Maybe it was Vladimir Putin’s rapidly declining popularity following Moscow’s implementation of some long-delayed entitlement reforms. Maybe it was the perception in the Kremlin that the time was right to destabilize the hostile Poroshenko government in Kiev, which will face Ukraine’s already discontented voters in March. Whatever the rationale, Russia’s decision to inaugurate a maritime crisis with Ukraine over the weekend represents a major escalation of its semi-frozen war with Ukraine and arguably marks the most significant episode of Russian brinkmanship since Putin’s 2015 intervention in the Syrian civil war.
Russia’s violations of international law and Ukrainian sovereignty are serious. They disrupted global navigation rights by shutting down access to the Sea of Azov, fired on Ukrainian vessels, captured its sailors, and paraded them on television engaging in what appears to be forced confessions. Ukraine responded by unleashing a barrage of artillery on dug-in positions occupied by so-called “separatist” elements in the country’s east and by declaring martial law in the regions under Russian threat.
It is not in Russia’s interest to spark a broader armed conflict in Europe. Moscow is not well-positioned to draw such a conflict to a quick and decisive conclusion, but that doesn’t mean actions like these won’t one day result in a major confrontation. History is replete with big wars that no one intended to fight.
The prospect of an accidental war resulting from a spiraling series of escalating reprisals as a result of Moscow’s reckless militarism shouldn’t just scare the Kremlin. Such a prospect should shock Washington D.C. out of its complacency. On paper, the United States is the most militarily capable country on the planet with unrivaled technological capacities and the unmatched power to project force over long distances and for sustained periods of time.
Earlier this month, the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission released its congressionally-commissioned review of the state of America’s armed forces, and there are plenty of causes for concern. In sum, America is spending itself out of the superpower business. What it euphemistically calls U.S. “strategic insolvency,” at which point America’s means will be insufficient to achieve its desired ends, is rapidly approaching.
More dispiritingly, foreign state-level adversaries looking for a moment of American weakness may not have to wait for an insolvency crisis. The commission warned that the United States is in danger of “being overwhelmed should its military be forced to fight on two or more fronts simultaneously.”
While the commission repeatedly warned that “major-power competition” should be at the forefront of U.S. strategic planning, and deterring actors like North Korea, Iran, Russia, and China from miscalculating into direct conflict with the United States demands substantial forward deployments, there is a contradiction at work. Forward deployments are expensive, politically complicated for their host countries, and contrary to the Defense Department’s paradigmatic belief that leaner and meaner is a more valuable investment in an age of asymmetric threats and non-state actors. But of course, the costs associated with the breakdown of deterrence are too great to be contemplated.
The commission provides a series of blood-chilling near-term scenarios that could plausibly occur and which would present the president—this president—with the terrible choice between avoiding mass casualties or preserving irreplaceable American interests. But all those scenarios involve the deliberate actions of revanchist powers like North Korea, Russia, and China escalating tensions and forcing Washington to respond predictably. Often, conflicts like these are unpredicted because they are not intended—the result of insufficient deterrence.
As this report notes, NATO’s footprint in Europe is insufficient to deter Moscow from risking a change to the status quo and daring the West to respond. This risks nuclear conflict, to say nothing of asymmetric information, electronic, and anti-satellite warfare. The commission’s report is a terrifying read, but it is predicated on some assumptions about the threat posed by revisionist powers: namely, that they know what they’re doing. But what if they don’t?