The ‘chronic’ threat to America? Russia

By Around the Web

Russian troops (Pixabay)
Russian troops

[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Wire.]

By Scott Gerber
Real Clear Wire

A decade after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, the 2024 Munich Security Conference left no doubt that America is still struggling to address the Russian threat. The heart of the U.S.’s problem is its conception of Russia as an episodic problem. The National Defense Strategy (NDS) calls Russia an “acute threat”[ii] This language presents Russia as a major threat but suggests it will soon go away, perhaps when President Vladimir Putin, the architect of the aggression, no longer leads the country. However, that outcome seems unlikely. Despite appalling setbacks in Ukraine, Russia’s government—and its people—appear resilient. This resilience is unsurprising from Russia’s perspective because they believe they are re-establishing their security bulwark against Western aggression, which suggests a high degree of motivation to oppose the West. Additionally, the Kremlin has the means to continue opposition: a sophisticated security strategy that will allow it to pursue those goals even when the country is weak. Conflict with Russia will not go away anytime soon. As the Pentagon prepares the next NDS, it should reconsider defining Russia as an acute problem. Moreover, NATO’s Concept for Deterrence and Defense of the Euro-Atlantic Area (DDA) may offer an opportunity for U.S. leaders to address Moscow’s aggression more efficiently in a security environment with several pressing security threats.

Russia represents a paradoxical challenge. Russia lacks the economy, technological base, and military capabilities to challenge the West on the same order of magnitude as the Soviet Union did or the People’s Republic of China does now. Additionally, Putin’s campaigns against the West have damaged its strategic position. For instance, the 2022 invasion of Ukraine convinced Sweden and Finland to join NATO, adding two powerful NATO members to Russia’s north. The Russian military’s catastrophic performance in Ukraine further muddied the waters. Recent intelligence agencies’ assessments reportedly state that Moscow will require a decade to rebuild its military strength to pre-invasion levels.[iii] However, Moscow possesses a few thousand nuclear weapons, and under their cover, the Kremlin is quite adept at using the rest of the tools in its arsenal. We know the record: wars in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria; escalations of military tensions with NATO; and, using Russian military terminology, an array of nonmilitary campaigns, from influence operations to assassinations. Despite its demonstrated battlefield weaknesses in 2022, Moscow has the ability to keep challenging the West. It will continue to do so.

Get the hottest, most important news stories on the Internet – delivered FREE to your inbox as soon as they break! Take just 30 seconds and sign up for WND’s Email News Alerts!

Characterizing the Russian threat as “acute” encourages a singular focus on the “pacing threat,” China, that is, in fact, counterproductive to leaderships’ goal. The Moscow-generated crises in Europe are part of the Kremlin’s ongoing, multi-dimensional campaign against the West. Ignoring the persistent threat from Moscow has forced the Pentagon into reactive modes to address Russian aggression that a long-term approach might have handled with less energy and fewer resources. Calling Moscow an acute threat has disrupted Pentagon efforts to focus on the pacing threat. Treating Russia as a transitory problem may also undermine support for needed changes to policy, strategy, and resourcing, such as aid to Ukraine. Finally, the NDS may have an opportunity to manage the problem economically through the DDA, the framework that guides NATO activities, operations, force management and contingency operations, in peacetime, crisis or war. It could help the U.S. recast its conception of Russian to a persistent, chaotic, chronic threat.

