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The Growling Bear or "Why The Army Owes Mr. Putin a Favor"

The Army owes Mr. Vladimir Putin a “thank-you.” So does the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—because his reckless aggression is providing both institutions a resurgent identity. Russia’s current actions provide the United States a unique opportunity, as well as foreshadowing the future. This is because Russia appears likely to be an adversary to the West for some time. If the United States wants to influence Russia’s behavior and actions, it must recognize that it has to act from a position of both real and perceived strength. One of the most concrete demonstrations of strength to both Russia and to our European allies is a robust ground force presence in Europe. Such a robust force will likely keep Putin from acting too aggressively in Europe.

Putin’s position has been unambiguous, to return Russia to its former glory during the Soviet era. Time and again, his bombastic rhetoric emphasizes the theme that Russia is a great power that cannot be ignored. This is not new, nor is it necessarily unique to Putin. As Strobe Talbot outlined in, “The Making of Vladimir Putin,” the forces now at play in Russia were in place from the 1980s. Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascension to power, according to Talbot, began the struggle between reformers and reactionaries fighting for the future path of the Soviet Union, later Russia. Reactionaries viewed Gorbachev’s actions as an existential threat to the Communist system; and when they attempted to overthrow Gorbachev, the result ironically led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the re-emergence of an independent Russia under Boris Yeltsin.1

U.S. policymakers must appreciate the psychological and emotional differences of Russia as a whole, and Russians individually in the current environment. First, Russia has a long history of xenophobia. However, Putin called xenophobia “a manifestation of weakness” in his annual speech on December 4, 2014. Yet the entire Russian foreign policy position, which emphasizes the right to protect ethnic Russians and Russian speakers abroad, relies very much on a xenophobic “us-vs-them” logic. The notion that Russia has the right to intervene in foreign sovereignty based upon perceived ethnic repression, i.e., Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Crimea, has little basis in a Westphalian world. While Putin uses the protection of ethnic Russians as a convenient instrument to argue for intervention, the historical mistrust of foreigners makes it a resounding argument to Russian ears.

Second, policymakers must understand that most Russians are willing to believe that the West, and in particular the United States, really is to blame for their declining economy. While American voters tend to find fault with their own elected leaders and will place the blame on them, Russians will tend to blame outside powers, not their leaders—another facet of Russian xenophobia. For example, Russian media blames the United States for destabilizing Ukraine and causing the Ukrainian crisis. This perception is widely accepted among Russians. Along the same lines, Russia continues to view NATO as an offensive threat to Russia just as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) did. To Russia, the NATO expansion into their near-abroad is perceived as a direct threat. Although to be fair, one would imagine that a permanent major Russian naval base in Cuba, for example, would be viewed by the United States as a direct threat.

Third, Russians have a high level of respect for Putin due to his personal and national demonstrations of strength, as evidenced by his approval rating which is above 80 percent. In contrast, American President Barack Obama’s is nearly 45 percent.2 To Russians, Putin embodies the return to Russian greatness, the theme of much of his rhetoric. He is seen as strong and decisive. His pronouncements and those of several of his foreign policy ministers, throughout the second half of 2014, have been extraordinarily bellicose. It vacillates between warning the United States against war and threatening the United States with war. In the U.S. media, such statements are seen as reckless and irresponsible, but to the Russians, these comments continue to demonstrate Putin’s resolve. Such support does not imply that he enjoys universal adoration in Russia. There is still a very vocal opposition, from business leaders, to the press, to at least one popular punk rock group. However, Putin has been managing to keep the opposition somewhat under control through a variety of methods, and the opposition is neither active enough nor strong enough to present much of a roadblock to him.

Putin’s claim of returning Russia to a position of strength and greatness is not solely rhetorical. Russia is undertaking many actions that further the cause, as well as upping the ante to the rest of the world. Without question, Russia has been modernizing and revitalizing its military capabilities. Russia actually has done a decent job of assessing its conduct in both the Chechen war and the Georgia war and drawing on lessons learned. For example, it is working toward creating a professional volunteer military force with the intent of completely eliminating its conscription. It is modernizing its equipment and its command and force structures. Russia has adopted brigade-based battle groups for greater flexibility, a move the U.S. Army took a decade ago.

