When talking to foreign journalists during the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, Russian President Vladimir Putin focused on the consequences of the US withdrawal from international treaties governing the “arms race”. The head of the state reasonably pointed out that the US actions posed a threat to global security. Therefore, it naturally generates a need for predicting further Washington actions on the international scene. It is extremely hard to get a direct answer to this question without access to decision makers. However, there is a “workaround”. A thoughtful study of the analytical materials by the American think tank on US foreign policy can clarify the situation. The studies, which examine the prospects for US interaction with Russia and China, Washington’s main competitors in the international arena, are of particular value.
In May 2019, the Rand Corporation center, ranked 9th in the Think Tank Global Rankings by the Lauder Institute, published the report “Extending Russia: Competing from Advantageous Grounds”. This study is fundamental in its nature. Already due to its volume (354 pages), only a limited circle of experts could become acquainted with its contents in detail. That is why its authors soon released an abridged version of the report entitled “Overextending and Unbalancing Russia. Assessing the Impact of Cost-Imposing Options”. This study is devoted to its contents, with its authors trying to develop a program to undermine Russia’s positions on the international scene by overstraining its forces.
«Pressure points» and Washington «strategy for victory»
The report authors attributed the following among the main “pressure points” for Russia: a decrease in the world prices for hydrocarbons, which entailed a decrease in the quality of life; economic sanctions (as a factor accelerating the decline in the welfare of citizens); aging and population decline; strengthening the elements of authoritarianism within the Russian political system.
Thus, according to the authors, the main source of risk for the implementation of the Russian foreign policy course are not political–military, but socio-economic factors, with the key importance being given to the economic structure and population living standards.
This implies that the threat of sabotage of the Russian Federation foreign policy is associated not so much with direct opposition of foreign powers as with the possibility of the state from within, presumably through the growth and politicization of protests related to socio-economic issues.
The authors of the report do not recommend US elites to try and organize another “color revolution” in Russia. However, they emphasize that the Russian establishment pays too much attention to this threat. These fears can be successfully used provoking the Kremlin to commit not fully thought out actions within the country. Similarly, the authors suggest exploiting fears of Russia losing its great power status (probably due to the severance of ties with the West and the impact of sanctions) or a direct military attack by the United States and its allies.
The authors of the report justifiably dismiss the possibility of the latter. They assess Russia as a dangerous competitor that can compete with the United States in a number of ways. A direct collision with it during a full-scale military conflict will inevitably lead to disastrous consequences.
It is proposed to build a strategy of confrontation with the Kremlin based on the principle of aggravating crisis trends in the socio-economic sphere by provoking the Russian leadership on ill-conceived resources spending. The latter, among other things, should reduce the Moscow chances in terms of financing social projects and conducting structural economic reforms.
We are not talking about the classic “war of attrition”. The latter provides that the conditionally “attacking” side bears equal or even greater costs compared to the object of the “attack”. Significant superiority over the enemy in terms of resources allows implementing this strategy.
Rand Corporation experts emphasize that tactics that require at least similar US spending are highly undesirable. The reason for this is that the Russian leadership may in theory abandon the “race of costs” in the unpromising sphere. Given the impossibility of a full-scale “hot war” (and the total lack of benefits for the “victorious” side), this will mean substantial and unjustified expenses for the US budget. The latter should inevitably affect its internal political situation. Ineffective military spending is almost guaranteed to be an occasion for criticism of the current government within the opposition. Similarly, it will cause irritation in that part of the establishment that lacks state financial support for its own large-scale projects. That is why the US strategy to weaken Russia should be as “economical” as possible.
The described approach implies the need to concentrate US efforts on several of the most promising areas of impact on Russia. The authors of the report suggest abandoning the idea of “attacking” the Kremlin in all potentially vulnerable areas.
It is crucial to highlight that the refusal to conduct a full-fledged arms race does not mean that the US is not going to try and imitate such efforts on its part. The latter may provoke the Kremlin to increase defense spending to the detriment of social and economic development programs or intensify the elite fears about the loss of Russia’s great power status or the possibility of a direct armed conflict with the United States.
«Lambs» и «goats»: effectiveness of anti-Russian tactics
Rand Corporation experts see the expansion of hydrocarbon production within the United States and its export to foreign markets as the most promising area of work. The tactic’s advantages are that it should limit the Russian budget revenues, a significant part of the establishment economic returns, contribute to the development of the American economy and not require long-term coordination at the domestic and international levels.
This tactic goes hand in hand with diversification of imports on the European hydrocarbon market. However, the implementation of this project would require large-scale changes in the liquefied natural gas market and, most importantly, the conversion of LNG into a more competitive product. This implies the need for large-scale investments and the conclusion of a whole system of agreements with a wide range of European states.
Strengthening the sanctions regime is estimated as a highly effective, but at the same time resource-consuming tool, its use fraught with many risks. Moreover, its full use will require full support from other leading economies. The latter automatically reduces the likelihood of US elites opting for this tactic.
