Editor’s Note: “The Brush Pass” is a monthly column by Joshua Rovner (@joshrovner1) on intelligence, strategy, and statecraft.
In 1987, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger told Congress, “Wherever possible, we should adopt strategies that make obsolete past Soviet defense investments. We should devise programs for which an effective Soviet response would be far more costly than the programs we undertake.” The more Moscow spent on offensive countermeasures, the less it would be able to invest in more prosaic and practical defenses. Meanwhile, excessive spending would energize domestic critics of the regime, adding political instability to economic and military strain. The implosion of the Soviet Union soon after seemed to validate this approach.
Weinberger was describing a concept known as competitive strategies — efforts to coax adversaries into self-defeating policies. Defense guru Andrew Marshall first explored the concept in the 1970s. Advocates of this approach argue that success in a long-term competition among great powers requires the ability to maximize the state’s comparative military and economic advantages while luring the adversary into making bad choices. Such contests are not about sheer output. Instead, they are about manipulating arms races (and arms control diplomacy) so that the adversary buys the wrong weapons, at terrific cost.
Whether by design or by accident, some aspects of the Trump administration’s approach to Russia look like a competitive strategy, especially given Moscow’s response to U.S. modernization efforts. The administration’s call for expanded missile defense and new warheads for nuclear submarines, for instance, may tempt Russia to invest in prohibitively expensive workarounds. But pursuing competitive strategies in this case is unnecessarily risky. Rather than increasing U.S. security by weakening Russia, it may raise the risk of an otherwise avoidable conflict.
The Allure of Competitive Strategies Against Russia
U.S. officials may be tempted to pursue competitive strategies against Russia today, because in some respects it appears especially vulnerable to such an approach. According to Stephen Rosen, the most suitable targets are states that are particularly sensitive to U.S. action, and prone to overreact offensively. States that already see the United States as an adversary are easier to bait. And governments with longstanding organizations and predictable bureaucratic routines are easier to monitor.
A competitive strategy against Russia seems promising, given these criteria. The Russian defense establishment is a large fixed target for U.S. intelligence, making it easy to notice changes in Russian procurement patterns, with an eye toward monitoring the response to U.S. actions. President Vladimir Putin is clearly sensitive to changes in U.S. grand strategy, force posture, and declaratory and targeting doctrine. Over a decade ago he blamed the United States for fomenting global instability and insecurity through the unilateral use of force, and his suspicions have not abated. Putin is especially concerned about U.S. democracy promotion campaigns, which he likely sees as thin cover for efforts to undermine Russia by stoking instability in its sphere of interest. NATO expansion has already brought U.S. forces to the Russian border, and U.S. missile defenses potentially put Russia’s nuclear deterrent at risk. The upshot, for Putin, is deep and abiding wariness about U.S. intentions.
In addition, the United States enjoys a large technological lead over Russian military forces. U.S. advances in weapons accuracy and remote sensing give it clear advantages in a high-intensity fight, whether or not nuclear weapons come into play. Efforts to overcome those advantages will be costly and, at least for the time being, impractical. For instance, even if U.S. submarines revealed their location by launching ballistic missiles, Russia would have an extremely hard time hitting back. Russia will need to spend lavishly to overcome its comparative disadvantages.
Baiting Russia into this kind of spending will be difficult, given the fragile state of the Russian economy, which has suffered from falling oil and gas prices, capital flight, a volatile currency, and the cumulative weight of sanctions. Economic dissatisfaction and anger over political corruption have already led to a wave of political protests. A sustained downturn could lead to more turmoil in the Kremlin.
Still, there are signs Moscow is willing to try and outspend the United States. After the Trump administration released its Nuclear Posture Review in February, Putin revealed that Russia was investing in exotic weapons of its own, including nuclear-powered cruise missiles and underwater vehicles that threaten to devastate the U.S. coastline. The prospect of tit-for-tat innovation has stoked fears that we are entering a costly and dangerous arms race.
But to competitive strategy devotees, Putin’s bluster looks probably looks like evidence that U.S. defense investments are provoking Russia into exorbitant self-defeating responses. Tit-for-tat innovation is a feature, not a bug. This logic is alluring, because U.S. economic advantages give it the opportunity to control the initiative in any arms race and steer Russia towards unsustainable military spending.
A competitive strategy against Russia is tempting for all these reasons. That said, there are several reasons to resist the temptation.
First, the logic of competitive strategies requires reliable assessments of the adversary. Leaders must know what kinds of pressures are likely to lure the adversary into certain costly responses, which means they must understand how the adversary thinks about national security and the use of force. But U.S. officials may not understand the substance of Russian military doctrine. One example is the U.S. fixation on Russia’s supposed “escalate to deescalate” approach to nuclear weapons, which Olga Oliker and Andrey Balitskiy recently detailed in War on the Rocks. Defense officials believe Russian doctrine calls for early use of nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict, either to secure short-term gains or to rescue Russia from an imminent defeat. According to Oliker and Balitskiy, however, Russian doctrine does not reflect this at all. U.S. officials may be mistaking overheated official rhetoric for Russia’s actual beliefs about the role of nuclear weapons. Confusion over such a fundamental issue bodes poorly for crafting a competitive strategy that by design has to predict Russian behavior.
Second, Putin is perfectly capable of making strategic blunders all on his own. The Kremlin’s military interventions in Ukraine and Syria were misguided adventures that injected new life into NATO and imposed high economic costs on Russia. Moscow gained little in terms of national security. What it gained was a dubious ally in Bashar al-Assad and a bloody open-ended fight in eastern Ukraine. Given Russia’s capacity for self-defeating military campaigns, the United States can afford to exercise restraint.
Third, a competitive strategies approach reinforces Putin’s domestic narrative. His stranglehold on power rests in part on successfully claiming U.S. encirclement and hostility. Putin has used the American bogeyman to good effect over the years. He is much better at maintaining power at home than he is at using it abroad. U.S. provocations designed to undermine his rule likely strengthen his position.
Finally, the goal of a competitive strategy is vague. It’s unclear whether the aim would be to erode Russian military power by diverting resources to fanciful projects; undermine the Russian economy by enticing it to overspend on guns rather than butter; or destabilize the regime itself. Moreover, some of these goals work at cross-purposes. A relatively weaker Russia may inspire confidence about European security, but regime instability could lead Russia to take greater risks against NATO. Similarly, Putin may respond to increasing economic distress by threatening the use of force to create a rally-round-the-flag effect. It is not clear the administration has a good idea how to manage these tradeoffs.
The Risks Of Escalation
Competitive strategies are deliberately risky because by definition, they work by inspiring fear in adversaries. Done with care, this can allow one side to dictate the scope and pace of competition, without inadvertently provoking conflict. But the same fear can also lead to irrational decisions. This suggests such strategies are better suited for periods of calm, when it is easier to manipulate risks while controlling the consequences of fear and misperception. This is not the case with the United States and Russia today, whose relations have plummeted over the last several years, and who are now fighting on opposite sides in Syria. Russia seems vulnerable to competitive strategies because of its oversensitivity and proclivity for overreaction, but these are precisely the reasons why such an approach is ill-advised. Of all the reasons to put competitive strategy on the backburner, none is more urgent than the danger of a needless confrontation.
Joshua Rovner is Associate Professor in the School of International Service at American University.