President Putin is employing a strategy of exhaustion to undermine the will and resources of the United States and its allies… It is working.
Despite the rumors of its demise, the Cold War is very much alive. And given the way it’s currently going, Russia could be well on its way to winning this time. The international competition between Russia and the United States has reached a level where, once again, the opportunities for miscalculation could result in catastrophic military conflict. However, unlike the first phase of Cold War, during which both the Soviet Union and United States had significant nuclear and conventional military strength, the United States now faces a weaker Russia – albeit one still possessing a massive nuclear stockpile. Nonetheless, President Putin continues to press forward with an aggressive effort to stoke Russian nationalism, provoke disaffection in neighboring countries, and gain control of select regions within sovereign states such as Ukraine, Moldova, and the Baltics. Although Putin’s future actions may be uncertain, his strategy to win is clear: President Putin is employing a strategy of exhaustion to undermine the will and resources of the United States and its allies, while seizing upon opportunities to re-establish Russia as a great power, and not simply a nuclear power. It is working. Why has this strategy of exhaustion been so effective?
Assessing the Options: Annihilation, Attrition, and Exhaustion
What is the best way for Putin to use what he has in order to do what he wants to do? Boone Bartholomees’s “A Survey of the Theory of Strategy” discusses three standard strategic categories: attrition, exhaustion, and annihilation where, “[a]nnihilation seeks political victory through the complete destruction (often in a single battle or short campaign) of the enemy armed forces. Attrition seeks victory through the gradual destruction (by a long campaign or series of campaigns) of the enemy’s armed forces. Exhaustion seeks to erode the will and resources of the enemy nation/state rather than the armed forces.” Of the three options, exhaustion is clearly the best choice for Putin to achieve his goals.
The post-Cold War history of Russia can be read as a story of shame and humiliation. By virtue of its geography, population, and natural resources, Russia may have a rightful place among the great nations of the worlds. Yet it is crucial to recognize that Russia’s nuclear arsenal is perhaps the primary (if not sole) source of its continued global relevance. This is a problem.
Russia is a petro-state with a languishing economy, producing a nominal GDP only slightly higher than Australia’s, a nation with one-sixth the population. Life expectancy is declining and low birth rates threaten future population growth, which is straining the state. The Soviet Union was a global scientific leader during much of its post-World War II history. Today, many educated Russians are opting to leave the country. What remains for Russia? Its natural resources and nuclear weapons. Both are cornerstones of Putin’s strategy to restore Russian pride and to regain its place among the great nations.
A Russian strategy of annihilation would require the use of nuclear weapons against its adversaries, since it lacks the conventional means to destroy the U.S. and other core NATO nuclear powers. Should the threat to Russia, its people, or its interests become too great, it is conceivable that President Putin, like the Soviet leaders before him, would consider the use of nuclear weapons to annihilate the threat. While the (literal) nuclear option is not ideally suited to achieve Putin’s objectives, it would potentially allow him to protect Russia and its interests – if only in a Pyrrhic victory. Given the extensive stockpile of U.S. nuclear weapons, and the nuclear capabilities of the U.K. and France, annihilation is feasible but probably not acceptable under any but the most extreme circumstances. Instead, Putin will continue to use his nuclear capability as a strategic deterrent and umbrella of protection under which he can execute limited wars against his non-NATO neighbors while pursuing other strategies against the Alliance. This is the hallmark of the ongoing Cold War.
The attrition strategy might be suitable for Putin to achieve great power status against his non-NATO neighbors, but Russia’s conventional military capability compared to that of the Alliance makes it infeasible for use against NATO members. Russia maintains a large Army, Air Force, and Navy, but much of its equipment is left over from the Cold War and is either in disrepair or is simply obsolete. In contrast, a RAND study noted that NATO’s conventional forces are substantial and dramatically exceed Russian conventional capabilities, despite any previous or projected drawdowns. Russia maintains a nuclear weapons capability that is on par with the NATO alliance.
The competitive advantage of the United States and the NATO Alliance is heavily rooted in its conventional military forces, with clearly demonstrated capabilities in advanced stealth fighter aircraft, precision guided weapons, force projection capabilities, and so on. The Baltic states are the NATO members most vulnerable to conventional Russian military attack, and a Russian invasion could hope to succeed simply by confronting the rest of NATO with a fait accompli. However, such an incursion into a NATO member would be incredibly risky and certainly invoke international outrage beyond what Russia experienced following its intervention in the Ukraine. Even if a nuclear exchange were avoided, winning back the Baltics at the cost of a direct military confrontation with NATO and the United States seems like a poor trade. A strategy of attrition contains too many risks to be attractive.
Putin has meticulously challenged and weakened NATO in ways that do not trigger the Article 5 response or international outrage.
The sole good strategic option for Russia is the strategy of exhaustion, one that employs a variety of tools to sap the will of an adversary while avoiding decisive, direct military engagements. Unsurprisingly, that is precisely the strategy that Putin has pursued. Russia offsets its military limitations through cyber, information, economic, and political tools to influence other countries. It is important to highlight that many of the resources available to Putin, excluding nuclear weapons, can be used without clear attribution – this is a key factor when thinking about potential employment, particularly given NATO’s Article 5. Putin’s authority and his longevity as a leader are key to the formulation and execution of this integrated approach.
Putin has meticulously challenged and weakened NATO in ways that do not trigger the Article 5 response or international outrage. Exhaustion provides Putin with an approach that is feasible given Russia’s resources, relatively acceptable in terms of its ways, and potentially suitable for accomplishing its objective over time.
