But the really troubling thing is that in the war games being played, the United States keeps losing.
- By Julia IoffeJulia Ioffe is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. She was a senior editor at the New Republic and was the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and the New Yorker from 2009 to 2012.
For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. Department of Defense is reviewing and updating its contingency plans for armed conflict with Russia.
The Pentagon generates contingency plans continuously, planning for every possible scenario — anything from armed confrontation with North Korea to zombie attacks. But those plans are also ranked and worked on according to priority and probability. After 1991, military plans to deal with Russian aggression fell off the Pentagon’s radar. They sat on the shelf, gathering dust as Russia became increasingly integrated into the West and came to be seen as a potential partner on a range of issues. Now, according to several current and former officials in the State and Defense departments, the Pentagon is dusting off those plans and re-evaluating them, updating them to reflect a new, post-Crimea-annexation geopolitical reality in which Russia is no longer a potential partner, but a potential threat.
“Given the security environment, given the actions of Russia, it has become apparent that we need to make sure to update the plans that we have in response to any potential aggression against any NATO allies,” says one senior defense official familiar with the updated plans.
“Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine made the U.S. dust off its contingency plans,” says Michèle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy and co-founder of the Center for a New American Security. “They were pretty out of date.”
Designing a counteroffensive
The new plans, according to the senior defense official, have two tracks. One focuses on what the United States can do as part of NATO if Russia attacks one of NATO’s member states; the other variant considers American action outside the NATO umbrella. Both versions of the updated contingency plans focus on Russian incursions into the Baltics, a scenario seen as the most likely front for new Russian aggression. They are also increasingly focusing not on traditional warfare, but on the hybrid tactics Russia used in Crimea and eastern Ukraine: “little green men,” manufactured protests, and cyberwarfare. “They are trying to figure out in what circumstances [the U.S. Defense Department] would respond to a cyberattack,” says Julie Smith, who until recently served as the vice president’s deputy national security advisor. “There’s a lively debate on that going on right now.”
This is a significant departure from post-Cold War U.S. defense policy.
After the Soviet Union imploded, Russia, its main heir, became increasingly integrated into NATO, which had originally been created to counter the Soviet Union’s ambitions in Europe. In 1994, Moscow signed onto NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. Three years later, in May 1997, Russia and NATO signed a more detailed agreement on mutual cooperation, declaring that they were no longer adversaries. Since then, as NATO absorbed more and more Warsaw Pact countries, it also stepped up its cooperation with Russia: joint military exercises, regular consultations, and even the opening of a NATO transit point in Ulyanovsk, Russia, for materiel heading to the fight in Afghanistan. Even if the Kremlin was increasingly miffed at NATO expansion, from the West things looked fairly rosy.
After Russia’s 2008 war with neighboring Georgia, NATO slightly modified its plans vis-à-vis Russia, according to Smith, but the Pentagon did not. In preparing the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon’s office for force planning — that is, long-term resource allocation based on the United States’ defense priorities — proposed to then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to include a scenario that would counter an aggressive Russia. Gates ruled it out. “Everyone’s judgment at the time was that Russia is pursuing objectives aligned with ours,” says David Ochmanek, who, as deputy assistant secretary of defense for force development, ran that office at the time. “Russia’s future looked to be increasingly integrated with the West.” Smith, who worked on European and NATO policy at the Pentagon at the time, told me, “If you asked the military five years ago, ‘Give us a flavor of what you’re thinking about,’ they would’ve said, ‘Terrorism, terrorism, terrorism — and China.’”
Warming to Moscow
The thinking around Washington was that Mikheil Saakashvili, then Georgia’s president, had provoked the Russians and that Moscow’s response was a one-off. “The sense was that while there were complications and Russia went into Georgia,” Smith says, “I don’t think anyone anticipated that anything like this would happen again.” Says one senior State Department official: “The assumption was that there was no threat in Europe.” Russia was rarely brought up to the secretary of defense, says the senior defense official.
Then came the Obama administration’s reset of relations with Russia, and with it increased cooperation with Moscow on everything from space flights to nuclear disarmament. There were hiccups (like Russia’s trying to elbow the United States out of the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan) and less-than-full cooperation on pressing conflicts in the Middle East (the best the United States got from Russia on Libya was an abstention at the U.N. Security Council). But, on the whole, Russia was neither a danger nor a priority. It was, says one senior foreign-policy Senate staffer, “occasionally a pain in the ass, but not a threat.”
Ochmanek, for his part, hadn’t thought about Russia for decades. “As a force planner, I can tell you that the prospect of Russian aggression was not on our radar,” he told me when I met him in his office at the Rand Corp. in Northern Virginia, where he is now a senior defense analyst. “Certainly not since 1991, but even in the last years of Gorbachev.” Back in 1989, Ochmanek thought that Washington should be focusing on the threat of Iraq invading Kuwait, not on the dwindling likelihood of Soviet military aggression. For the last 30 years, Ochmanek has shuttled between Rand, where he has focused on military planning, and the nearby Pentagon, where he has done the same in an official capacity: first in the mid-1990s, when he was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy, and then for the first five years of Barack Obama’s administration, when he ran force planning at the Pentagon.
It was there that, in February 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin caught Ochmanek and pretty much every Western official off guard by sending little green men into Crimea and eastern Ukraine. “We didn’t plan for it because we didn’t think Russia would change the borders in Europe,” he says. Crimea, he says, was a “surprise.”
