U.S. military forces deployed to Europe are tasked with two missions: Build cooperation among NATO allies and support operations in more dangerous corners of the globe. But as Russia, America’s Cold War nemesis, flexes its military muscle, these forces, which have dwindled in size in recent decades, are again on the front lines. Military leaders now say Russia is the greatest threat to U.S. security.
That fact is not lost on Gen. Frank Gorenc, the four-star U.S. Air Force commander in Europe, who has seen Congress’ interest in his theater spike. What was recently viewed by lawmakers as a place to cut costs is now the opposite.
Even as Moscow gave hints of its ambitions with the 2008 invasion of Georgia, the United States remained committed to improving relations with Russia. But everything changed the moment Russian troops crossed the border into Ukraine in 2014.
“There has been a marked increase in people wanting to know my opinion of the situation,” says Gorenc. “I feel the urgency of this issue rising up.”
The sense of urgency is palpable as the Obama administration scrambles to devise and implement a strategy to confront Russia and reassure European allies. Their task is complicated by the diversion of U.S. personnel, resources and attention to the Middle East and other hot spots.
While Gorenc and other U.S. officials say the shift in focus was necessary, it has nonetheless created something of a lost generation of military and diplomatic leaders trained to dissect and anticipate Russia’s moves.
Many of the Cold War era’s hard-won lessons, particularly in the areas of nuclear stability and deterrence signaling, must now be relearned as the possibility of a new nuclear arms race percolates. And as the United States works to rebuild its army of Russian linguists and regional experts, it finds itself stymied by the mercurial Vladimir Putin.
The misunderstanding is mutual. Just as the United States ignored years of Russian warnings to respect its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, Moscow continues to question the sincerity and validity of U.S. arguments on human rights, as well as demands that Russia respect European countries’ borders.
Ian Kearns, director of the London-based European Leadership Network, recently participated in a round of talks with top Russian and European legal scholars and political scientists that underscored the depth of misunderstanding. The United States and Russia, he says, are guilty of dismissing the other’s actions as posturing or propaganda, a practice that could have significant unintended consequences.
“Until both sides accept that the narratives of the other should be taken seriously, red lines will continue to be missed, and possibly crossed,” Kearns says.
The stakes are high, but reorienting U.S. strategy from trying to improve relations with Russia to deterring a revived foe cannot happen overnight.
“A journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step,” Gorenc says. “I think that’s kind of where we are at.”
In January 2012, the Pentagon released a new Defense Strategic Guidance delineating the military’s priorities. The document, received with great fanfare on Capitol Hill, mentioned Russia once, and only in the context of building a closer relationship with Moscow.
That is almost inconceivable four years later, as military brass single out Russia, ahead of Iran, North Korea or even the Islamic State, as the greatest security threat to the United States. In the years since the invasion of Ukraine, the United States has rewritten its strategy to reflect Russia’s transformation from budding ally to threat.
“We have pretty much overhauled that, soup to nuts,” says a defense official, adding that there has been a “robust effort underway” since 2014 to understand the challenges posed by Russia, as well as any gaps or shortfalls in U.S. forces and capabilities.
Indeed, the Pentagon has requested $3.4 billion for fiscal 2017 for its nascent European Reassurance Initiative, quadrupling this year’s funding. And that investment, which helps pay for a rotational armored brigade in Europe, will only continue to grow. U.S. officials have suggested that brigade may one day become a permanent fixture on the continent.
Gen. Philip Breedlove, who served as U.S. European Command chief until retiring earlier this month, has called the last two decades a period of “hugging the bear,” in which the United States focused on building a cooperative relationship with Russia. The military’s footprint in Europe is 80 percent smaller than in 1991 and, even two years after the Ukraine invasion, the command is still resourced as if Russia is an ally, he has said.
“What we have seen starting probably in 2008, but certainly across the last two years, is we do not have a partner in Russia,” Breedlove told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March.
That was not always the case. Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of State for arms control, recalls working pragmatically with the Russians after the Cold War ended.
“As far as getting a handle on the possible threats of the breakup of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, the ’90s were a positive period,” she says.
President Barack Obama started his first term with high hopes for the Russian relationship and those hopes appeared within reach early on when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed that the administration wanted to reset relations with Moscow and negotiated the New START arms-reduction treaty.
Obama “was very euphoric about Russian-American relations,” says Alexei Arbatov, former member of the Russia State Duma and now a scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank. “He wanted Russia to be the principal success of his foreign policy and it turned out to be the principle failure.”
Some of the president’s most vocal critics, including Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, have blasted Obama for his administration’s approach to Russia.
“We have allowed Vladimir Putin to behave in the most aggressive fashion without paying a price for it,” the Arizona Republican says. “It’s a failure of leadership.”
Gorenc says Obama, guided by his military advisers, is shifting his Russian strategy, making new investments in personnel and equipment in Europe, even as he grapples with other security challenges.
“We did what we needed to do with the resources we had,” Gorenc says. “Now that the Russians have made it clear that they don’t necessarily want to reset, I think it’s reasonable to expect there will be an adjustment in those particular areas.”