Disaster in Ukraine
Perhaps the strongest indicator of Russian perseverance is that several indicators suggest Russia should have collapsed by now. Russia has massive demographic problems, with a life expectancy ranked in the bottom 50 countries, primarily driven by common signs of dissatisfaction: smoking and alcoholism.[iv] Russian scholars have noted the costs of emigration of talented labor, known as brain drain. In 2016, 44,000 highly qualified specialists left the country.[v] Furthermore, sanctions from Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine hammered GDP and real income while spiking inflation. At that time, some argued that Putin must enact reforms because the population would not tighten its belt further.[vi]

Western-led sanctions following the 2022 invasion amplified Putin’s problems. Inflation spiked over 20% in 2022 and continues to hover above 6%, leading the Central Bank to raise interest rates to 16% in an attempt to counter it.[vii] From 2021 to 2022, per capita GDP dropped 2%, from $28,057 to $27,450.[viii] In a National Opinion Research Center (NORC) poll, one-third of Russians said they were worse off economically since the war started.[ix] Over one thousand major international businesses have closed or curtailed their operations in Russia.[x] Even the fast-food icon McDonald’s, whose 1990 opening in Moscow symbolized the ending of the Cold War, sold everything and left.[xi] A coalition, led by the U.S. and EU, has also sanctioned oligarchs and silovki, former security apparatus personnel who now hold roles throughout the Russian government, and other essential supporters of Putin. Since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, somewhere between 800,000 and one million people have fled Russia, and they are disproportionately young and educated.[xii]

Militarily, Russia has suffered terribly in Ukraine since 2022. The Ukrainian Army devastated Moscow’s elite units, like the 1st Guards Tank Army, the Airborne Force (VDV) and the Black Sea Fleet. Russian leadership has demonstrated ineptitude at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war. Since the invasion, Russia has lost approximately 200,000 to 350,000 killed, wounded, and missing in action. Ukraine has destroyed over 7,500 armored vehicles, 230 aircraft, and over 20 naval vessels, including the Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet.[xiii] In November 2022, Kyiv executed a successful counteroffensive that recovered about 40% of the Kherson Province seized by Russia early in the war.[xiv]

Politically, there have been signs of instability as well. Russia has seen several rounds of protests, including large-scale demonstrations in early 2022. In response, Putin has waged war on his own people, targeting over 100,000 people with criminal or administrative prosecutions, numbers that eclipse former Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Nakita Khrushchev.[xv] Despite harsh repression, protests still occurred following Putin’s call for an expanded draft in September 2022.[xvi] The most significant disruption was the Wagner mutiny in June 2023, when Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner mercenary group and key Putin ally, led his forces from Ukraine in a mutiny that halted within 40 miles of Moscow. Many Western experts argued that even though the mutiny did not lead to a change in government, it signaled that Putin was severely weakened.[xvii]

Russian Perseverance
Despite all this suffering, the evidence still suggests Putin’s version of Russia is not going anywhere soon. Six months after the mutiny, there was no revolt, no reform. Prigozhin and leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny, two potential challengers of the system, are dead. Public opinion polling also suggests that Putin’s position remains solid.[xviii] Levada-Center in Moscow has polled support since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, and support for the war consistently exceeded 70%.[xix] Levada-Center assesses Putin’s popularity at over 80%, and the government enjoys a 70% approval rating.[xx] A November 2023 survey by the NORC found that 67% of Russians support Putin’s foreign policy, and 58% support his domestic policy.[xxi] While propaganda and repression certainly distort polling in Russia, recent studies conclude it provides a reasonable sense of the Russian peoples’ beliefs.[xxii]

History helps explain why Russian people may support their government. Russian history has bounced between devastating foreign invasions and catastrophic internal instability, including invasions by Napoleonic France, Imperial Germany, and Nazi Germany. This blood-soaked cycle reached a thirty-year crescendo with World War I, the Russian Revolution, Stalin’s purges, famines, and World War II. No one really knows how many millions of people died over those years.

Due to their history and geography, Russian leaders long ago concluded they required buffers on their borders to stem foreign invasions of Russian soil.[xxiii] Furthermore, Russian leaders also believed Russia had to be one of the central players in the international system to protect their interests.[xxiv] By 1950, after centuries of work, Moscow had accomplished both goals. The Soviet Union was one of two global powers and had built a physical security buffer extending to the Weser River that divided Cold War Germany.

