A ‘two-track’ approach is required to rein in Russia’s adventurism and reassure allies in Europe, balancing a strong deterrent with arms control and other risk-reduction opportunities.
In February 2020 the US intelligence community warned Congress that Russia appeared poised to interfere in the upcoming US presidential election, as it had done in 2016. Election interference is just one of the significant national security challenges that Russia will pose to whoever is in the White House next year, along with adventurism in Europe and Moscow’s efforts to drive a wedge between Washington and its allies.
Under the Trump administration, the US has been inconsistent in addressing these issues, oscillating between a strong deterrent in its defence postures and conciliatory messages from the White House. Balancing competition and cooperation with Russia is a perennial national security conundrum, but in recent months numerous foreign policy experts have called for just such an approach. For example, former Obama administration official Angela Stent has captured the challenge for the US in addressing Russian adventurism as being ‘to find an acceptable balance between cooperation and competition and to compartmentalize the relationship in a more effective way than at present’. And former NATO Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller has recalled the 1967 Harmel Report, which informed the Alliance’s forging of a balance of deterrence and détente in subsequent decades.
For the US today, and for its next president, what do these two tracks – cooperation and competition – look like in practice? This chapter makes three arguments with regard to Russia, national security, and the US’s credibility with its allies:
- Russian adventurism has gone largely unchecked for the past four years, to include interference in the 2016 presidential election, support for the Assad regime in Syria, and bounties to the Taliban for killing US troops. Inconsistency in implementation of US policy has further emboldened Moscow.
- Reining in such adventurism will require a finely balanced ‘two-track’ approach. On the one hand, the US must maintain a strong deterrent and restore credibility with its allies. At the same time, it must pursue arms control and other risk reduction opportunities.
- European security and the US’s role as a global leader hang in the balance. Russian military modernization and the demise of the INF Treaty literally make Europe a potential battleground. The US’s assurances to its allies lie at the core of its global leadership, but have been waning in recent years. Trust in the US among other NATO members has plummeted: according to Gallup polling, European disapproval of US leadership reached a record high of 61 per cent in 2019. From the outset, therefore, whichever administration is in the White House from 2021 should look to the rebuilding of trust among its allies as an essential part of its national security strategy.
US leadership on the line
America’s national security and credibility are critically at stake, particularly in the eyes of its European allies. Among the defining features of the present administration have been its inconsistent policy towards Putin’s Russia, and its often contradictory messages on the US’s commitment to the NATO Alliance.
President Trump has been at odds with key parts of his administration from the outset, particularly the Department of Defense with regard to allies. The 2017 National Security Strategy, for example, states: ‘Today, actors such as Russia are using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies.’ Similarly, in his preface to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the then Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, highlighted: ‘Russia is modernizing these [nuclear] weapons as well as its other strategic systems. Even more troubling has been Russia’s adoption of military strategies and capabilities that rely on nuclear escalation for their success.’
In contrast, Trump has typically sided with his Russian counterpart over the US intelligence community and America’s European allies. He trusted Vladimir Putin’s assurances that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 election, and the administration failed to respond to intelligence that Russia was offering bounties to the Taliban for killing US soldiers in Afghanistan. Trump has consistently expressed scepticism about the value of NATO, and, as reported by the New York Times in 2019, allegedly contemplated US withdrawal from the alliance in private discussions the previous year. For his part, in his January 2018 speech on national defence strategy, former Defense Secretary Mattis stated: ‘History proves that nations with allies thrive, an approach to security and prosperity that has served the United States well in keeping peace and winning war.’ The problem, therefore, has not necessarily been US strategy towards Russia, but rather its implementation.
Trump has typically sided with his Russian counterpart over the US intelligence community and America’s European allies.
One area where the administration has been consistent, however, is in its rejection of existing arms control agreements. In February 2019, announcing that the US would begin the process of withdrawal – effective six months later – from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, Trump pointed to years of alleged Russian violation that pose ‘a direct threat to our allies and troops abroad’. In 2018 Trump formally declared that the US would withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – which he had repudiated from the outset; and in June 2020 the administration gave notice of its intention to withdraw the US from the Open Skies Treaty, citing Russian non-compliance. The US’s leadership both as a security guarantor and in arms control is imperilled by such actions.
