Despite the Cold War ending decades ago and the great threat that was once the Soviet Union giving way to a financially anemic Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin’s Russian regime has managed to remain at the forefront of American defense concerns consistently throughout the modern era. Today, Russia shares the role of antagonist in military strategy discussions and near-peer level opponent training with China, another nation with a significantly smaller military footprint than the U.S. The real threat these nations pose to American security and interests abroad serve as a valuable reminder that a nation doesn’t need to match America’s defense spending to pose a legitimate threat to America’s defense apparatus.
But China’s far reaching and expansive military modernization efforts coupled with aggressive policies in places like the South China Sea make China’s massive People’s Liberation Army perhaps the most potent threat to American dominance globally. Russia, on the other hand, primarily poses a direct military threat in Europe, where the close proximity of Russian ally Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad creates a narrow passage between Poland and Lithuania called the Suwalki Gap.
Russian Strengths in the Grey Zone
NATO officials recognize already that a concerted effort to capture the Suwalki Gap made by Russian forces would likely succeed, severing the Baltic states from their NATO allies. While efforts are underway to mitigate this threat, the real strength of NATO’s position comes from the knowledge that Russia’s economy likely couldn’t sustain prolonged warfare at the scale a conflict with NATO would demand. Put simply, Russia’s aggression is often tempered more by its pocketbook than the presence of NATO forces.
So why, then, does Russia seem to dominate American discussions about defense and security, when China’s stated aim of replacing the United States as the world’s diplomatic and economic leader poses a more direct threat to American interests? While a question of this magnitude could be answered in a number of ways, one of the most significant reasons Russia remains the subject of our collective concern is nothing more than good, old-fashioned marketing.
Like the Soviet Union before it, Russia has placed a significant emphasis on “grey zone” operations and narrative management in its foreign policy and military endeavors. Grey zone, in this case, meaning military operations that lead up to the very edge of overt acts of war, but stop just short of sparking a real conflict. Examples of these sorts of operations include gaining access to America’s electrical grid, conducting assassinations on foreign soil, and even attempts at curbing investigations into their violations of international law, among many others.