Russia has been funding its modernization through increased annual defense spending. In 2015, it is projected to spend approximately $80 billion in U.S. dollars, which is nearly 4 percent of its gross domestic product and which marks the highest defense budget to date. According to Reuters:

Between 2004 and 2014, Russia doubled its military spending and according to the newly adopted budget, it will further increase it from 17.6 percent of all budget spending this year to 20.8 percent, or 3.36 trillion rubles ($84.19 billion), in 2017. Defense spending was foreseen at 23 trillion rubles ($576 billion) in the decade to 2020 under the original plan to upgrade 70 percent of military equipment by then.3

In addition to increased military spending and capability, Russia has increased the number of show of force exercises. NATO has had to scramble interceptor jets more than 400 times this year in response to Russian air incursions, more than double that of last year, according to NATO.4 In addition to the number of Russian flights, the size of their military sorties is also increasing. On both December 6 and 7, 2014, Russia flew formations of a dozen bombers, refuelers, and transport aircraft in the Baltic Sea region each day, although they did not violate any NATO airspace. Such Cold War-style shows of force continue to demonstrate that Russia does have real capability.

Aside from its blatant muscle-flexing, Russia is also entering into partnerships in ways that are counter to U.S. interests. Recently, Russia signed a military cooperation pact with Pakistan. Russia, of course, has been a long-time arms supplier to Pakistan’s arch-rival India; Pakistan has received significant U.S. foreign assistance over many decades with a dramatic increase since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. homeland and the subsequent war in Afghanistan. According to data cited by the Center for Global Development,5 Pakistan was ranked as the fourth greatest recipient of U.S. Foreign Assistance. Pakistan significantly influences the stability and security of Afghanistan, and at this delicate juncture, after the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan, any new actors on the stage risks upsetting the balance that the United States has worked to achieve.

Russia also is expanding its military, economic, and energy ties to China. Russia and China have agreed to conduct combined naval exercises in 2015 in the Mediterranean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Additionally, as reported by The Christian Science Monitor in November, “economic relations between them have taken a quantum leap, with two massive energy deals totaling almost $1 trillion signed in the past few months alone.”6

Finally, in recent years, Russia has reinvigorated its involvement in Latin America. Dr. Evan Ellis writes that:

Whether or not such activities are benign, the pattern of Russian diplomatic and military activity in Latin America and the Caribbean in response to tensions with the U.S. over states of the Former Soviet Union demonstrates that, for Russia at least, its activities in Latin America is part of its strategic position globally as it seeks to re-project itself as a significant actor on the world stage.7

Such activities include trade agreements and military basing negotiations with several Latin American states.

For several years now, Russia has been attempting to achieve its stated goal of returning to great-power status even though it has been experiencing extremely significant financial challenges. Oil, oil products, and natural gas account for more than 50% of Russia's federal budget revenues.8 Russia's 2015 national budget was based on an estimated price for crude oil trading at $100 per barrel, unfortunately for them, oil was trading at approximately $50 per barrel in mid-January 2015. Furthermore, the price of oil is expected to continue to decline as the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries announced that it does not intend to lower production. According to Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, the decline in oil prices plus the effect of Western sanctions will cost Russia at least $140 billion. In October, he was quoted as stating that Russia’s military spending must be “more realistic” due to the increasing economic constraints.9 Russia’s budget called for $576 billion of defense spending over the next 6 years, which Silianov now says must be re-evaluated and scaled back. The lack of diversity in Russia’s export markets has the potential to drastically curb Russian defense spending. As of December 16, 2014, the ruble was valued at 72 to the dollar, a 60 percent decline in its value over the past year.10

