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Published: Thomas Dunne Books - September 3rd, 2019
In his work, The Russia Trap, former head of CIA’s Russia analysis George Beebe describes various elements that underpin the relationship between the U.S. and Russia, and how those elements could cause that relationship to spiral out of control and result in a catastrophic war. Such an event doesn’t have to happen, however, and the author makes some salient recommendations that could help prevent it.
Mr. Beebe contrasts two forms of analysis: one that believes Russia to be aggressive and requiring punishment and isolation, the other believing Russia to be defensive and in decline, requiring diplomatic conflict resolution and compromise. Neither approach is totally wrong; rather, both are incomplete. According to the author, we need to “balance firmness with accommodation, and military readiness with diplomatic outreach…”
He compares the U.S-Russia relationship to those extant among European countries prior to World War One, where there was great systemic rigidity. Peace could collapse from any small trigger. Later, he takes us through two absolutely horrifying hypothetical scenarios illustrating just how war could occur without our intent.
To prevent this, the first step is to recognize that the hazard is a complex systems problem. This means that there are many changing factors that interconnect, that problems cannot be solved piecemeal, and that many things need to be done at once. Most pernicious is the belief that each side represents an existential threat to the other.
The advent of the cyberage has resulted in great and significant changes. The dynamics surrounding MAD (mutually assured destruction) can no longer be based on the same rules. Command, control, communication, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance functions are now operated by satellites which entangle both nuclear and conventional weapons systems, making the nature of military actions unclear. Cyberintrusions may be espionage, sabotage or influence, and may or may not come from a state actor. (Read his take on the 2016 Russian intrusion of the U.S. election.) Both the U.S. and Russia have stated that a cyberattack could result in a nuclear response. And the multipolarity of today’s world suggests that bilateralism itself may be anachronistic, even though most of the world’s nuclear weapons are held by Russia and the U.S.
To help prevent a catastrophic escalatory spiral, “escalate to deescalate” doctrines must be abandoned. To avoid rigidity, stability strategies must be imaginative and adaptable. Resilience must be built into our communications, technological, and rule-making systems. Geographic restriction on deployment of strategic weapons and proscription against certain cyberintrusions, for example, should be a part of any new set of rules.
The U.S. and Russia might best regard each other not as partners, but as competitors. Then we may be able to establish ways of safely competing while reducing the risk of war.
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