With the largest concentration of hostile Russian military forces since the Cold War positioned within and around Ukraine, we are now in a new era of history. It will be a period of sustained tensions and contestation between Russia and the West.
It won’t be the same as the old Cold War, and it’s also not a broad competition for influence across technology and economic domains as is the case now with China.
Instead, it will feature military moves and countermoves in Europe; a heightened level of cyberattacks, disinformation, and election meddling in both the U.S. and Europe; and major crises that ebb and flow across the European continent for the remainder of the 2020s, if not longer. The Biden administration will have to reconsider its preference to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons and likely will have to accelerate nuclear modernization programs. We are in new, dangerous territory.
So what is Vladimir’s Putin’s endgame, and where are things headed next?
Russia’s president-for-life would like to push Russia’s dominion and direct control of territory and political leaders as far west, north, and south as possible. From the Arctic Ocean in the north to the European plains and down to the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea in the south, Putin would like to restore as much of the old Soviet empire and prestige as possible. And he’s willing to risk a lot to do it.
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For the first time since the height of the Cold War, Russia now has conventional force superiority in Europe. Already Putin has demonstrated the intent and capability to mass large-scale military forces to coercively roll back the clock and occupy the sovereign territory of another country. Moreover, once Russian forces begin the next phase of operations to try to take over the rest of Ukraine and permanently position forces in Belarus–which is the likeliest scenario–they may well go on to threaten other countries in the region, including NATO alliance members.
Russia’s triple threat
As if this weren’t enough, military tensions may be exacerbated by more aggressive Russian “hybrid warfare operations” in the homelands of NATO members. The Russian intelligence services, feeling newly confident by overwhelming victories in Ukraine and potentially elsewhere, are likely to significantly ramp up cyberattacks, election meddling, online disinformation, covert activities and support for extremists across the democratic world.
Now, thanks to a long-term Russian nuclear weapons modernization program and a slow, lagging U.S. nuclear weapons refurbishment, the chances of a nuclear standoff also are growing.
This Russian triple threat (conventional forces, hybrid warfare, and nuclear saber-rattling) combined with a Russian leader willing to take risk means Europe and the U.S. will face a level of insecurity and potentially instability that we haven’t faced in decades.
Crises and misunderstandings between NATO and Russia will be more fragile and dangerous than they used to be. American and European leaders will have to prepare their citizens for significant, sustained increases in defense and homeland-security spending to protect shared interests and our democratic way of life.
China, whose President-for-Life Xi Jin Ping wants to swallow up democratic Taiwan, must be positively gleeful about yet another geopolitical distraction (like the War on Terror) that will weaken Americans’ focus on China’s continued quest for global leadership. In the American national security establishment, Russia will now be “the wolf closest to the sled,” garnering the priority bandwidth and a lot more military resources to protect American and NATO interests in Europe.
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Of course, NATO leaders know the alliance has to continue refocusing its efforts, after 20 years of operations in the Greater Middle East, back home. And now that the United States and its allies in NATO and Asia may face a worst-case scenario of war against both Russia and China at the same time, all of these democratic allies are starting to work more closely together, figuring out smarter ways to take on shared defense and homeland security responsibilities.
Expect to see some Asian allies’ forces exercising in Europe to help out, and vice versa.
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Moreover, because of the growing conventional capacities of the Russian and Chinese militaries, the United States must increase its reliance on nuclear deterrence to reduce the chances of a war. NATO’s nuclear posture must be modernized in order for the alliance to be able to deter numerically superior Russian conventional forces from attacking NATO’s easternmost members, including Norway, Lithuania, and Poland in the north, Romania and Turkey in the south, and others in between.
While this may run counter to the Biden administration’s plan to reduce American reliance on nuclear weapons in its national security strategy, it would represent a clear-eyed reappraisal of the new era we have just entered. That Biden administration commitment was made well before the new Russian threat manifested on the borders of Ukraine in late 2021. If President Biden were to wisely decide to reassess this policy position, he undoubtedly would gain bipartisan backing.
While this geopolitical circumstance may be a generational challenge, the United States and its NATO and Indo-Pacific allies will come out more united and stronger than they have been in recent years.
Over the last several decades, the United States and its allies enjoyed an unusual historical luxury of greatly reduced nation-state threats to our national security. Now, unfortunately, as was the case for centuries before, history is returning.
Barry Pavel is a senior vice president at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C., think tank focused on international affairs, and director of its Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He served as Special Assistant for Defense Policy and Strategy on the National Security Council for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
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