The risk of a military conflict between Moscow and Washington has been overstated. However, both sides should think about prevention mechanisms to minimize the risk of accidents that could lead to an open conflict.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Monday, March 2, 2015 in Geneva. Photo: AP
The expert community has been crying wolf for a long time now: “War is at the doorstep!” The gloomy predictions indicate that Russia and the United States are at the brink of direct military clashes, as if they were trying to celebrate the 54th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis in some perverse way. However, any conflict, if it happens, will most probably be accidental – the parties are not yet ready for full-scale military confrontation.
In the last few years, Russia has been modernizing its armed forces to replace the outdated Soviet-era materiel and structure. Numerous exercises, trillions of rubles spent, new equipment and combat vehicles emerging out of the blue, and a charismatic defense minister who changed the entire image of the Russian Army and brought back its popularity with society – all these steps provided for the fast (and real) growth of national military might.
However, it remains rather limited in comparison with the overall total potential of the NATO states. Some would say that the alliance is reluctant to take any serious decisions and is nothing more than a paper tiger. Nonetheless, the brainwashing of the last two years has significantly improved the decision-making capacity of NATO and the chances for achieving consensus over the “Russian threat.”
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The ability to mobilize quickly strong conventional forces is still low, as NATO generals admit themselves. However, active recent revival of the nuclear sharing arrangements and the consolidation of U.S. troops in various countries of Central and Eastern Europe present enough deterrence against any light-minded action. It is clear that the war will not happen in Europe (and not even in Ukraine with its unpredictable leadership). However, wherever it occurs, NATO forces can eventually be mobilized to help their allies.
Moreover, Moscow has largely been pursuing a defensive policy over the past 16 years. Even now, when “the Russians are (seemingly) coming,” an independent observer would probably notice that the lion’s share of the activities of Moscow are reactive rather than proactive. The Kremlin enjoys petty provocations from time to time (like ongoing incidents in the air over the Baltic Sea), but is quite cautious in undertaking any serious action, which would require the use of force and lead to tangible casualties. Even when Turkey shot down the Russian plane along the Syrian border, there was practically no military response and, on the contrary, it all ended up with a new friendship with Ankara.
Moscow is now fond of “asymmetric measures” and they do not leave any room for substantial armed clashes. Russian President Vladimir Putin is fond of his status as the victim of Western pressure and the image of the global peace supporter. It is not in his interests to start a war – he would rather wait for the Western “attack” and would not necessarily give it an immediate response, in order to get the proper media effect.
The U.S. side is passive as well. Many analysts assume that both of the presidential candidates would support a war – the difference is only in the scale. Republican candidate Donald Trump, despite his extravagant nature, sounds more like an isolationist and would likely mean a “small war.” Democrat Hillary Clinton, given her recent anti-Putin rhetoric, may be more willing to launch a “big war.”
The threat of war may be even more imminent, given that the world may face a new financial crisis in 2017-2018, which would bring to naught many of U.S. President Barack Obama’s economic achievements. Nonetheless, Trump and Clinton are so far just the nominees and, as usual, one has to be half-serious when listening to their campaign speeches. A lot can change between now and when one of them actually becomes president.
Meanwhile, the existing Obama administration will hardly undertake anything dramatic. It is in tatters because there are conflicting views within the establishment on military intervention in Syria. However, President Obama with his Nobel Peace Prize does not want to leave a bad legacy for his successors. He spent most of his term withdrawing U.S. forces from different parts of the world and it would be unwise to end up with sending more troops out – this would mean recognition of the total failure of his foreign policy.
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As a lame duck president, he probably has more room for maneuver after Nov. 8, when any of his steps can no longer spoil the campaign of the Democratic Party’s candidate. Most probably, he will not take advantage of this opportunity, since Obama has always been seeking compromises, not wars.
Two factors raise the probability of an armed clash between Russia and the U.S. One of them is rhetoric. There have been more words than action so far and there is a clear trend– nobody is responsible for their words any longer. Any of the statements of the last few months would mean immediate war in the 19th or even in the 20th century. Nowadays, politicians throw thousands of words against each other and the struggle is with the minds and hearts and not with bodies. However, such belligerent rhetoric creates the climate of antagonism and public anticipation of a conflict. As a result, such atmosphere may facilitate prompt steps “in response” to another accident.
The second factor is, paradoxically, the low importance of the regional conflicts. Syria is so far away from Moscow and Washington that the parties do not really care about its future, its population and even its militants. Both Russia and the United States can afford there much more than they could in Ukraine, for instance (where actually none of them cared about the fate of Ukraine, but the proximity of Europe made it more difficult to fight). And such lack of significance may lead to a dangerous neglect of dramatic consequences of any armed clash and make the decision-making process easier to go to war.
Nowadays, Russia and the United States demonstrate wisdom and restraint. Given the current leadership in both countries, the expectations of war will hopefully stay just that – expectations. However, the situation may change next year and it would be better for the parties to think about some minimal confidence-building measures and provide for the prevention of accidents, any of which may become fatal, just like an accidental missile launch during the Cold War era.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.