To summarize the previous discussion, Russia’s goal is to return to the world stage as one of the dominant powers. It has been modernizing its forces and using them, but it will face significant economic obstacles in the next few years. Therefore, the question for the United States is: What can the United States expect from Russia? Lacking any indicators that Russia intends to change its present course, policymakers should anticipate that Russia will continue to engage in the same type of actions that it has been doing for the past several years, especially the aggressive use of its forces as it has throughout 2014. Basically, the United States can expect to see Russia continue to flex its muscles in its near-abroad among non-NATO states, while it seeks to frustrate U.S. influence and efforts globally. Most likely, the United States will see Russia executing activities reminiscent of its Soviet predecessor, albeit without the ideological drive behind them. It will continue to work diplomatically and militarily to expand its influence among nonaligned states, and will continue to harass NATO with aggressive show-of-force and out-of-area flights and naval maneuvers. The United States can anticipate seeing at least one large-scale ground exercise annually in the Western Military District, and also may see some additional movement of forces into the Kaliningrad Oblast. With Russia’s permanent membership on the Security Council, the United States can expect to see Russia foiling U.S. efforts there as well.

NATO can expect to see Russia whittling away at NATO’s influence in non-allied states while working to create fissures and questions of credibility within the Alliance. What forms this will take are unknown, but most likely, Russia will continue to strategically posture forces in such a way that the Baltics continue to feel threatened. Much as Russia always views NATO as an imminent threat, the Baltics will likely always believe Russia is an imminent threat, perhaps justifiably so, given Soviet/Russian history and the simple proximity. Putin, and the rest of the world, has probably surmised that being a NATO Partner for Peace does not really guarantee any security, and so he may make more aggressive moves in Transnistria and the Caucasus. He certainly will ensure through all means available, including military means, that neither Georgia nor Ukraine move any closer to full membership in NATO.

Although Russia is likely to conduct Cold-War style activities, this by no means implies that Russia wields the same economic weight of the former USSR. It absolutely does not. Michael Cembalast from JP Morgan found, according to Zack Beauchamp of VOX:

that the bulk of economic power in the former communist bloc now isn't Putin's to command, and often is aligned against him. Most of that power is now in NATO and/or EU countries, like Poland and the part of Germany that used to be East Germany, or countries where [Cembalest] judges Russian influence to be fairly limited.11

For U.S. policymakers, all of this means that Russia will remain an obstacle to American interests.12 It is unlikely, given the economic hardships facing Russia, that it will be able to directly threaten U.S. vital interests.It also cannot directly threaten the vital interests of Europe, as currently underwritten and guaranteed by NATO.

There is a distinction to be made here. To say that Russia cannot directly threaten U.S. and European vital interests does not mean that Russia cannot interfere with or negatively influence U.S. and European vital interests. It absolutely can, and will. Policymakers, therefore, must develop a strategic approach that addresses continued Russia adventurism. First and foremost, they must understand that the United States probably cannot dissuade Putin from continuing his “return to great power” actions. The Russian leadership has already determined that this is critical to their own national interest. Economic sanctions have not induced them to change their course of action, and probably will play to the Russian narrative that it is under attack from the West. In actuality, this is likely to have the reverse and unintended effect of giving Putin the pretext to further consolidate his domestic power base; nothing unifies people like a common outside threat whether it is real or perceived.

Given the previous discussion, there are two more strategic assumptions that should be considered. First, one can assume that a stable, secure, economically strong, and unified Europe remains absolutely essential to U.S. national security for the foreseeable future. The second is that NATO is the guarantor of such a secure Europe. Taking these assumptions and understanding Russian motivations and associated factors, the United States should adopt a strategy that employs hard power (military forces) in Europe to allow the other elements of national power (diplomacy, information, and economics) to influence Russia from a position of strength. Such a policy is based on three elements: 1) the United States cannot simply ignore Russia, for example, by hoping the Ukraine crisis resolves itself, and expecting Russia to cease its aggression due to financial challenges; 2) Russia responds to strength; and, 3) NATO is the counterweight to Russian aggression.

The current set of U.S. actions do not appear to have substantially influenced Putin’s behavior. These include several rounds of sanctions, as well as small-scale military activities. For example, during the spring and summer of 2014, the United States sent infantry companies to each of the Baltic states and to Poland in April 2014 to conduct training with the host countries. The United States enhanced its Baltic Air Policing rotation with additional aircraft, as well as sending other aircraft to Poland.13 None of these were major forces, however, and they have apparently done little to cause Putin to cease actions in Ukraine or to scale back his aggressive shows-of force.