How the next administration manages these challenges will have major implications for Europe. It may either strengthen the credibility of the US with its allies, and check Russian adventurism in the European theatre; or it may further damage the transatlantic relationship and sow greater instability in Europe, particularly for allies in the east such as Poland and the Baltic states. A particularly critical area of vulnerability is NATO (dis)unity. Part of Russia’s strategy is to drive a wedge between the US and its European allies and within Europe itself. Whether or not the next administration reasserts US leadership and checks Russian ambitions could determine the future of the NATO Alliance and the collective security architecture that has defined Europe since the end of the Second World War.
Balancing deterrence and detente: challenges for the next administration
For the next administration, forging a bolder response vis-à-vis Russia and strengthening US credibility among its allies will require a balance of competition and cooperation, deterrence and detente. It requires partnership and trust, but within limits. As recently recalled by Rose Gottemoeller, the 1967 Harmel Report captured this inter-relationship of deterrence and détente. The balance was later manifested in the ‘dual track’ approach of the 1980s. On the one hand, the US must do more to assure European allies of its commitment to mutual security, and signal to Russia its resolve to deter future aggression – be that in the form of ‘grey zone’ activities, information operations or new missile deployments in the European theatre. On the other hand, arms control and efforts at cooperation can also strengthen security by promoting transparency and predictability in US–Russia strategic relations, and reassure allies that Washington will not recklessly escalate into a conflict with Moscow.
Turning first to the challenges of competition and deterrence, the US is faced with an emboldened Russia. A consistent theme among many Russia scholars in the West is that Moscow has a weak hand, but has played it extremely well. Russia’s current strategy is one of opportunism: it is seeking to deepen and take advantage of fissures within Europe while also making use of the leadership vacuum left by the US. Meddling in elections is just one of many tactics available to Russia. Its new deterrence strategy, released in June 2020, suggests that it will continue on its current trajectory of military modernization, but also notes that ‘compliance with international arms control obligations’ is one of the principles of its approach to nuclear deterrence.
The most immediately pressing issue for the next administration will be the extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which is set to expire on 5 February 2021, 10 years after its entry into effect. NATO allies overwhelmingly support its extension. According to the treaty’s chief negotiators, Anatoly Antonov and Rose Gottemoeller, failure to extend the agreement ‘could bring a return to nuclear competition and spark mutual suspicion that would push the world to a level of nuclear risk unseen for decades’. As of early October 2020, it remains unclear if New START will indeed be extended. The current US administration is engaging in talks with Russia to discuss extension, and while it initially set unlikely conditions, namely extending the terms of the treaty to include China, Trump indicated in July that negotiations might now move ahead with Russia alone: ‘We thought that we would do it [bilateral arms control with Russia] first.’ Otherwise, there is little ‘vision or imagination’ for further arms control agreements, according to Open Skies negotiator Bonnie Jenkins. When it comes to arms control and the breakdown of the INF Treaty, Europe is literally caught in the middle. European governments overwhelmingly support continued US–Russia arms control, such as the extension of New START.
A second Trump term: end mixed messages
President Trump has given no indication that he would change policy towards Russia in a second term. We should not expect a staunch response should there be evidence of any Russian meddling in the 2020 election, or much reassurance of allies as to his commitment to mutual security. But Trump has indicated at least two possible policy shifts with regard to Russia under a second administration.
First, he could either increase or decrease pressure on NATO allies, potentially creating further opportunities for Russia. This might mean continued insistence that European allies spend more on defence, but this emphasis on burden-sharing has produced only limited results so far, and may not have the desired effect. At its most extreme, Trump could attempt to withdraw the US from NATO. Given that Congress is overwhelmingly supportive of the Alliance, such a move would likely meet with significant domestic opposition and may well prove impossible to follow through on, as Congress is considering the bipartisan ‘No NATO Withdrawal Act’.
Second, the administration could take a new approach to arms control. Trump has long had the ambition to be an arms control negotiator, as indicated by his now-stalled series of summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. To pursue trilateral arms control, his administration might involve China in informal nuclear dialogues or technical arms control verification activities, without the pressure of concluding an arms control treaty. If a second Trump administration takes the same position as the first, whereby it will only engage in arms control with Russia if the process also includes China, then the opportunities to move forward will be limited.
To strengthen US national security and develop a two-track approach to Russia, therefore, a second Trump administration could focus on consistency in messaging. As difficult as this may seem, given Trump’s leadership style, a new national security strategy could emphasize a renewed commitment to the US’s allies as an important deterrence signal to Russia, and also provide a vision for the future of arms control with personal involvement by the president. Above all, however, other political actors, notably Congress, would have to assume greater responsibility for investigating any evidence of Russian intervention in the 2020 election.
