“Wouldn't it be nice if we actually got along with Russia?” then-candidate Donald Trump asked during a July press conference. There’s since been much debate over whether Trump is trying to make peace with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as he claims, or empower him, as his critics fear. In that debate, a red line has emerged over the punitive measures that Western powers put in place in after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
Trump has signaled a willingness to consider rolling back sanctions. Now some are worried he also may ease restrictions on exporting U.S. arms and technology, rules they say are critical to curbing the development of Russian military capabilities. In discussions, a senior defense official in the Obama Administration, a former ambassador, and a prominent Russia watcher laid out arguments that rolling back one or both would lead to a more powerful Russian force.
To understand the current state of Russian-U.S. relations, go back to spring 2014 and the slow, stealthy march of “little green men” across the eastern portion of Ukraine. Russian soldiers, hiding their identities and working alongside Russian-speaking separatist groups, pulled off a brazen land grab. In the months that followed, President Barack Obama’s State Department enacted a series of economic sanctions against Putin’s government. At the same time, the White House sought to curb Russia’s military growth by changing the rules that govern the sale of explicitly or possibly military technology, including so called dual-use technology.
“We have restricted sensitive technologies and we have gotten our allies and partners to go along with the restriction of those sensitive technologies to Russia, and that is impacting their development of next-generation programs and weapons systems,” said one senior defense official.
Specifically, Obama officials implemented a policy of denial, prohibiting U.S. companies from selling technology or arms that are featured on the United States Munitions List. Removing those proscriptions “absolutely” would boost Putin’s ability to acquire new military technology and become a far more capable adversary, the senior official said.
Russia today is a massive military power but still lags the United States technologically. The gap goes back to the Cold War. Even as the Soviets matched U.S. defense spending, the United States kept its advantage by restricting the sale and transfer of key technologies, such as the 80486 high-performance microprocessor. “The 486 was a relic by the '90s, but I remember when we took decisions to prevent them from getting that in the late '80s.That was a crippling thing for them,” said John Edward Herbst, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine during George W. Bush’s presidency. “The same thing is at stake here.”
To understand what that means, consider the state of the Russian military.
A Bear Awakens
Even with sanctions in place, the Russian military is by Herbst’s estimation the second-most powerful on Earth, with extremely advanced anti-aircraft missile systems, particularly the S-400 and S-500, and highly sophisticated fighter aircraft. They even have in development a fifth-generation stealth aircraft, the T-50, to rival the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The Russian military has demonstrated new and devastating tactics using unarmed drones to target Ukrainian artillery. Their ability to wage electronic warfare by jamming and intercepting signal communications has surprised many Western observers, according to Philip Karber, the head of the Potomac Institute. Karber frequently consults with the Pentagon on issues relating to the Russian military.
Russia boasts an enormous force of tanks and armored vehicles. The Russian T-90, T-72B3, and the T-14 Armata tanks are protected by transmitters that confuse and jam incoming precision-guided munitions and reactive armor to neutralize anything else that gets through.
In 2014, Russia completed the reactivation of the 1st Guards Tank Army, which had been mostly dormant since it helped win World War II. In September, Russia will deploy them to Belarus for a massive military exercise called Zapad, or West. The last one, in 2013, brought together 90,000 Russian troops.This year’s is expected to be at least as large, according to the Atlantic Council.
“If they actually implement this thing, come September you could see a tank army sitting on the Polish border,” Karber said. “It becomes kind of like a tank army in being. It has influence even if it's not fighting, because it puts a cold shudder on any reinforcement for the Baltic and it scares the hell out of the East Europeans,” said Karber.
Russia also used drones very effectively in Ukraine to target artillery fire, hitting Ukrainian positions within minutes of drone sightings. But the drones that they are using are behind those of the United States in capability and, often, come from Israel, according to Karber.
The Bear Becomes a Monster
Western technology that’s listed on the United States Munitions List list could make Russia’s already substantial forces far more lethal. And that, in turn, would give Putin more room to bully neighbors in violation of international law, as many claim he is currently doing in Ukraine.
In particular, electronic and computer equipment included under Category XI and XII of the munitions list includes advanced microprocessors and other computer technologies useful for intercepting communications to counter “electronic surveillance or monitoring.” That could give Russian covert forces (the little green men) a distinct advantage in planning hybrid warfare operations.
The list also includes technologies such as lasers and sensors for precision targeting for bombs and missiles as well as computers and radar equipment to make Russian drones more deadly and conduct advanced electronic warfare activities.
Some technologies list on the list could improve the ability of Russian intelligence agencies to data and email exfiltration as part of influence operations against Western democracies, similar to the DNC hack.
The State Department’s restrictions do not pose an insurmountable barrier to Russia acquiring next-generation technology, but they do provide an important barrier meant to slow Russia’s advancing abilities.
“Does any law or restriction automatically keep them from getting it? No, they can still get it from third parties…or they can steal it or use industrial espionage or cyber infiltration,” Karber said. “But to the extent that you do have a legal framework, and if you're willing to enforce it, it does, and we found this during the Cold War, it does have a very tamping effect on the pace at which they can get that material.”
Lifting economic sanctions would facilitate Russia’s acquisition of those materials from third parties, Herbst said.
“The same applies to the economic sanctions,” he said. “If you understand [Putin’s] intentions as hostile — and they are hostile,” then the question of how Russia would acquire these technologies financially is germaine to the problem of restricting them.
The senior defense official pointed to an October announcement from the Department of Justice that Russian agents had been attempting to acquire restricted military technology.
“Look at how many Russian agents have been busted trying to procure such technologies illegally from the U.S. If these things were of marginal impact or they could easily get them elsewhere, they would not subject themselves to such significant risk trying to procure them illegally,” the official said.
The Trump White House could undo the rule changes almost unilaterally. If that were to happen, along with an easing of economic sanctions against Putin’s government, Russia could began to acquire technology to bring its military equipment in line with that of the U.S. Under this scenario, Russia’s long-range Iskander missile becomes much more capable against Patriot missile defenses. Russian electronic-warfare measures and countermeasures also become more effective, which would make it much harder for U.S. forces to avoid detection.
The State Department can still review pending arms sales on a case-by-case basis. “It is long-standing U.S. policy to deny applications for export, re-export, or re-transfer of defense articles if such a transaction would be detrimental to the national security of the United States. It is also long-standing U.S. policy to deny exports, re-exports, or re-transfers that could contribute to insecurity in a country or region,” a State Department official told Defense One. But it would be up to the discretion of Trump’s State Department to make the determination that a particular sale would be “detrimental to U.S. national security.”
The effect of technological equivalence would not be stalemate. It would disadvantage the United States, whose military is more constrained by conventional norms and rules of war. The U.S. uses precision-guided munitions in an effort to limit collateral damage and spare civilian lives. Russia’s bombing activity in Syria includes dumb bombs and hitting non-combatant relief workers. If the United States were to find itself at war with a Russian military that has the best (or even some of the best) U.S. military technology, there’s little reason to hope that they would use it with the same discretion.
Said Herbst: Defense Secretary “Jim Mattis is right when he says they are the most dangerous threat we face at the moment, and it's only been our own blindness that has kept us from seeing what's going on in front of our faces...They want to change the post-Cold War order established in Europe and Eurasia, and they don't say this quite so clearly, but you see it. They want to weaken NATO, which they think has no reason to exist. They want to weaken the EU, and everything they've done is headed in that direction.”