Similarly, U.S. policy and actions over the past several years in Europe have also caused several eastern NATO members to question U.S. commitment. The Pacific “pivot” was a poor choice of words that gave the misperception of “turning away” from Europe. While the U.S. policy was actually a Pacific “rebalance,” its material actions made Europe question otherwise. The United States removed the only two armor-equipped Brigade Combat Teams from Europe. It removed A-10 ground attack aircraft from Europe. It also removed the Maritime Prepositioned Ships Squadron One (MPSRON 1) with all of its prepositioned Marine combat equipment. It removed significant amounts of other support units and support equipment from all the Services in Europe. These reductions were, understandably, driven by fiscal uncertainty coupled with an apparently stable Europe. But they did little to assuage European uncertainty about U.S. commitment. One can therefore extrapolate that, if the NATO Allies are uncertain about our commitment, the Russian adversary must be equally uncertain.

This uncertainty, coupled with Russian adventurism could lead to unintentional Russian miscalculation that causes a major military confrontation. To prevent such a catastrophe, the United States should re-evaluate its ground force presence in Europe, and rebuild its ground forces in Europe to reassure allies and dissuade Russian opportunism. If the draw-down was based on a seemingly cooperative Russia and a safe Europe, the reverse must equally apply: an adversarial Russia challenging Europe should logically drive an increased U.S. force presence in Europe. While this may seem to represent Army interests parochially, in a much larger sense it protects U.S. interests. Dr. Luis Simón writes that “if the West is ever to establish any sort of meaningful dialogue with Russia on global security issues, it must do so from a position of strength.”14 A strong U.S. ground presence in Europe, with permanent stationing of the proper heavy capabilities to defend against Russian ground forces, greatly reduces the risk of a Russian miscalculation, making all of Europe that much safer.


1. Strobe Talbotte, "The Making of Vladimir Putin," August 19, 2014, available from www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/08/putin-the-backstory-110151.html, accessed on November 12, 2014.

2. Gallup Daily: Obama Job Approval, February 19-21, 2015, available from www.gallup.com/poll/113980/Gallup-Daily-Obama-Job-Approval.aspx.

3. Lidia Kelly, "Finance Minister Warns Russia Can't Afford Military Spending Plan," October 7, 2014, available from www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/07/us-russia-economy-spending-defence-idUSKCN0HW1H420141007, accessed on December 9, 2014.

4. Brad Lendon, "NATO Jets Scrambled More Than 400 Times This Year for Russian Intercepts, November 21, 2014, available from www.cnn.com/2014/11/21/world/europe/nato-russia-intercepts/index.html, accessed on November 21, 2014.

5. Center for Global Security, "Aid to Pakistan by the Numbers," n.d., available from www.cgdev.org/page/aid-pakistan-numbers, accessed on December 9, 2014.

6. Fred Weir, "Russia, China plan war games, arms sales. Could alliance be in the cards?" The Christian Science Monitor, November 21, 2014, available from news.yahoo.com/russia-china-plan-war-games-arms-sales-could-130004941.html, accessed on November 21, 2014.

7. R. Evan Ellis, "The New Russian Engagement in Latin America, Strategic Position, Commerce, and Dreams of the Past," Draft, November 19, 2014.

8. U.S. Energy Information Administration, "Russia," March 12, 2014, available from www.eia.gov/countries/cab.cfm?fips=RS, accessed on January 27, 2015.

9. Kelly.

10. Associated Press, "Russian Ruble Falls to Historic Lows, While Pressure Increases on Putin," December 16, 2014, available from www.foxnews.com/world/2014/12/16/russian-ruble-falls-to-historic-lows-while-pressure-increases-on-putin/, accessed on December 18, 2014.

11. Zack Beauchamp, "Why Putin's Russia is Weaker Than the USSR, In One Chart," September 4, 2014, available from www.vox.com/2014/9/4/6105491/putin-russia-chart, accessed on September 23, 2014.

12. “Vital” in this article means the security of the United States (notwithstanding nuclear attack, of course), her citizens, and her economy.

13. Luis Simón, “Assessing NATO’s Eastern European ‘Flank’,” Parameters, Vol. 44, No. 3, pp. 67-79.

14. Ibid., p. 79.


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