July 16, 2019
Testimony: Confronting the Russian Challenge
Russia poses a significant threat to the United States and its allies for which the West is not ready. The West must act urgently to meet this threat without exaggerating it. Russia today does not have the military strength of the Soviet Union. It is a poor state with an economy roughly the size of Canada’s, a population less than half that of the U.S., and demographic trends indicating that it will lose strength over time. It is not a conventional military near-peer nor will it become so. Its unconventional warfare and information operations pose daunting but not insuperable challenges. The U.S. and its allies must develop a coherent global approach to meeting and transcending the Russian challenge.
The Russian Threat
President Vladimir Putin has invaded two of his neighbors, Georgia and Ukraine, partly to stop them from aligning with NATO and the West. He has also illegally annexed territory from both those states. He has established a military base in the eastern Mediterranean that he uses to interfere with, shape, and restrict the operations of the U.S. and the anti-ISIS coalition. He has given cover to Bashar al Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and Russian agents have used military-grade chemical weapons in assassination attempts in Great Britain. Russia has threatened to use nuclear weapons, even in regional and local conflicts. And Moscow has interfered in elections and domestic political discourse in the U.S. and Europe.
The Russian threat’s effectiveness results mainly from the West’s weaknesses. NATO’s European members are not meeting their full commitments to the alliance to maintain the fighting power needed to deter and defeat the emerging challenge from Moscow. Increasing political polarization and the erosion of trust by Western peoples in their governments creates vulnerabilities that the Kremlin has adroitly exploited.
Moscow’s success in manipulating Western perceptions of and reactions to its activities has fueled the development of an approach to warfare that the West finds difficult to understand, let alone counter. Shaping the information space is the primary effort to which Russian military operations, even conventional military operations, are frequently subordinated in this way of war. Russia obfuscates its activities and confuses the discussion so that many people throw up their hands and say simply, “Who knows if the Russians really did that? Who knows if it was legal?”—thus paralyzing the West’s responses.