia today remains superior in most categories of military hardware, as far as manpower is concerned, many experts believe that Ukraine—after several military mobilizations—has more soldiers in the field than the Russian Army. Russia has so far commenced no military mobilizations; the new conscripts sent to Ukraine early in the invasion have proven to be the exception. There is a long list of actions that Moscow has not taken which were initially anticipated by NATO in the event of a full-scale invasion. While Russia has not hesitated to proceed with indiscriminate bombardment when it lacked enough precision-guided munitions and intelligence information, it has acted overall with considerable restraint—for instance, not attacking major government buildings, power and TV stations, and presidential residences in Kyiv. Foreign leaders have even visited Zelenskyy, coming to Kyiv by train without any evident effort on the part of Russia to block their movement or, even more so, target them with missiles or air power. Despite multiple rhetorical threats from Moscow, Russian forces have not attacked warehouses, airfields, train stations, and highways outside Ukraine, through which neighboring countries have delivered military aid to Kyiv. Major cyber-attacks and sabotage operations, which are considered a part of Russian operational code, have also failed to materialize.

​Putin has indeed been determined to proceed as long as possible with a limited military operation, which allows him to maintain relative normalcy inside Russia. Western sanctions have nonetheless continued to grow in magnitude and are increasingly targeted at individuals with only casual connections to the Putin regime, such as the offspring of Russian officials’ earlier marriages or successful entrepreneurs without established ties to Putin. Many were put on sanctions lists simply for belonging to a certain targeted category, whether in the media or the energy sector. Such sanctions have predictably created an impression in Russia that the real target is not the Putin regime or the Russian military, but rather the Russian people at large. Putin has fortunately resisted channeling the growing anti-Western wrath of the Russian people into escalation, transforming his special military operation into a “patriotic war.” It would be a grave miscalculation, however, not to appreciate the very real potential for such a scénario.

​There is no certainty what red lines Putin has for deciding to escalate from the limited military operation to a level of “patriotic war.” Tactical setbacks in the Donbas, particularly in the territories occupied by Russia after February 24, would presumably not be in that category, but there remain several plausible scenarios that could trigger a qualitative escalation on the Russian side. Ukrainian officials, for instance, now speak about using new NATO weapons to destroy the Crimean Bridgeand even talk of retaking Crimea. In the Russian mind, such a move would constitute a major attack on Russian territory. Then there are Poland and the Baltic states, who view Russia not just as a threat but as a hated monster that must be dismantled or, at a minimum, humiliated, creating an impression that they are almost looking for a fight with Moscow. Having just restricted transportation lines across its territory to Kaliningrad, Lithuania has left the Russian province dependent on supplies by sea. One can easily imagine that if these restrictions continue, the Russian reaction will not be fundamentally different from the U.S. reaction to the Soviet Union’s blockade of West Berlin in 1948. To add fuel to the fire, Polish officials now threaten to restrict Russian sea access to Kaliningrad and have even suggested they may accept responsibility for providing air defenses to western Ukraine. As President Biden himself has observed on occasion, such action from a NATO country could make the alliance a direct participant in the war in Ukraine. Hopes that Russia would then hesitate to proceed with a military response may prove to be wishful thinking.

U.S. intelligence predicted a number of hostile actions on the part of Russia in the lead-up to February 24 that have so far not materialized but may very well be in the offing—ranging from quiet but steady tie-building with hostile countries and movements (such as Iran, North Korea, Nicaragua, and the Taliban) to the development of cyber and nuclear attack plans. U.S. intelligence argues that they have so far not seen Russia engage in nuclear preparations, but it is not clear what kind of preparations they are talking about. If such preparations were easily apparent, Russia would of course be accused of nuclear warmongering, angering not only Western countries but even those otherwise sympathetic to Moscow—among them, China and India. In contrast to American media, where there are regular discussions of the Biden administration’s efforts to conduct hybrid warfare against Russia, you will not find similar detailed discussions in the Russian public space of institutions preparing hostile actions against the United States, similar to the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. There is growing momentum in Moscow, however, to prepare a list of options for Russia, ranging from economic counter-sanctions to active measures, which could be made available to Putin at a moment’s notice. On the ultimate danger of nuclear catastrophe, the most discussed but least likely scenario is the one sometimes heard on Russian television, where guests—earnestly or in cheek—engage in bombast about using strategic missiles against the United States and annihilating the East Coast. If Russia suffers major reverses that threaten its control over Crimea or Kaliningrad, its ability to export food and energy, or its very financial and domestic stability, the use of tactical nuclear weapons would be right in tune with Russian military doctrine. This scenario would likely be seriously considered by senior Russian officials, many of whom tend to think that U.S. and EU leaders are neither crazy nor willing to risk a full-scale nuclear war over something short of existential interests. Of course, the definition of an existential interest can easily change if nuclear weapons of any yield are involved.

​Given the conflicting objectives of Russia and Ukraine, their contrasting hopes of how the conflict will evolve, and the fluid situation on the battlefield, reaching an agreement at this point remains quite unlikely. Acknowledging this reality does not mean, however, that we should simply settle for a continued shooting war between Moscow and Kyiv, without any meaningful dialogue between Washington and Moscow. The danger today is not a frozen conflict, but a broader conflagration—one that may explode at almost any moment, triggered by an unanticipated event such as the assassination of an archduke in Sarajevo in 1914. 

It is one thing to argue that there should be no settlement without the Ukrainian government’s involvement and agreement, but it is another thing entirely to outsource negotiations with another nuclear power to Kyiv. The most fundamental responsibility of the Biden administration is to assure the survival of the republic. The Ukrainians are entitled to wield veto power over any territorial arrangement with Russia, but they cannot—and should not—exercise a veto power over U.S. decisionmaking, including the types and quantities of weapons the United States provides to Ukraine, and even more so, what kind of general relationship (sanctions included) Washington chooses to adopt with the only other nation capable of destroying the United States. Putin has demonstrated that he is willing and able to make ruthless and daring military decisions. His strategic vision notwithstanding, he is also the product of a different political culture and has his own narrative of what has transpired between Russia and the West. That narrative is quite different from the one that prevails in Washington and can bring Putin to reach different conclusions than those widely held in the West. Assuming that Moscow will act upon American definitions of caution could lead to a fatal miscalculation.

Dimitri K. Simes is president of The Center for the National Interest and publisher & CEO of the National Interest.

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