When General Joseph Dunford, Barack Obama’s nominee for the position of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described Russia as “the greatest threat to our national security” during his confirmation hearing in the Senate, the White House rushed to distance itself from his words. However, General Dunford’s statement was far from isolated. Only several weeks earlier, the US Air Force secretary, Deborah James, expressed a similar view of Russia in an interview with Reuters.
This seems a somewhat ironic u-turn in the Obama administration’s approach to its relationship with Moscow. Indeed, only three years earlier when the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney referred to Russia as America’s “biggest geopolitical foe” during the 2012 presidential campaign, Obama ridiculed his opinion.
In Obama’s words: “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years”. Yet the crisis in Ukraine has demonstrated an enormous gap between Moscow’s and Washington’s positions on European security, and some of Obama’s top military advisers appear to openly share Romney’s view.
But does Putin’s Russia really pose a threat to the Unites States? There is no doubt that the relationship between the countries has deteriorated since what Moscow interprets as Washington’s attempt to illegally overthrow Yanukovych’s regime in Ukraine and what Washington sees as Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Both sides profoundly disagree on the roots of the crisis, which makes it even more difficult to negotiate a lasting solution that would be acceptable to all parties.
Despite the high level of tensions, the language of threats is counterproductive and dangerous. There are at least three reasons why Russia should not be considered “the greatest threat” to the US security.
Military response required
The vision of Russia as “the greatest threat” would almost inevitably require some military response. It is not a coincidence, for example, that General Dunford during the same confirmation hearing expressed his support for supplying Ukraine with lethal arms. However, such a response is likely to only escalate the conflict.
In Moscow’s eyes, the crisis in Ukraine is the product of the US and EU’s interference in that country’s internal affairs. By supplying Ukraine with lethal weapons, Washington would risk provoking a stronger military response by Moscow, with more causalities and destruction in an already devastated part of Ukraine. This would also make it more difficult, if not impossible, to achieve any lasting solution to the fate of Donetsk and Luhansk within Ukraine.
Restoring Great Power status
By describing Russia as “the greatest threat” to the US security, US officials and politicians only strengthen Moscow’s determination to continue with its course of actions. This unintended consequence of US rhetoric can be explained by a basic psychological mechanism.
The roots of the current crisis, in all their complexity, are linked to Moscow’s dissatisfaction with Russia’s status in the post-Soviet period. In the eyes of Russian political elites, Russia’s claims for great power status were continuously undermined by what they saw as Washington’s disregard for Russia’s interests.
Ironically, Russian elites interpret Russia’s designation as “the greatest threat” to the US security as a long-awaited recognition of great power status. What couldn’t be earned through cooperation with the US and the West more broadly, is seen as reclaimed through the conflict.
This is a very dangerous message to send. The importance of great power considerations is also evident at the level of Russia’s public opinion. According to a series of surveys conducted by the Moscow-based Levada Centre, only 31% of Russian respondents viewed Russia as a great power in 1999. In contrast, this number rose to an impressive 68% in 2014-15.
Fuelling anti-US sentiment
Public statements about Russia’s threat feed into already exceptionally high levels of anti-Americanism in Russian society. According to findings of the Pew Research Center, the share of Russian respondents who hold unfavourable views of the US has risen to 81% in 2015 – a striking increase compared to 33% in 2002.
Although such a significant change is clearly the result of a massive anti-Western propaganda campaign in Russia’s state-controlled mass media, Washington officials and politicians often provide perfect material which is easily exploited by Russian propagandists. Of course, peaks of anti-Americanism in Russian public opinion happened before: the numbers rose considerably following NATO campaign in Kosovo in 1999, the intervention in Iraq in 2003 and Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008. However, this time the length of the conflict and the unprecedented emotional intensity of the anti-Western propaganda is likely to have a much more noticeable effect on public attitudes towards the US.
As history shows, sooner or later political leaders on both sides will start looking for ways to overcome the tensions. Avoiding the language of “greatest threats” will make this process easier.