The post-Cold War collapse of that security architecture angered many people—not just Putin. As early as 1993, Russian President Boris Yeltsin articulated that “the expansion of military blocs and alliances” threatened Russia’s military security.[xxv] In 1994, during an explosive speech at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Yeltsin accused the United States, in front of President Clinton and other heads of state, of domineering behavior and attempting to partition Europe.[xxvi]

In 2007, when Vladimir Putin made his infamous Munich Security Conference speech that foreshadowed the coming Russian aggression, that security architecture was effectively gone. Russia’s buffer to the West dwindled to two adjacent states: Belarus and Ukraine. NATO had expanded to Russia’s borders and engaged in a series of operations without UN approval, including a war against Russia’s fellow Slavs in Serbia. Equally important, NATO took many of these actions despite Kremlin protests, highlighting Moscow’s loss of control over its perceived security needs.

From Moscow’s perspective, the Western alliance rolled back its security buffer, threatened domestic revolution, and treated Russia disrespectfully. Russian authors also described how the West aggressively employed protest movements such as the “color revolutions” to overthrow governments they did not like.[xxvii] These authors concluded the West sought to impose its views and values on Russia.[xxviii] Several observers have noted that Russian leaders believe they are in a permanent state of war with the West.[xxix] Opinion polling indicates that majorities of the Russian population agree and see Putin as a strong leader defending them from Western aggression.[xxx] In that light, Russian resilience makes all the sense in the world.

Primakov’s – and Russia’s – Plan to Restore Security
Despite the massive losses in Ukraine, Moscow’s security framework provides a sophisticated and flexible approach to pursuing national goals. In response to perceived Western expansionism, Yevgeny Primakov, who served as Yeltsin’s foreign and prime minister, outlined the Primakov Doctrine. The doctrine articulates three principles for Russian foreign policy in the face of a unipolar world dominated by the United States: build a multipolar international order, establish Russian primacy over the post-Soviet region, and oppose NATO expansion.[xxxi] The military arm of that strategy, dubbed “New Type War,” pursues the policy goals with a simple and scalable logic. Employ strategic deterrence to prevent external interference, destabilize target nations with nonmilitary operations to soften them, and use rapid conventional military operations, if required, to secure strategic ends.[xxxii] The Primakov doctrine still explains Russia’s aggression and strategic logic today: Russians—not just Putin—are mad and frightened, and have spent the last 15 years attempting to set what they see as tolerable security conditions.

More importantly, the West should expect continued conflict because the Primkov Doctrine and Western values are fundamentally at odds. Western perceptions of universal values often contradict Russian values.[xxxiii] This difference leads to contradictory foreign policies. The U.S. supports self-determination, NATO expansion with willing parties, and the responsibility to protect doctrine. Russia’s foreign policy focuses on regional integration (read: spheres of influence), absolute sovereignty, and stability.[xxxiv] Absent a Cold War-style nuclear standoff, these differences create fertile ground New-Type War conflicts wherever they meet, whether at the Dnieper or the Weser River.

Furthermore, Russia’s framework will almost certainly drive them to challenge the West again— very soon. As Gene Rumer argued persuasively in 2019, the Primakov and New Type War doctrines are designed to enable calculated risk-taking.[xxxv] They allow Moscow to re-establish conditions it believes are required in the face of a stronger opponent. In the last 30 years, Russia frequently turned to war—Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria—and employed proxies and nonmilitary operations against numerous other opponents. In that light, the 2022 invasion of Ukraine was a strategic misjudgment. Moscow expected a quick war to replace the government in Kyiv before the West could respond effectively. The Ukrainians waged an effective defense and the West weighed in heavily with military support and sanctions.[xxxvi]

While Russia’s security framework failed to deliver in 2022, it worked much better during the 2014 invasion of Ukraine and can still enable future aggression. If Russian leaders can avoid acts so egregious that they galvanize NATO to action, Western domestic challenges coupled with Russian influence operations can create space for Russian aggression. Furthermore, if Moscow refines its strategic approach back to small bites rather than big chunks, it does not need to reconstitute all the 1st Guards Tank Army or the VDV to challenge the West again.

