The U.S. and Russia: A Lesson in Asymmetry

The U.S. and Russia: A Lesson in Asymmetry
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
The U.S. and Russia: A Lesson in Asymmetry
AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Forecast Highlights

  • As tensions grow between Moscow and Washington, Russia will pursue asymmetrical responses to what it sees as U.S. aggression. 
  • These expanded and indirect reactions could focus on both the United States and its allies, and they will likely employ the Kremlin's unique hybrid warfare tactics. 
  • One of Moscow's potential targets is Ukraine, which is vulnerable to several Russian actions, including land grabs by Moscow-backed separatists in the region of Donbas.

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Tensions between the United States and Russia are on the rise once more. Despite a flurry of diplomatic activity between Moscow and Washington in recent weeks — including the first face-to-face meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 7 — the two countries have made little progress in resolving their many outstanding issues. A July 17 meeting between U.S. and Russian officials, for example, failed to find a solution to a dispute over the seizure of Russian diplomatic compounds in the United States. Then, on July 25, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker said Washington was considering sending lethal weapons to Kiev. Two days later, the U.S. Congress amped up the pressure, passing legislation that expands sanctions against Russia and limits Trump's ability to remove those already in place.

Headway in settling their differences remains elusive for the United States and Russia as the strategic gulf between them widens by the day. And by putting more pressure on Moscow while refusing to offer concessions, Washington has elicited some aggressive rhetoric from the Kremlin. The day after the new sanctions bill was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Russia's Federation Council, declared that "the future degradation of bilateral cooperation is becoming inevitable." He further noted that Russia's reaction to the United States will "not be a symmetrical one, but one that is painful for the Americans."

Kosachev's promise to issue an asymmetrical response suggests that Moscow will not react to U.S. sanctions in kind, nor will it stop at its July 28 announcement that it would expel U.S. diplomats and seize two properties belonging to the U.S. Embassy. In some ways this isn't surprising, since Russia has much less economic leverage over the United States than Washington does over Moscow. Restrictions on U.S. companies or officials in Russia would have a minimal impact on Washington. Moreover, the new U.S. sanctions curtail the involvement of U.S. firms and citizens in Russia's energy sector, so additional restrictions would only hurt Russia's economy more.

A Strategy of Asymmetry

The asymmetrical responses that make use of Russia's greatest strengths have long been a strategic element of the country's standoff with the West. In 2008, for example, two events drew Russia's ire: Western nations recognized Kosovo's independence, and attendees at the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, acknowledged Ukraine's and Georgia's membership aspirations. Russia subsequently invaded Georgia. In much the same way, the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea and support of a separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine came in reaction to the Western-backed Euromaidan uprising in Kiev. With these actions, Russia proved it was able and willing to respond in an indirect yet impactful way to any U.S. activity that it deemed antagonistic.

Moscow thus is unlikely to limit its reply to new U.S. sanctions to its recent moves against U.S. diplomats and properties in Russia. The Kremlin has stepped up its involvement in several theaters where Washington has strategic interests, including Syria, North Korea, Venezuela and Afghanistan. By positioning itself as an important power in these areas, Moscow has cleared a more circuitous path of influence: It can cooperate with Washington when negotiations are steadily progressing, and undermine U.S. interests when they aren't.

As friction worsens between the two countries, each of these theaters presents a potential target for Moscow's asymmetrical strategy. But in the coming months, it is Ukraine that is most at risk of getting caught in the two superpowers' crossfire. Since sanctions relief against Russia is off the table for now, Moscow has little incentive to abide by the Minsk Protocols, which call for a cease-fire and other conciliatory actions in the conflict in Donbas. And considering the United States has publicly floated the possibility of providing lethal weapons to Ukraine, Russia could have an interest in ramping up separatist operations in the conflict. Moscow's involvement may even extend to backing a rebel land grab of strategic cities near the line of contact, such as Avdiivka or Mariupol.

Indeed, signs of a potential escalation in the hostilities have already emerged. On July 18, Alexander Zakharchenko, the head of the Donetsk People's Republic, proposed the creation of a new state called Malorossiya, with its capital in Donetsk, to replace the "failed state" of Ukraine. Other separatist leaders and the Russian government officially distanced themselves from the idea, calling it Zakharchenko's "personal initiative." But the proposal could be intended as a message from Moscow expressing its discontent with the current state of negotiations in Ukraine. Perhaps not coincidentally, Ukraine saw its largest casualty count of the year on July 19, when skirmishes left nine Ukrainian soldiers dead and five wounded. In recent weeks, there have also been indications of access to the separatist territories being restricted for Western media and monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. These restrictions come just as reports have surfaced of more military vehicles crossing the Russian border into the separatist territories.

There's no guarantee that these developments will result in a significant rebel offensive; such movements have occurred before without triggering a major military action. Regardless, Russia could put pressure on Ukraine in other ways; after all, it is the country most vulnerable to Moscow's full range of hybrid warfare tactics. These tactics include political manipulation, energy and economic restrictions, cyberattacks, subversive actions and propaganda and disinformation campaigns. Employing any one of these methods in Ukraine may be how Russia decides to respond to its mounting tension with the United States, in addition to seeking other creative ways to undermine Washington's position around the world.

This article appeared originally at Stratfor's Worldview.

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