Hans Delbrück argued that a strategy of exhaustion achieves success by undermining coalitions and (most crucially) eroding the will of enemy populations. As described by Delbrück, the leader may employ this strategy after considering a number of factors including his or her own strength and the political circumstances. By eroding the enemy’s strength, this strategy sets the conditions for future engagements or to impose one’s own will on the enemy. Given Russia’s resources, the strength of the NATO Alliance, and the international political environment, a strategy of exhaustion seems a very appropriate option for Russia to employ to wage war with the West under the rules of the Cold War, where Russians and Americans don’t directly fight one another.
Employing the Strategy of Exhaustion
Putin’s ability to exercise a strategy of exhaustion is heavily enabled by the asymmetric, low-attribution means available to him and his willingness to employ them. Almost as though he were following the advice of Kautilya, Putin conducts concealed war and silent war in neighboring states such as Ukraine, Estonia, and Georgia by supporting insurgent activities, creating divisions within the political elite, and capitalizing upon information operations to influence the population. Putin uses information operations to sow dissent within the alliance, deception to deepen divisions in neighboring governments, and propaganda to strengthen the image of himself and Russia – all actions strongly encouraged by Kautilya. These asymmetric responses have been highlighted by foreign analyists and Russian officials themselves as strategic elements of Russia’s approach to countering Western strengths, cohesion, credibility, and influence. Russia’s application of asymmetric means, often employed to deny culpability, is designed to work over time to weaken alliance resolve against his actions. With twenty-nine members of NATO, some of whom are undergoing political divisions at home, the opportunities to undermine the alliance are numerous and real. This makes U.S. leadership in NATO even more important, particularly given the strength of NATO is the U.S. military. But that strength is tenuous and at risk.
Then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen stated, “A nation with our current levels of unsustainable debt … cannot hope to sustain for very long its superiority from a military perspective, or its influence in world affairs.” Russia’s military actions have driven significant U.S. military response, support to allies, investment, and focus. These are very expensive undertakings in an era of budget uncertainty. Congressional testimony in June by the Secretary of Defense and current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, highlighted the deleterious effects of sequestration, erosion of military readiness due to high optempo, and insufficient force development due to continuing resolutions in recent years. Both stressed the need for years of significant investment and reliable funding to restore the current force, enable and support alliances, and prepare for emerging threat capabilities. General Dunford further testified that without the necessary funding, “I assess within 5 years we will lose our ability to project power; the basis of how we defend the homeland, advance U.S. interests, and meet our alliance commitments.” Unfortunately, the budget situation and prognosis for the U.S. national debt in the long-term is bleak.
While the Soviet Union may be gone, Putin’s Russia has renewed the Cold War. In Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, Richard P. Rumelt summarized the importance of an asymmetric approach by the United States to achieve a competitive advantage over the Soviet Union during the 20th century Cold War. Rumelt highlights, “the power of that strategy derived from their discovery of a different way of viewing competitive advantage – a shift from thinking about pure military capability to one of looking for ways to impose asymmetric costs on an opponent.” Putin’s understanding of the strategic situation and deft application of asymmetric capabilities as part of a long-term strategy of exhaustion has given him a competitive advantage to sidestep NATO’s strengths, pursue his objectives, and lead Russia towards great power status.
The General Dunford had it right when he paraphrased Winston Churchill by saying, “Ladies and Gentlemen – we’re out of money, we have to think.” Much like the first phase of the Cold War, a comprehensive net assessment is necessary to develop an approach to strengthening alliances and focusing national efforts beyond the military to counter Russia and other major threats without leading the United States towards financial collapse. Such a grand national security strategy requires much more than an effective military; it demands an integrated, national effort across all elements of U.S. power, one that builds on Congressional input and support. Without that collaborative effort, Russia’s recent shenanigans will seem modest compared to its future disruptions.
There are several ways to view strategy, but Bartholomees’s “A Survey of the Theory of Strategy” offers a provocative formulation: “strategy is simply a problem-solving process … [that] asks three basic questions: what is it I want to do, what do I have or what can I reasonably get that might help me do what I want to do, and what is the best way to use what I have to do what I want to do?”
“What does Putin want to do?” is perhaps the most perplexing question for western analysts and leaders. We should assume that Putin intends to defend Russia, the Russian people, and Russian interests. To support these intentions, analysts suggest that Putin seeks to establish Russia as a great power, respected by the world and possessing the power to successfully pursue its interests. So far, so good. Where Russia and the U.S. diverge is in President Putin’s views of NATO as a threat to these pursuits, and in his subsequent attempts to undermine the alliance. This final element of Putin’s strategy – NATO as an adversary and not an ally to Russia’s legitimate aspirations – is a good place to start in devising and implementing a counter-strategy.
A new Cold War may have started, but the U.S.-led international system can accommodate a proud, prosperous, and sovereign Russia. The original Cold War was a conflict between world systems. Not so this time around. The U.S. can and should demonstrate to Russia (and to Putin, in particular) that this iteration of the Cold War is in no one’s interest. However, it cannot do so by playing the same old game of conventional military deterrence. To borrow the title of an excellent Army War College study on this subject, the U.S. has been “outplayed.” It is time to outplay right back.
Brian Rauen is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and a member of the U.S. Army War College resident class of Academic Year 2018. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, U.S. Army, or Department of Defense.
Photo: Russian soldiers wearing Red Army World War II uniforms take part in the military parade on the Red Square in Moscow on November 7, 2015.
Photo Credit: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images