September 19, 2017

A New Era in U.S.-Russian Strategic Stability

How Changing Geopolitics and Emerging Technologies are Reshaping Pathways to Crisis and Conflict

For more than two decades following the end of the Cold War, military conflict between the United States and Russia seemed highly implausible. While relations were sometimes rocky, few if any imagined that any disagreements between Washington and Moscow carried much risk of escalation to a serious crisis, let alone war. Even amid the Kosovo crisis of the late 1990s, only a few Russians – and fewer Americans – took seriously the possibility of bilateral disputes turning into conflict. Indeed, both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, each in their own way, attempted to “reset” relations with Russia and replace stagnating ties with positive-sum arrangements. 

In the aftermath of Russia’s seizure of Crimea and its infiltration of “little green men” into eastern Ukraine starting in 2014, however, the U.S.-Russian relationship deteriorated substantially. In response, and in addition to imposing economic sanctions on Russia, the United States and NATO have strengthened their military posture in Europe to deter Russian aggression. Russia has responded by ramping up overflights of Allied nations as well as aggressively harassing U.S. and Allied naval vessels. Additionally, Russia sharpened both its rhetoric and military posture in Europe, and it deployed forces into Syria to fight alongside Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus. 

Most recently, the U.S. intelligence community concluded in January 2017 that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. election.” In response, the outgoing Obama administration expelled some 35 Russian diplomats, closed down two Russian compounds, and imposed sanctions on nine Russian individuals and organizations including the FSB and GRU intelligence services. Russian hackers reportedly have targeted other recent Western democratic elections, including the 2017 presidential contest in France.

With the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump in 2017, there have been some signs of the potential for improved relations – but also signs of increased tensions as the U.S. Congress passed substantial additional sanctions on Russian entities in retaliation for Russian “hacking” of the U.S. Presidential election. Moscow retaliated by ordering a reduction of U.S. diplomatic staff and seizing U.S. diplomatic compounds in Russia. As of the time of this report, there is tremendous uncertainty – and not a small amount of risk – regarding the future of U.S.-Russian relations.

Even as various developments have heightened tensions between the United States and Russia, fundamental changes in the military-technological landscape are offering both sides new opportunities for advancing military capabilities – while also posing new escalatory risks and threatening to erode strategic stability between the two nations. Because of the extensive dependence on information technology within both nations’ militaries, and likely perceptions of lower risk for the use of “non-kinetic” nonlethal attacks, there are growing incentives on both sides for early use of cyber capabilities in particular and, potentially in coming years, counter-space ones as well. These and other technologies also are impacting the stability of the strategic nuclear balance. For decades, the stability of the U.S.-Russian nuclear balance has rested on a firm understanding that both sides have assured nuclear second-strike capabilities. In this situation, neither side can realistically conduct a disarming first strike of the other side’s nuclear forces. The development and integration into military postures of an array of new technologies, however – especially in the cyber, space and counter-space, precision strike, and missile defense fields – may call this confidence into question in the coming years.

As of the time of this report, there is tremendous uncertainty – and not a small amount of risk – regarding the future of U.S.-Russian relations.

The parallel changes in U.S.-Russian political relations and the military-technological landscape are fundamentally reshaping the ways in which a U.S.-Russian crisis and conflict likely would unfold. Neither side has yet internalized these overlapping geopolitical and technological changes. When they do, it is likely that each will take different and potentially conflicting lessons from them. As a result, risks could significantly increase the potential of a dispute leading to crisis, of a crisis leading to war, and of a war escalating rapidly. 

It is useful to analyze these issues, and potential mitigating steps, around three distinct, albeit related, types of pathways.

Pathway Type #1 – The Future Course of U.S.-Russian Relations

Although American analysts of strategic stability generally focus on technologies and force exchange calculations, Russian strategic thinkers rightly note that the overall state of U.S.-Russian relations substantially influences the pace of strategic arms development, the likelihood of crisis and conflict, and the likelihood of preventable or accidental escalation due to poor communications and worst-case assumptions. In this report, we survey the recent past, current state, and potential future course for U.S.-Russian relations in the coming years. The future course of bilateral relations will have a significant impact on the likelihood of a U.S.-Russian crisis, and in the event of it, on the ability of both sides to find acceptable political solutions without resorting to armed conflict.

Pathway Type #2 – Potential Slippery Slopes of Escalation During Crisis and Conflict

This second pathway type considers the potential for rapid escalation in a crisis, and in the early stages of conflict, due to growing incentives for U.S. and Russian leaders to employ “non-kinetic” capabilities early and extensively. Both the U.S. and Russian militaries rely heavily and increasingly on information technology and space systems. Cyber and counter-space attacks as a first move at the outset of a conflict could provide military advantage and political leverage without necessarily resulting in casualties; moreover, opportunities to strike at these systems may be fleeting. As a result, both sides are likely to increasingly possess strong incentives to use cyber and counter-space capabilities early in a conflict to gain advantage. This emerging situation could greatly increase the risks of stumbling into conflict due to accident or inadvertence. It also is conceivable that other states and even non-state actors may undertake attacks, particularly in the cyber domain, that lead to inadvertent U.S.-Russia escalation. This report considers the impact of these increased pressures for rapid escalation of crisis and conflict, evaluating the most salient scenarios for intentional or inadvertent conflict involving potential “slippery slopes.”

