Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

New National Security Strategy Sees Rising Russia, Retreat on 'Democratic Peace'

Donald Trump’s first strategy talks about threats and nation-state competition but also signals a reluctance to compete philosophically or morally.

President Donald Trump’s first National Security Strategy makes its debut during a time of hot economic and military expansion for America’s two largest rivals, China and Russia. And while the strategy itself shares much with the 2015 version put out by the Obama administration, it puts front and center a Cold-War-ish concept that Obama preferred not to overtly declare: great-power competition.

“China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence,” it says.

For an understanding of what that competition looks like in 2017 and beyond, take a peek at what America’s boldest and most aggressive “competitor,” Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been building.

The Russian government, having declared victory over ISIS in Syria (some argue prematurely) and guaranteed the continuance of President Bashar al Assad’s rule, is preparing to capitalize on its military investments in the Middle East. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has announced plans to increase commercial activity in Syria with a plan to use Syrian seaports for exports of goods throughout the broader Middle East and Europe. Russia has deployed highly advanced anti-aircraft radar missile systems, the S-400 to Syria, with plans to sell the same system to Turkey (a deal which many doubt will come to fruition.)  

Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea has given it a naval base from which to fish and prospect for oil in Ukraine’s exclusive economic zone. Russia is pursuing a robust military buildup and modernization. The navy has added 150 ships and vessels since Putin was elected five years ago, according to TASS, Russia's state media service. Nearly 60 percent of Russian troops have received new equipment, according to government figures.

Putin’s government is particularly focused on building the Strategic Nuclear Force. Russian Armed Forces Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov boasted that the Russian military had outfitted 66 percent of the missile force with new equipment and tech over the past five years. In April, Russia claimed to have developed a hypersonic missile that can travel at 4,600 miles per hour. Russia is also increasing investments in military research and development for artificial intelligence and robotics.

The Russian military also gained important experience in modernizing not only equipment but in operating as a cohesive whole, according to a recent study from recent study by RAND. “As of 2017, the Russian military is in its seventh year of true joint force command and is gaining operational experience through recent joint operations abroad. Russia is working toward the ultimate goal of a unified ‘information space.’ The trial by combat of these capabilities has taken place in Ukraine and Syria; although they reflect substantial improvements in combat capability compared with what they demonstrated in the 2008 war with Georgia, they have not yet been tested against a capable military or in large-scale operations,” the study says.

Other aspects of the National Security Strategy call out Russian influence operations abroad, including (but not mentioning specifically) the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This is evidence, perhaps, of the heavy hand of National Security Advisor and long-time Russia hawk Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster in the drafting of the document. 

“Today, actors such as Russia are using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies. Adversaries target media, political processes, financial networks, and personal data,” it reads. “Actors have become skilled at operating below the threshold of military conflict — challenging [the United States] with hostile actions cloaked in deniability,” which could be taken as a thinly-veiled reference to Russian hybrid warfare activity around the world, from the Little Green Men in Ukraine to the “patriotic hackers” that targeted the 2016 election and spread disinformation and misinformation.

The strategy thus tells the story of continued Russian military and economic growth. But, through omission, it signals U.S. retreat from the tradition of democracy promotion with an overt criticism of the theory of “democratic peace,” the idea that democratic governments are more akin, and therefore more likely to act peacefully toward one another. “We assumed that our military superiority was guaranteed and that a democratic peace was inevitable. We believed that liberal-democratic enlargement and inclusion would fundamentally alter the nature of international relations and that competition would give way to peaceful cooperation,” it says, citing the idea of democratic peace as cause of “strategic complacency.”

Of course, some might say that the unique ability of the United States to promote democracy is a key advantage over Russia, which, in part, is why some have called the Trumpian idea of “principled realism” a line that makes a key appearance at the front of the strategy, an “incoherent mess."

For his part, President Trump seems much more attached to (or perhaps familiar with) some portions of the strategy than others. Introducing the new document, Trump made no reference to Russia’s information warfare efforts, an issue that is so delicate within the White House that aides reportedly don’t even bring it up in the presence of the president, lest they provoke him. Rather, the president used the speech to highlight a recent phone call he received from Putin, related to a recent counter-terror operation. “It’s a great thing. That is the way it’s supposed to work,” said Trump. “While we seek such opportunities…we will stand up for ourselves and our country like we have never stood up before."

Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow that “A quick read of the parts of the strategy that mention our country one way or another... [reveals] an imperialist character," and displayed "an unwillingness to give up the idea of a unipolar world, moreover, an insistent unwillingness, disregard for a multipolar world.”