War games, and losing
In June 2014, a month after he had left his force-planning job at the Pentagon, the Air Force asked Ochmanek for advice on Russia’s neighborhood ahead of Obama’s September visit to Tallinn, Estonia. At the same time, the Army had approached another of Ochmanek’s colleagues at Rand, and the two teamed up to run a thought exercise called a “table top,” a sort of war game between two teams: the red team (Russia) and the blue team (NATO). The scenario was similar to the one that played out in Crimea and eastern Ukraine: increasing Russian political pressure on Estonia and Latvia (two NATO countries that share borders with Russia and have sizable Russian-speaking minorities), followed by the appearance of provocateurs, demonstrations, and the seizure of government buildings. “Our question was: Would NATO be able to defend those countries?” Ochmanek recalls.
The results were dispiriting. Given the recent reductions in the defense budgets of NATO member countries and American pullback from the region, Ochmanek says the blue team was outnumbered 2-to-1 in terms of manpower, even if all the U.S. and NATO troops stationed in Europe were dispatched to the Baltics — including the 82nd Airborne, which is supposed to be ready to go on 24 hours’ notice and is based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
“We just don’t have those forces in Europe,” Ochmanek explains. Then there’s the fact that the Russians have the world’s best surface-to-air missiles and are not afraid to use heavy artillery.
After eight hours of gaming out various scenarios, the blue team went home depressed. “The conclusion,” Ochmanek says, “was that we are unable to defend the Baltics.”
Ochmanek decided to run the game on a second day. The teams played the game again, this time working on the assumption that the United States and NATO had already started making positive changes to their force posture in Europe. Would anything be different? The conclusion was slightly more upbeat, but not by much. “We can defend the capitals, we can present Russia with problems, and we can take away the prospect of a coup de main,” Ochmanek says. “But the dynamic remains the same.” Even without taking into account the recent U.S. defense cuts, due to sequestration, and the Pentagon’s plan to downsize the Army by 40,000 troops, the logistics of distance were still daunting. U.S. battalions would still take anywhere from one to two months to mobilize and make it across the Atlantic, and the Russians, Ochmanek notes, “can do a lot of damage in that time.”
Ochmanek has run the two-day table-top exercise eight times now, including at the Pentagon and at Ramstein Air Base, in Germany, with active-duty military officers. “We played it 16 different times with eight different teams,” Ochmanek says, “always with the same conclusion.”
The Defense Department has factored the results of the exercise into its planning, says the senior defense official, “to better understand a situation that few of us have thought about in detail for a number of years.” When asked about Ochmanek’s conclusions, the official expressed confidence that, eventually, NATO would claw the territory back. “In the end, I have no doubt that NATO will prevail and that we will restore the territorial integrity of any NATO member,” the official said. “I cannot guarantee that it will be easy or without great risk. My job is to ensure that we can reduce that risk.”
Protect the Baltics
That is, the Pentagon does not envision a scenario in which Russia doesn’t manage to grab some Baltic territory first. The goal is to deter — Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced this summer that the United States would be sending dozens of tanks, armored vehicles, and howitzers to the Baltics and Eastern Europe — and, if that fails, to painstakingly regain NATO territory.
The Pentagon is also chewing on various hybrid warfare scenarios, and even a nuclear one. “As you look at published Russian doctrine, I do believe people are thinking about use of tactical nuclear weapons in a way that hadn’t been thought about for many years,” says the senior defense official. “The doctrine clearly talks about it, so it would be irresponsible to not at least read that doctrine, understand what it means. Doctrine certainly doesn’t mean that they would do it, but it would be irresponsible to at least not be thinking through those issues. Any time there is nuclear saber rattling, it is always a concern, no matter where it comes from.”
There is a strong element of disappointment among senior foreign-policy and security officials in these discussions, of disbelief that we ended up here after all those good years — decades, even — in America’s relations with Russia.
“A lot of people at the Pentagon are unhappy about the confrontation,” says the State Department official. “They were very happy with the military-to-military cooperation with Russia.” There are also those, the official said, who feel that Russia is a distraction from the real threat — China — and others who think that working with Russia on arms control is more important than protecting Ukrainian sovereignty. Not only would they rather not have to think about Moscow as an enemy, but many are also miffed that even making these plans plays right into Putin’s paranoid fantasies about a showdown between Russia and NATO or between Russia and the United States — which makes those fantasies, de facto, a reality. In the U.S. planning for confrontation with Russia, says the Senate staffer, Putin “is getting the thing he always wanted.”
Yet despite this policy shift, the distinctly American optimism is confoundingly hard to shake. “We would like to be partners with Russia. We think that is the preferred course — that it benefits us, it benefits Russia, and it benefits the rest of the world,” the senior defense official says. “But as the Department of Defense, we’re not paid to look at things through rose-colored glasses and hence must be prepared in case we’re wrong about Russia’s actions and plan for if Russia were to become a direct adversary. Again, I don’t predict that and I certainly don’t want it, but we need to be prepared in case that could happen.”
Provocation or preparation?
So far, the Pentagon’s plans are just that — plans. But they are also signals: to Russia that the United States is not sitting on its hands, and to Congress that America’s foreign-policy priorities have shifted drastically since the last Quadrennial Defense Review, which was released as the crisis in Ukraine was unfolding and barely mentioned Russia. It is also a signal that the Pentagon feels that sequestration hobbles its ability to deal with the new threat landscape. In his July confirmation hearing to ascend to the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford made headlines when he said that Russia posed an “existential threat” to the United States and said that America must do more to prepare itself for hybrid warfare of the type Russia deployed in Ukraine.
“It’s clearly a signal to the Hill,” says Smith. “When I come and ask for a permanent presence in Europe or money for a European presence, I don’t want you to say, ‘Gee, this is a surprise. I thought it was all about [the Islamic State].’” Dunford’s statement angered the White House, which saw it as potentially provocative to Moscow, but it was also a signal to everyone else. The commander in chief has the final say on whether to use these new contingency plans, but Obama’s days in office are numbered, and the Pentagon isn’t taking any chances.
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