Fyodor Lukyanov is the editor of Russia in Global Affairs.
MOSCOW — The new U.S. National Defense Strategy, unveiled by Secretary of Defense James Mattis Friday, officially pushes the Pentagon into confrontation with Russia and China. Strange as it may seem, many in Moscow seem to like this: it reminds them of the Cold War, when things were quite clear and everyone knew how to behave. But time cannot be reversed. And while former militarization can be restored, there is no way to make it as orderly as it once was.
The strategy presented by the Pentagon accurately reflects the new outlook symbolized by President Donald Trump. The post-Cold War era, when America unexpectedly became a world hegemon, is over. “For decades the United States has enjoyed uncontested or dominant superiority in every operating domain,” the new defense strategy reads. “We could generally deploy our forces when we wanted, assemble them where we wanted, and operate how we wanted. Today, every domain is contested — air, land, sea, space and cyberspace.”
Challenges the U.S. faces today come primarily from competition with major powers, rather than just pariahs — terrorists targeted by the previous defense strategy — and global processes, like climate and demography. “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security,” the defense strategy reads. “America’s military has no preordained right to victory on the battlefield.” This means a return to the classic pattern of international relations and traditional objectives of realpolitik.
What does all this mean for Russia, which along with China, has been officially named a U.S. strategic rival? First, welcome to the club. The liberal world order discourse — a positive-sum game which honors interdependence instead of competition, economy above security — has never been taken seriously in Moscow. The “balance of power” idea, the basic realpolitik notion, appears several times in the new U.S. defense strategy. In Russia, it has always been part of the nation’s political thinking and rhetoric, while the West at some point started to view it as an anachronism. Now Russia and the U.S. are once again using the same conceptual language.
Second, the fact that Russia has been clearly identified as a competitor will be accepted by many in Moscow with a sigh of relief, as it has never thought otherwise (except for a very short period at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s) and has regarded statements to the contrary as hypocrisy. Now rhetoric matches reality.
Third, the new defense strategy’s statement that cooperation is possible only “from a position of strength and based on our national interests” appears to be quite suitable for Russia as it strengthens Moscow’s own approach. The emphasis placed by the U.S. strategy on technological advancement will allow Russian generals to demand more funding for similar purposes. Here, Trump is consistent — he spoke about the need to build up military strength 30 years ago as well as three years ago.
Trump’s past flattering remarks about President Vladimir Putin and the continuous attacks accusing Trump of collusion with Russia at some point created an illusion that he was looking forward to improving relations between the two countries. But the results of his first year in office are nearly disastrous for U.S.-Russian relations. Whether this happened intentionally or unintentionally does not really matter.
Trump may have hoped for some tactical agreement with Moscow, primarily on the Middle East, but this never happened. There are several reasons why, but the most obvious one is the internal political infighting in the U.S. around accusations of Russian interference in the American election. Faced with that, Trump easily gave up his intentions simply because Russia is actually not very important for him.
His main goal is to change economic relations with the rest of the world, primarily China, the Asian “tigers” and Europe. Russia plays a minor role in the global economy, and Trump will not exert any serious effort on the Russian track. He expected quick and easy returns from his steps toward the Kremlin and immediately abandoned them when political costs appeared much higher than expected.
In form, Russian-American relations have returned to the Cold War model: military competition, a potential arms race and deterrence. But in reality, the situation is completely different. How?
First, the clash between Moscow and Washington is not central to the international system, which is polycentric, chaotic and diverse. A common conceptual outlook (balance of power, national interests, etc.) cannot revive the mechanisms of ensuring global stability that worked 40 years ago. Cold War-era recipes will no longer be effective — there are too many other actors who do not listen to either Russia or America.
Second, all borders are permeable in the global world, and no one knows how to regulate external influence on states. Russia used to accuse the U.S. of interference in its internal affairs — of openly supporting anti-government protests, funding opposition-minded nonprofits and media outlets, and criticizing domestic decisions, including legal ones. Now, in kind, the U.S. is accusing Russia of massive election meddling and hostile media coverage. There is no way the two countries can agree on mutual non-interference, because each understands it differently. What one calls soft power, the other views as an attempt to undermine his state, and vice versa.
Many in Moscow believe that Trump’s America is readjusting its position in the world. Time has come for the U.S. to move from global leadership and global regulation to a foreign policy aimed at ensuring more concrete national interests. Trump happens to be directing this transition, which would be the case with any president, although most likely in smoother form.
A key element of this transition is the emphasis on power as a means of ensuring not global U.S. leadership but global superiority and the ability to advance U.S. interests in every way possible. Power means, first and foremost, classic military power, as both the new U.S. National Security Strategy (released in December) and the new defense strategy clearly state. This will increasingly require clearly identified adversaries, which makes Russia a perfect target both psychologically — the Cold War-era inertia is very strong — and practically, as Russia’s growing military strength makes it a credible threat. Thus, competition with Russia is predetermined.
America is not prepared to deal with the fact that the West is now not the only player trying to influence change in other countries. The image of Russia as a universal danger is the sublimation of a new view of the world seemingly full of threats rather than opportunities. This view is again effectively reflected both in the new defense strategy and the new security strategy. Interestingly, Russia shares this view — that threats are everywhere — simply because for Russia, this is not new.
What will Moscow do? It will seek to re-arm, minimize risks, respond asymmetrically and try to take advantage of the fact that the world views America as the main source of instability. It has been said and written many times that Putin is an experienced master of judo — an art that uses one’s opponent’s strength against him. America’s force-focused National Defense Strategy appears to have come perfectly on time.