- - Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Some good news on the foreign policy front has been the agreement by Presidents Biden and Putin to extend the arms control accord limiting strategic arms — a welcome step for international security. Yet, it would be foolish to pat ourselves on the back and think we have genuinely stabilized the smoldering train wreck of the U.S.-Russia relationship.

Mr. Biden made clear in October 2020 his view that Russia represents the most serious threat to U.S. national security. After December reports alleging Russia perpetrated a wide-ranging hack of the U.S. government, one might reasonably expect that Moscow and Washington remain practically on a war footing. 

The Russian defense minister revealed just before Christmas that U.S. military forces are now making bellicose approaches proximate to Russian borders at a rate 15% higher than last year. Such forces do not just amount to light infantry, but rather constitute more offensive-oriented weapons like armor, attack helicopters, nuclear attack submarines, and also strategic bombers.

The Western press is now fixated on the fate of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and related protests. However, this mixing of domestic political issues, along with the various cyber complications, has created a troubling “perfect storm” for U.S.-Russia relations.

In fact, the genuine harm caused by alleged Russian cyber-intrusions remains all too theoretical. They are credited with causing some trouble with an Estonian bank at one point. Apparently, the lights went out in a part of the Ukrainian grid briefly. We were told that Brexit was also the result of a Russian cyber hack, but that claim was later walked back, as were many more in this genre. The “great” social media campaign against the U.S. election in 2016 seems to have amounted to a rather miniscule effort — nor was it remotely sophisticated.



The fact that Russian trolls were as or more active after that election is explained away by the fact that Russians simply intended to “divide America,” as if divisions are somehow a new phenomenon in American society. Now, let’s put that unfortunate silliness out of mind and turn to a genuinely grave national security threat — namely nuclear weapons issues in U.S.-Russia relations. 

On Dec. 12, a Russian Borey-class strategic nuclear submarine launched a salvo of four intercontinental ballistic missiles from the Sea of Okhotsk into the White Sea on the other side of Russia. It is no exaggeration to say that a single one of these submarines, wielding 16 Bulava SLBMS with 6-10 multiple-independently reentry vehicles (MIRVs) could end life as we know it in the United States.

Only a few days before, Russian forces exercised all three parts of the nuclear triad, including both a land-based ICBM, as well as Tu-160 strategic bombers that fired air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs). To boot, another Russian submarine in the Barents let fly with an SLBM — this one flying east. Do these steps reflect Russian paranoia?

But of course — and yet, unnecessary American and NATO provocations are also clearly contributing to heightened tensions with Moscow. U.S. and Russian armed forces find themselves in very close proximity, including among the hot embers of at least two conflict zones — whether in Syria or in eastern Ukraine. If the Ukraine conflict heats up during the early period of a Biden administration, who is to say where the escalation will end? 

Despite the characterization of the Trump administration as representing a pro-Russian line, it would actually be quite difficult to conceive of a much harder line emanating from Washington. After all, several consulates were closed, sanctions were increased, Russian gas deals with Europe have been vigorously opposed, lethal aid was given to Ukraine, military exercises around Russia’s borders increased apace, American cyber-warriors are reported to have taken the gloves off, and a whole slew of arms control treaties were demolished.   

The Biden administration could actually attempt to improve this most critical bilateral relationship. The new president might, as a first constructive step, order his appointees to stop referring to Russia as an “adversary,” much less as the “preeminent threat.” Such rhetoric may serve momentary psychological needs (e.g. othering) and swell the stock price of various defense contractors, but it also fuels the military tensions that are obvious and increasingly dangerous.

Watching the heavy-handed policing against Navalny supporters in many Russian cities, more than a few Western pundits are ready to welcome a Moscow version of the “Maidan” — the revolution in Kiev in early 2014 that plunged Ukraine into a civil war. However, such a viewpoint is remarkably short-sighted, not least because a Russia consumed by chaos and violence would actually not accord at all with U.S. interests. 

Americans need to know that Russia’s massive nuclear forces are under singular, stable, and rational control — not in the grips of a fracturing state facing the possibility of civil war. Moreover, a stable and prosperous Russia will also be critical to the world’s recovery from an economic crisis wrought by the global pandemic.

• Lyle J. Goldstein is research professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He was the founder of the China Maritime Studies Institute there and is also an affiliate of the college’s Russia Maritime Studies Institute. The opinions in the article are entirely his own and do not reflect any official assessment of the U.S. Navy.

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