The United States’ first major intervention against Syria consisted of a missile strike on an airbase on April 7, a move condemned as premature by Russian officials. Russia warned that the strikes on Syria placed the world’s two nuclear great powers one accident away from a direct confrontation, but Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hoped aloud that this outcome could be avoided and the prospects for cooperation salvaged. Since then, American forces struck pro-government militia forces, bombed the Syrian army directly and, two days later, incapacitated a Syrian drone.
On June 20, the United States shot down a Syrian warplane, prompting Russia to reply that it will begin recognizing coalition warplanes (including American jets) as legitimate military targets. It is worth remembering that General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, claimed in September of last year that a policy seeking control of airspace in Syria would require war with Russia.
Meanwhile, the Senate has passed sanctions legislation aimed at Iran which also includes an amendment codifying existing anti-Russian sanctions and imposing extensive new penalties on Russian industries and officials. The bill also restricts the president’s discretion in selectively enforcing these sanctions, likely because of the persisting narrative that President Trump is soft on Russia. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has warned that these sanctions may deprive the administration of the flexibility necessary to negotiate with Russia. This in turn may close off any remaining opportunities to resolve U.S.-Russian tensions through diplomacy. Russian political officials have decried this development as a manifestation of Washington’s paranoid obsession with punishing an inflated Russian menace, claiming that this policy “is not about Russia’s behavior and, accordingly, [the] cancellation [of sanctions] does not depend on it.”
We might accept, for the sake of argument, that Russia’s actions are unacceptable and that a more aggressively anti-Assad intervention might bring some benefits. Yet we must also recognize the gravity of the present situation. Policies which escalate tensions between the United States and Russia place both countries on a collision course for a potential great power war. Such a conflict runs a non-negligible risk of escalation to the nuclear domain and, with it, a death toll incalculably higher than any manmade disaster in history, let alone the Syrian civil war. At the very least, the continuing escalation will place in question all prospects of productive cooperation critical for vital concerns ranging from space exploration to counterterror strategy. Worryingly, policymakers and general public chronically underestimate the likelihood of an unintended disaster: calls for restraint (or imagined calls, since few in politics are willing to risk their names by voicing skepticism) have been met as Putin apologism, and anti-Russian hysteria in the wake of the 2016 election. What’s more, the subsequent investigation of President Trump’s campaign and associates by the FBI has provided hawks with plenty of opportunities to blacken the reputations of those who advocate caution.
It would behoove Westerners to appreciate the Russian point of view and to listen to the stated interests and fears of Russian leaders. Whether or not Russia’s cause is just, Westerners must understand the Russian perspective in order to understand and respond to Russia’s behavior.
Russian leadership has adopted a siege mentality, and not without reason: in 1989, Moscow was 1200 miles from any border the West could threaten. That distance has shrunken to 200 today. Numerous former-Soviet states have left Russia’s sphere of influence for NATO’s protective umbrella and/or integration into the European Union. Russia’s leaders naturally fear the growing disparity between Russian conventional military capabilities and the West’s. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has become hopelessly outclassed in most fields, with the notable exceptions of main battle tanks and local numerical superiority. Their great equalizer, nuclear deterrence, is also at risk of being gradually neutralized, as the United States has pursued an extensive Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) program in Turkey, Romania, Poland, and South Korea, a development which Russia has denounced has undermining the stability afforded by nuclear bipolarity.
All this places Russia in a position of vulnerability, something which may at first sound appealing to Westerners, but in fact makes the world less stable and more dangerous. Russia has become a wounded bear – it is unable to rule, but it is (and will remain) able to inflict itself on the West when its core interests are at stake. Case in point, President Putin has been candid about the reasons for Russia’s retaliatory policy against the West: Russia fears an ongoing shift in the balance of power that will render it vulnerable to American and European coercion, and Russia is motivated to act decisively to preserve her status before this transition becomes irreversible. Russia therefore cannot afford to back down meekly in the face of American sanctions, ineffectual as they may be. Doing so would mean surrendering Russia’s dwindling ability to hold onto great power status by ceding crucial sources of strength (Crimea, Syria, nuclear parity, etc.). If Putin cannot compromise, and if American leadership is, for political reasons, committed to an escalatory strategy that demands Russian acquiescence, then there is only one endgame: continued brinksmanship that risks a miscalculation and potentially uncontrollable military confrontation.
This is a disastrous road to walk, and it is not at all clear that the questionable benefits of a hardline strategy are worth even a small risk of a great power conflict. American non-intervention will likely see many more thousands die before conflicts in Syria and Ukraine are brought to a conclusion (if a clear end will even come about). However, intervention risks a far worse outcome: a great power war carrying with it the potential for a nuclear holocaust. There are no easy solutions here, but policymakers would do well to consider the apocalyptic scenarios that could result from their well-intentioned but misguided humanitarian aspirations. It is time to take Russia’s continued warnings seriously: punishing Putin’s misdeeds is not worth risking a world war.
Andrew Beddow is a senior at the University of Michigan studying philosophy and German. He is currently a research intern at the Center for the National Interest.