A new national security strategy could emphasize a renewed commitment to the US’s allies as an important deterrence signal to Russia, and also provide a vision for the future of arms control with personal involvement by the president.
But for Europe, this approach would bring only partial reassurance. Trump has already proved to the US’s allies that he does not necessarily follow his own administration’s policies; so while new national security strategy documents might in theory improve credibility, in practice Trump has shown during his first term that adherence to strategy is not a given. NATO allies would understandably be deeply concerned about a US withdrawal from the Alliance, and failure to further address Russian adventurism would leave many members – particularly in Eastern Europe – deeply worried. Moreover, inability or unwillingness to demonstrate substantive progress in arms control would leave many countries and institutions troubled about rising nuclear risks and the collapse of the rules-based international order. In short, a second Trump term would potentially put European security and NATO unity at risk.
A Biden administration: go big to restore
A Biden administration would bring major shifts in the US’s policy towards Russia, as part of what one journalist has summed up as an ‘Erase Trump’ doctrine. Biden’s national security strategy would be driven by a quest to restore US global leadership. As Colin Kahl, who served as Biden’s national security adviser when he was vice-president, puts it: ‘At the top of the agenda at the outset will be signaling to our closest democratic allies that we’re back, that alliances and partnerships matter.’ A Biden administration might focus on two key areas: restoring arms control, and strengthening NATO.
Biden has already stated that he would pursue a New START extension and follow-on agreements. The New START extension might entail an agreed single five-year extension, as permitted under the treaty, or a year-by-year extension to review the agreement’s implementation. A Biden administration should also set out an ambitious vision for the future of arms control that includes short-term initiatives – such as agreements on Russia’s non-strategic nuclear weapons – and longer-term endeavours – such as involving China and addressing threats from emerging technologies. This approach would likely be met with significant opposition on multiple fronts. Russia might be expected to exact a heavy price in exchange for agreeing to curbs on its short- and intermediate-range weapons, such as limits on US missile defence. And given Russia’s poor compliance record, Congress might oppose any follow-on agreements.
A second initiative would be to strengthen NATO unity. Biden has referred to NATO as ‘the single most consequential alliance in the history of the United States’, and supports additional forward-deployed troops in Eastern Europe to deter Russia. But the next administration will also have to make NATO more ‘nimble’, and prioritize responding to Russian adventurism. This could be met with opposition by some NATO members who do not want to antagonize Moscow, but after years of mixed messages from Washington, it would likely be a welcome overture.
This vision for a Biden administration would strengthen European security and NATO unity. There would, however, potentially be residual distrust of the US, based on lessons learned from the Trump era – particularly that changes in administration can lead to major swings in policy and attitudes towards Europe, albeit this is not an entirely new phenomenon.
What to do on day one?
On the first day of Trump’s second term or of a Biden presidency, the new administration should set about defining a new national security strategy. This strategy will need to balance a strong deterrent message with a willingness to engage in cooperative efforts such as arms control. Restoring credibility with allies should also be at the core of this strategy, and Biden’s first foreign visit, if he were to win, should be to Brussels to underscore this message.
A longer-term vision for managing Russian adventurism and strengthening European security will require continuing to balance competition and cooperation. Russian adventurism may be impacted by internal issues, such as demographics or a stagnating economy, as much as (if not more so) by America’s response. European ambitions are woven throughout Russia’s history and its approach to national security: we should not expect that to suddenly change. Renewed US leadership and a stronger NATO could, however, change how Russia pursues these ambitions. Current strategies of election meddling and adventurism could be replaced by more productive means of engagement, such as economic cooperation, if the Alliance can strike the right balance. To be sure, however, they could also be replaced by more aggressive means of engagement. The stakes for Putin’s Russia are also high.
European security has always had links to US politics, and that is particularly true in the upcoming election. A second Trump term could leave Europe even more vulnerable to Russian information operations and strategic threats, and deeply confused about the US’s long-standing commitments to mutual security. A Biden administration would face the enormous task – indeed, the scale of this should not be underestimated – of restoring American credibility and leadership with frustrated allies. The solution lies neither in ruthless competition with Russia nor in conciliation, but rather in a finely calibrated and familiar two-track approach that improves not only the security of Europe, but also that of the US.