How do You Solve a Problem Like Russia?
The challenge for the next NDS is revisualizing Russia as an enduring threat and framing a solution that is viable given the need to counter China and address the growing violence in the Middle East. The United States has massive challenges and interests in Asia but Europe remains vital to American prosperity and safety. In the third quarter of 2023, according to the Bureau of Economic Activity, U.S. exports to Europe were $234 billion, and $204 billion to the Asia-Pacific region.[xxxvii] Politically, actions like support for Ukraine show the power of a unified Euro-Atlantic community. From a security standpoint, since the Euro-Atlantic community formed, the United States has not had to fight a global war. Europe and the United States will remain vital partners, but the differences between Russia and the West will lead that partnership into conflict with Moscow.

First, the NDS needs to acknowledge the fundamental conflict of interests. Russia remains resilient despite crushing economic, political, and military losses. That resilience likely feeds off of perceived threats from the West, and the Kremlin possesses the tools to continue addressing those threat perceptions on a smaller scale. Furthermore, a leadership change is unlikely to resolve these differences. The two most recent challengers, Prigozhin and Navalny, both had histories of strong nationalism. While Russia has long had a liberal community that connects with the West, it appears they remain a minority. The West and Russia may find accommodation in time, but it won’t be soon. In the meantime, in the words of General Chris Cavoli, the Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, Russia is a “chronic threat” …with nuclear weapons.[xxxviii]

The challenge for the NDS is articulating how the United States will help NATO hold the line while husbanding the resources to counter China and deal with Middle East threats. Here, the DDA may provide an opportunity. Developed in 2020, it has demonstrated utility guiding NATO deterrent posture adjustments and operations in response to Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine. [xxxix] Additionally, in 2023 at the Vilnius Summit, NATO leaders approved the DDA the East Regional Plan, a concept to deter and, if necessary, defeat further Russian aggression. Further planning presents an opportunity to rebalance the U.S. approach to European security. Allies have the capacity to provide much of the required capability. However, there are risks, such as NATO member problems meeting defense spending commitments. Those risks suggest the U.S. still must play key roles and provide select capabilities, such as operational and strategic reserves. The DDA is not a silver bullet, but the NDS might leverage it to help balance resources in a dangerous world.

Holding the line on Russian aggression will be hard work, day in and day out. However, we have seen how Russian aggression disrupts the U.S. ability to focus on the long-term security threats in Asia. Realigning our NDS language and thinking to match our reality, that Russia is a chronic threat that is not going away, will help manage all the threats in a dangerous world.

Scott Gerber is a Research Staff Member at the Institute for Defense Analyses and also serves as an adjunct associate professor at Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service Security Studies Program. He holds a PhD from Johns Hopkins Homewood Campus, where he wrote on deterrence failure and Russian New Type War. From 2015 to 2018, he helped U.S. European Command establish the Russia Strategic Initiative, which develops a common understanding of Russia’s way of war and enables DoD leaders to better shape and execute strategic choices addressing the Russian threat.


[i] Jim Garamone, “U.S. Commander in Europe Says Russia Is a ‘Chronic Threat’ to World,” Department of Defense. (April 10, 2024).,U.S.%20Commander%20in%20Europe%20Says,a%20’Chronic%20Threat’%20to%20World&text=Russia%20poses%20%22a%20chronic%20threat,commander%20of%20U.S.%20European%20Command.

[iii]. Jonathan Landay, “U.S. Intelligence Assesses Ukraine War Has Cost Russia 315,000 Casualties—Source,” Reuters, December 12, 2023,

[iv]. Rob Preston, “Why Demographic Trends Spell Trouble for China and Russia—And Prosperity for the U.S.,” Forbes, November 3, 2015.