Encouraging the emigration of skilled workers and well-educated youth from Russia will not require tangible costs from the United States, but this tactic’s benefit will only be noticeable in the long run.
Rand Corporation experts are skeptical about the possible strengthening of the US influence on the situation in geopolitically tangible regions for Russia (Ukraine, Syria, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Belarus, Transnistria). The implementation of the relevant projects, in their opinion, will not give the United States tangible benefits (except for the Ukrainian and Belarusian directions). At the same time, expanding military assistance to Ukraine, “promoting liberalization” of Belarus and increasing aid to “Syrian rebels are fraught with high risks”. The probability of success from the point of view of provoking Russia to unnecessary costs is seen as high only in the case of the Ukraine.
The prospects of information warfare are assessed likewise. Decreasing confidence in the electoral system, discrediting the political leadership through the image of the authorities acting contrary to the public interest, encouraging political protests – all this implies the need for significant costs, a high degree of risk and a low or moderate probability of success.
Undermining Russia’s authority abroad, attempts to reduce its soft power are also assessed as not very promising.
Numerous recommendations made by experts regarding the development and deployment of various branches of the armed forces are an occasion for a separate study. The following points should be noted out of the key findings of the report authors. Of the 18 proposed tactics, 13 are associated with high risks and the need for large-scale budget expenditures, which, in accordance with the approach of Rand Corporation experts, makes their use unreasonable. 9 tactics guarantee a high probability of success, but 3 of them are associated with a high level of costs and risks, and 2 with a small scale of benefits.
In light of this, it becomes obvious that the military and military-technical spheres, according to the authors of the report, will not play the role of the main space in the confrontation between Russia and the United States. The “arms race” (or an imitation of building up military capabilities) and the displacement of military groups should play a supporting role within the framework of this concept. Their key task is to strengthen the effect produced by US actions in the economic sphere.
In lieu of the conclusion
When analyzing the report contents, it is crucial to keep in mind the conditions for its creation. This study cannot be regarded simply as a set of assessments and methodological recommendations based on them. This is not about a scientific study conducted to solve a specific problem outside the field of subjective preferences, corporate or personal interests. The Rand Corporation report is based on the expert interviews. Given the topic specifics, it becomes clear that either the representatives of the American establishment or highly qualified specialists serving its interests acted as experts. Also, one should not forget about the impact of research design (primarily – the form and content of the toolbox) on the resulting answers. The methodological base of the study was built on hypotheses put forward by researchers. The latter, in turn, one way or another must correspond to the position of the elites grouped around Rand Corporation. This is not about banal self-censorship by the authors of the report, although its influence probably also happens.
The expert community, as a rule, is characterized by the integration of research teams on the basis of a single conceptual, in some cases, worldview platform. In other words, a globalist and an anti-globalist can work as a team. However, their attempt to create an intellectual product will almost certainly fail: the difference in the structure of the estimated coordinate system is too great. Establishment groups need analytical support primarily from expert groups that hold common views with them. The “brain trusts” themselves are formed mainly due to the union of experts who have common grounds. Exceptions to this rule are possible. However, a supporter of a different explanatory model, a bearer of a different value paradigm, will inevitably begin to experience greater discomfort over time and will change his work setting as soon as possible.
Thus, the findings set forth in the Rand Corporation report are not some kind of objective truth or expression of consensus in the opinion of all representatives of the American establishment. In this case, we are talking about the position of certain elite groups. And, most importantly, promoting their corporate interests.
It is vital to understand that the Rand Corporation report is not an instruction that will be meticulously executed by the US government. This study is a set of arguments and counterarguments, its truth confirmed by the circumstances of origin, more specifically, by the authority of Rand Corporation and its experts. The points presented in the report provide ground for substantiating their positions to certain interest groups that will advance their agenda both in Congress and in the White House. They are designed to form the opinion of their target audience – decision-makers. Both directly and indirectly – through the popularization of the report’s findings in the media and via public opinion.
Therefore, the main report conclusion should be the understanding that there is a fairly influential and large group within the American establishment that seeks, if not to normalize relations with Russia, then at least to reduce the conflict intensity. It is not only a question of abandoning the methods of struggle fraught with high mutual risks. It also considers the possibility of establishing partnerships in certain areas in which building dialogue between the two countries requires practical needs. However, this cannot be regarded as a justification for a possible reset of relations between the two states. The super-pragmatic approach to conducting foreign policy, as traced in the concept by the authors, serves as a warning. The US freedom of action is only limited by factors such as compliance with the interests of America (or its elites), the level of risk, and the extent of resource costs. Thus, one cannot consider the possibility of partnership with the United States based on trust, the idea of loyalty to common values, etc. At least, this is exactly what corresponds to the approach to the implementation of foreign policy followed by analysts at Rand Corporation, the experts interviewed and part of the establishment affiliated.
Nikolay Ponomarev – Leading Analyst, Foundation for the Protection of National Values