There is still a small but capable cadre of Russian experts within the U.S. government and, like Gorenc’s, their voices are becoming more important as the United States shifts its Russia strategy. But their ranks are smaller now that Cold War warriors have retired and the next generation has come of age in a post-Sept. 11 world focused on Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gottemoeller says the State Department needs more Russia experts, but believes there are officials who could be tapped for the job: “If we ever got to the point of negotiating another arms agreement with the Russians, I am completely confident that we would have the people needed to do so.”
But others, particularly in academia and the think tank world, worry that there are not enough people studying Russia.
“We just don’t really have the wherewithal of people who know how to handle this relationship.” says Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution.
Angela Stent, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, says declining student interest was only exacerbated by fewer available jobs and dramatic cuts in federal funding for graduate studies. To make up for personnel shortfalls, the United States must put its money where its mouth is, says Stent, who advised Breedlove.
In a survey of graduate programs released last summer, the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies concluded that Russian studies programs are facing a crisis.
“When the wall came down in ’91, there was a sense that this investment that the United States had made in Soviet/Eastern European studies was probably not needed anymore,” says Dan Davidson, a Russia scholar and president of the American Councils for International Education. The thinking at the time was: “These guys weren’t an enemy and they are gone.” ￼ Figuring out Putin is the challenge. The Obama administration has struggled to understand the former KGB agent and was caught off guard by the Ukraine invasion and more recently Russia’s decision to back Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war.
“You cannot hope to get into Mr. Putin’s head and he is the sole decision-maker,” says Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “He is the guy who actually single-handedly maps Russia’s security policy, Russia’s foreign policy and Russia’s major diplomatic moves.”
Washington hoped for the best when Putin came to power in 2000, viewing him as committed not only to economic reforms at home, but also to the global fight against terrorism. But the relationship changed for the worse during the latter part of George W. Bush’s presidency and has grown more strained during Obama’s.
Putin has flexed his muscles (both literally and figuratively) on the national stage, leaving many in the United States confused as much by his leadership style as his cult of personality and in-your-face machismo. “Part of his personality is riding around on a horse with no shirt,” Gorenc joked.
Ellen Tauscher, Obama’s first undersecretary of State for arms control and international security, sees Putin as a man driven by his own personal ambitions and grudges.
“What he does effectively is distract people from asking what his policies are by using testosterone politics and this sense of grievance at either not being respected or not being appropriately treated or not being feared,” says the former Democratic congresswoman from California.
The United States has responded to Russian aggression with its own show of military might, provoking further demonstrations of force from the Russians.
In April, for instance, the United States dispatched several F-22 Raptor fighters to Europe for exercises, while a Russian fighter buzzed a U.S. destroyer in the Baltic Sea.
Some, including Kearns, worry about the one-upmanship. “This classic security dilemma can only worsen whilst both sides fail to exhibit empathy with the other,” he says.
Sergey Karaganov, an occasional adviser to Putin on foreign policy, has spent much of his career focused on the United States and has witnessed how Russian views of the United States have soured over time.
“In the late years of the Cold War, many of the Russian elite believed that basically the West is better, that it is a nicer society,” says Karaganov, a dean at the National Research University in Moscow. “Now we have the experience of 25 years and most Russians stopped thinking that.”
Russians have come to believe that Washington’s concerns about human rights have blinded it to regional realities, as demonstrated by the sectarian violence that followed Saddam Hussein’s fall in Iraq, he says. Moscow has also concluded the United States does not respect national sovereignty, based on the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 toppling of Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi.
“The ideological, propaganda war is much more intense than in the late decades of the Cold War,” Karaganov says. “The mutual distrust is worse.”
Ivan Konovalov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Conjectures, says Russia is struggling to understand who calls the shots in Washington.
Security officials in Moscow, for instance, suspect Obama wants to provide lethal military equipment to Ukraine. To date, though, he has not stated that specifically or taken up Congress’ authorizations permitting him to do so.
“In Russia, they don’t understand how far President Obama is from the red line,” Konovalov says. “Whoever steps over it first is going to start the next world war.”
The threat of nuclear war is not as far-fetched as it once seemed because Putin is trying to manage relations with the United States from a position of political, economic and military weakness, says Trenin. “The only thing that makes Russia an equal of the United States in a military field — or any field, for that matter — is nuclear.”
Putin has made a show of his nuclear capabilities. A Russian ballistic missile submarine was detected in the Atlantic near France in January and Russian nuclear bombers have been spotted near U.S. and Canadian airspace. Those moves have only propelled the United States’ shift in strategy.
“Moscow’s nuclear saber-rattling raises troubling questions about Russia’s leaders’ commitments to strategic stability, their respect for norms against the use of nuclear weapons, and whether they respect the profound caution that nuclear-age leaders showed with regard to the brandishing of nuclear weapons,” Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said in Germany earlier this month.
With Russia and the United States playing a high-stakes game of chicken, Russia experts are warning it could lead to a strategic miscalculation akin to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. That, they say, only underscores the need for more focus on Russia policy.
Konovalov, however, feels certain that a return to the Cold War days is impossible because of the global economy. “The economic ties between European countries and Russia are so close that you cannot break them,” he says.
That makes sense, but rational thinking, at least by American standards, is not what guides Vladimir Putin.
James Townsend, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for European and NATO policy, who has spent decades working with Russia, says he is heartbroken at how the relationship has deteriorated. “This is not what anyone wanted,” he told a recent Atlantic Council audience.
The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting provided support for this report.