[v] Svetlana Kalyugina, Alexander Pyanov, and Wadim Strielkowski, “Threats and Risks of Intellectual Security in Russia in the Conditions of World Globalization,” Journal of Institutional Studies 12, no. 1 (March 25, 2020): 124,

[vi]. Sergei Guriev,“Russia’s Constrained Economy: How the Kremlin Can Spur Growth,” Foreign Affairs, 95, no. 3, May/Jun 2016.

[vii]. “Russia Core Inflation Rate,” Trading Economics, accessed January 27, 2024, “Russian Inflation Accelerates in November, Rate Hike Beckons,” Reuters, December 8, 2023, sec. European Markets,

[viii]. “Russia GDP per Capita PPP,” Trading Economics, accessed January 27, 2024, “GDP per Capita, PPP (Constant 2017 International $)—Russian Federation,” The World Bank Data, accessed March 3, 2024, GDP per capita, PPP Constant 2017 international dollars.

[ix]. NORC, “NORC CATI Russia Poll November 2023,” Question 1.,

[x]. “Over 1,000 Companies Have Curtailed Operations in Russia—But Some Remain,” Yale School of Management, (January 28, 2024).

[xi]. “Over 1,000 Companies Have Curtailed Operations in Russia—But Some Remain,” Yale School of Management, (January 28, 2024).

[xii] Filip De Mott, “Russia’s Massive Brain Drain Is Ravaging the Economy—These Stunning Figures Show Why It Will Soon Be Smaller than Indonesia’s,” Business Insider, September 3, 2024,

[xiii]. “The Russia-Ukraine War Report Card, Jan. 23, 2024,” Harvard Belfer Center, (January 23, 2024),

[xiv]. Mick Krever, Anna Chernova, Teele Rebante, Gianluca Mezzofiore, Tim Lister, and Sophie Tanno, “Ukrainian Troops Sweep into Key City of Kherson after Russian Forces Retreat, Dealing Blow to Putin,” CNN, November 11, 2022.

[xv]. “Vladimir Putin Has Been Fighting Not Just Ukraine, but His Own People,” The Economist, February 19, 2024. Ekaterina Reznikova and Alexey Korostelev, “2024: A Study in Repression Under Putin,” Проект (Project), (February 22, 2024)

[xvi]. Charles Maynes, “Russians Protested in Dozens of Cities against Putin’s Military Draft,” NPR, September 24, 2022.; “Protests across Russia See Thousands Detained,” BBC News, March 6, 2022.

[xvii]. Melissa Morgan, “Understanding Prigozhin’s Mutiny and What Is—and Isn’t—Happening in Russia,” Stanford Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, June 28, 2023,

[xviii]. The Levada-Center and NORC discuss their efforts to obtain unbiased polling inside Russia. See: Denis Volkov, “Are Meaningful Public Opinion Polls Possible in Today’s Russia?,” Levada-Center, April 24, 2023, Russian laws required the Levada Center to register as non-commercial organization acting as foreign agents. “Russian Public Opinion in Wartime” National Opinion Research Center (NROC), (November 2023).

[xix]. “Conflict with Ukraine: Assessments for November 2023,” Levada-Center, January 26, 2024. Of note, a majority of Russians (57%) in this poll also thought that Russia should negotiate an end to the war. Over the timeframe the study captured, only October 22 and November 23 had this high of a score. However, 13 of 14 months, at least 50% of respondents stated Russia should start negotiations.

[xx]. “Indicators,” Levada-Center, January 28, 2024,

[xxi]. NORC, NORC CATI Russia Poll November 2023..

[xxii]. “Reasonably” is the operative word. The studies correctly capture the predominant opinions, but specific percentages, e.g., Putin’s popularity, may lack precision. The Politika Research Center, “Can We Still Learn Russian Public Opinion? Polling Russia at War Time” (Russia Strategic Initiative, 2023); Denis Volkov, Levada-Center, “Are Meaningful Public Opinion Polls Possible in Today’s Russia?,”,; NORC, “Russian Public Opinion in Wartime.”