Pathway Type #3 – The U.S.-Russian Arms Competition and its Impact on Strategic Stability

This third and final type of pathway is fundamentally about the potential for the development and deployment of new military capabilities to undermine strategic stability. Both the United States and Russia are recapitalizing their nuclear delivery systems. With some exceptions (e.g., an increased Russian reliance on multiple-warhead ICBMs), these new systems do not appear likely to significantly undermine strategic stability as they are largely replacements for existing systems. However, the deployment of increasingly advanced cyber, space, missile defense, long-range conventional strike, and autonomous systems has the potential to threaten both sides’ nuclear retaliatory strike capabilities, particularly their command and control apparatuses. This report considers how these developments may have an impact on strategic stability in the coming years.

These three types of pathways are intertwined and related in fundamental ways. Deteriorating political relations between the United States and Russia (pathway #1) heighten the likelihood of crisis or conflict, thereby bringing into play the potential slippery slopes of escalation. Similarly, heightened pressures to escalate with “non-kinetic” capabilities during crisis or early in conflict (pathway #2) may increase fears of major war, thereby elevating nuclear risks and heightening the potential dangers of strategic instability. 

In developing this pathways framework, we have benefited greatly from American and Russian colleagues who participated in workshops and meetings. We also built on earlier analytical work; of particular relevance is the edited volume titled Hawks, Doves, and Owls, written more than thirty years ago, which defined and evaluated potential U.S.-Soviet nuclear conflict scenarios.

In conducting research for this report, our discussions with American and Russian strategic analysts have confirmed that thinking in terms of these three types of pathways is intuitive and easy to grasp. Applying the “pathways” metaphor to develop policy alternatives is similarly intuitive and, we believe, useful – e.g., developing “rules of the road” for the use of cyber and space weapons, and creating “off-ramps” from crisis or conflict. While this framework will not change American and Russian national interests or the will to pursue them, it may help facilitate productive engagement over time and help make positive, stabilizing policy outcomes more likely as similar discussions did during the Cold War.

This report addresses each of the three types of pathways, laying out the key aspects of each. Within each section, we first offer an assessment of the current situation, then consider relevant geopolitical and technological trends, and finally outline alternative scenarios along each pathway that can help guide the development and evaluation of policy options.

This project, including this report, is intended to establish a framework that government officials and outside experts can use to grapple with these difficult but crucial issues and help guide the development and prioritization of unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral measures. Our aim in this first report is to define the nature of the problem in a compelling way. This will be followed by a second paper that employs this framework to identify steps that could reduce the risks of severe crisis or armed conflict between the United States and Russia. This second paper will focus particularly on ways to reduce the chances that conflict escalates to nuclear war, and will offer a series of concrete recommendations for policymakers. 

The full report is available online.

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  1. Jeremy Diamond, “Intel Report: Putin directly ordered effort to influence election,”, January 6, 2017,
  2. For a review of allegations and available evidence to this effect, see Bethania Palma, “Was the French Election Hacked by Russia?”, May 10, 2017,
  3. In our follow-on report, we will ask: What politically realistic steps could be taken to reduce tensions, resolve disputes, build areas of cooperation, and minimize the prospects of misperception, miscommunication, and missteps that could lead to inadvertent war?
  4. In our follow-on report, we will ask: What steps might the United States and Russia take both unilaterally and bilaterally to mitigate these pressures toward essentially inadvertent escalation, for instance by establishing “rules of the road,” “off-ramps,” and other measures to reduce the chances of sliding rapidly from crisis to conflict?
  5. In our follow-on report, we will ask: What should both sides do (and avoid doing) in the coming years both unilaterally and bilaterally to promote rather than detract from a strategic stability relationship from which they both derive benefits?
  6. American workshop participants included James Acton, Philip M. Breedlove, Shawn Brimley, Linton Brooks, William Chambers, Samuel Charap, Christopher Chivvis, Thomas Ehrhard, Robert Einhorn, Michéle Flournoy, Jonathan W. Greenert, Jerry Hendrix, Michael Horowitz, Beth Jones, Robert Kaplan, C. Robert Kehler, Jackie Kerr, Mark Kramer, Frank Kramer, Andrew Krepinevich, Ronald Lehman, Austin Long, Franklin Miller, Katy Minshall, Steven Pifer, Eugene Rumer, Kevin Ryan, Gary Samore, Jay Santee, Walter Slocombe, Julianne Smith, Michael Sulmeyer, James Thomas, William Tobey, and Celeste A. Wallander. Russian participants included Tatiana Anichkina, Victor Esin, Valery Garbuzov, Valentin Vladimirovich Korabelnikov, Anatoly Sergeevich Kulikov, Valentin Kuznetsov, Victor Mizin, Sergey Rogov, Pavel Sharikov, Kutsuk Taysayev, and Pavel Zolotarev.
  7. Graham T. Allison, Albert Carnesale, and Joseph S. Nye, Jr., eds., Hawks, Doves, & Owls: An Agenda for Avoiding Nuclear War (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1985).


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