[xxiii]. Stephen R Covington, “The Culture of Strategic Thought Behind Russia’s Modern Approaches to Warfare,” Belfer Center Paper, (October 2016): 37.

[xxiv]. Russian Federation, Concept of National Security of the Russian Federation (Moscow: Russian Federation, 1997). Section II highlights this requirement. Every national security strategy afterward also highlighted it.

[xxv]. Russian Federation, The Basic Provisions of the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation (Moscow: Russian Federation, 1993), Para 2.1.

[xxvi]. “NATO Expansion—The Budapest Blow Up 1994,” National Security Archive  November 24, 2021. The National Security Archives notes how similar Putin’s 2007 Munich Security Conference speech was to Yeltsin’s speech.

[xxvii] . Andrei Tsygankov, “Vladimir Putin’s Last Stand: The Sources of Russia’s Ukraine Policy,” Post-Soviet Affairs 31, no. 4 (2015): 280. S. G. Chekinov and S. A. Bogdanov, “Distinctive Features of Military Security Provision in 21st Century Russia in Conditions of Globalization,” Military Thought in English 25, no. 2 (2016): 13.

[xxviii]. S. G. Chekinov and S. A. Bogdanov, “The Essence and Content of the Evolving Notion of War in the 21st Century,” Military Thought in English 26, no. 1 (2017): 82; S. L. Tashlykov, “General and Particular Features of Present-Day Conflicts Involving the U.S. and Its Allies,” Military Thought in English 19, no. 3 (2010): 68.

[xxix]. Rod Thornton and Manos Karagiannis, “The Russian Threat to the Baltic States: The Problems of Shaping Local Defense Mechanisms,” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 29, no. 3 (July 2, 2016): 334. For a representative Russian account, see Yu.A. Gaidunko, “The Role and Place of Russia in Today’s World,” Military Thought 28, no. 2 (June 30, 2019).

[xxx]. NORC, “NORC CATI Russia Poll November 2023”; Levada-Center, “Conflict with Ukraine.”

[xxxi]. Eugene Rumer, “The Primakov (Not Gerasimov) Doctrine in Action,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, (June 5, 2019): ix.

[xxxii]. Scott Gerber, Judging War: Explaining Deterrence Failure and Why Russia May Choose War (PhD diss., Johns Hopkins University, 2018),, 115-6. Strategic deterrence is a better description of the element of New Type War that prevents external interference. The original text used de-escalation.

[xxxiii]. Andrei Tsygankov, “Vladimir Putin’s Last Stand: The Sources of Russia’s Ukraine Policy,” Post-Soviet Affairs 31, no. 4 (2015): 287.

[xxxiv]. The 2015 Russian National Security Strategy clearly articulated these goals. See Russian Federation, “Russian National Security Strategy” (Russian Federation, December 31, 2015): Part II and III.,

[xxxv]. Rumer, The Primakov (Not Gerasimov) Doctrine, xi–xiii.

[xxxvi]. Rumer, The Primakov (Not Gerasimov) Doctrine, xi–xiii.

[xxxvii] Seasonally adjusted numbers. “International Data: International Transactions, International Services, and International Investment Position Tables-Europe,” Bureau of Economic Analysis, Accessed March 3, 2024.; “International Data: International Transactions, International Services, and International Investment Position Tables-Asia Pacific,” Bureau of Economic Analysis, Accessed March 3, 2024.

[xxxviii] Jim Garamone, “U.S. Commander in Europe Says Russia Is a ‘Chronic Threat’ to World.”

[xxxix] Stephen Covington, “NATO’s Concept for Deterrence and Defence of the Euro-Atlantic Area (DDA),” The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, (August 2, 2023).



This article was originally published by RealClearDefense and made available via RealClearWire.


Leave a Comment