In successive weeks, the United States has ramped up tensions with Russia. Two highly provocative statements have emanated from the Pentagon. One was the Pentagon report titled 2015 National Military Strategy issued a fortnight ago, at the instance of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, naming Russia and China as two world powers with which the US may have to fight a war with “immense consequences.”

The second fusillade came during the testimony by the Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford at the US Senate Armed Services Committee last week where he nailed Russia as the greatest threat to the US national security. This is what Dunford said:

“My assessment today … is that Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security. If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia. And if you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming.”

But for the fact that these words came from a general who has been designated by President Barack Obama as the next chairman of the joint chief of staff to succeed Gen. Martin Dempsey, one could have scoffed at it as sheer bluster.

Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford

Now, what has happened for taking such an apocalyptic view of the global strategic balance? The fact remains that despite the US’ overwhelming superiority in conventional forces, there is a global strategic stability and it is inconceivable that Russia will use its thermonuclear capabilities except to defend itself against an external attack.

To be sure, the US faces no “existential threat” from Russia and will not face one unless it indulges on its own in some stupid act like launching an aggression against Russia (in which case Moscow is guaranteed to use all the power at its command to resist.) Put differently, the threat the US faces is of Russia’s retaliatory capability, which remains intact despite the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Russia is the only power with such capability, which makes it an existential issue, theoretically, for the US.

But then, what is it that really upsets the US? Three interpretations can be given. One could be that the Pentagon is making a persuasive case to increase its budget by raising the Russia bogey. This is what Charles Tiefer, a Forbes contributor who covers government contracting, the Pentagon and the Congress, estimates.

Tiefer points out that Dunford was not talking about the threat posed by Russia’s conventional arms but he means strategic nuclear threat. Tiefer writes:

“But, as to such a thing going nuclear, it never did in the Cold War.  We still have the enormously powerful strategic nuclear arsenal that deterred even the world-threatening Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.  Why isn’t this still the answer for the future as for the past?”

“Because, as to the future, Gen. Dunford is alluding to the aging of that American strategic triad – ICBM missiles, long-distance bombers, nuclear submarines, and the nuclear weapons they carry.  They have been in place for many decades.  It is General Dunford’s mission to raise the fear level of the American public to the level it will begin to authorize the enormous long-term spending on modernizing that strategic nuclear triad.”

Teifer gives a very simplified list of what the US military wants and estimates its cost to be at the very minimum somewhere between $872 million to $1.082 trillion. Yes, a trillion dollar splash to modernize the whole strategic triad – that’s what Dunford could be arguing for. “Obviously Gen. Dunford will “scare hell out of the country” (as President Truman was told to do at the start of the Cold War) to start down that road,” Teifer concludes.

Of course, we have heard of the military-industrial complex in the US and we know the propensity of all militaries to conjure up exaggerated threat perceptions to create alibi for appropriating disproportionately big military budgets. Teifer may well have a point.

However, there is a second plausible explanation for Dunford’s strange thought process. His rhetoric could be an exhortation to the US’ NATO allies to get in line and to do their part to increase their military spending to at least 2% of their GDP, which Washington has been demanding for a long time. Of course, the US’ European allies largely depend on American weapons and it will be good business for the US war contractors.

But the problem with this argument is that the Europeans are smart enough to figure out that Pentagon is beating the war drums to get them to spend more money on buying American weapons.

Which brings us to a third explanation: Could it be that the US is genuinely getting nervous about Russia and China and what they are up to lately, and the Pentagon is not really exaggerating? Consider the following.

Both the Pentagon report anticipating a war with Russia and China and Dunford’s sensational remarks appeared in the immediate vicinity of the summit meetings of the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization at Ufa, which were hosted by Russia. (By the way, in Dunford’s view, Russia is at the top of a list of US concerns that also included China whose rapidly expanding military has alarmed Pentagon officials.)

The heart of the matter is that the salience of the BRICS and SCO summits last week has been the extraordinary surge of the strategic understanding between Russia and China that have been accruing in recent years.

The Russian President put it succinctly when he told his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at their meeting in Ufa, “Combining efforts, no doubt we (Russia and China) will overcome all the problems before us.” Such a statement has never before been made openly at a Russia-China exchange at the highest level.

What Putin said effectively makes Russia and China allies insofar as he called for their standing up for each other on issues of core interest to either side. In fact, it goes much beyond that. Putin actually called for the “combining” of efforts by China to defeat the challenges facing the two countries.

He didn’t name the US, but the implication is clear, namely, the US cannot hope to take on Russia or China if they stand shoulder to shoulder and pool their efforts.

Looking back, the single biggest moment of the Ufa summits has been the convergence of the BRICS, SCO and the Eurasian Economic Union on a single platform on July 10. Xi made the suggestion to Putin transform the SCO as “an important platform to dovetail China’s Silk Road Economic Belt initiative with Russia’s aspiration under the Eurasian Economic Union framework, expand room for their practical cooperation and facilitate development, cooperation and prosperity of the whole Eurasian continent.”

Putin agreed that the “decision to align China’s Silk Road Economic Belt initiative with Russia’s aspiration under the Eurasian Economic Union framework will surely instill strong momentum into bilateral economic cooperation.” He proposed in turn that Russia and China “beef up coordination within the SCO and BRICS frameworks, so as jointly enable the two blocs to promote unity and cooperation among the member states and play a key role in issues of their common concern.”

At Ufa, a decision was taken last week to launch negotiations between China and the Eurasian Economic Union (Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia) on an economic partnership agreement to align their rules, mechanisms and cooperation areas, which also envisages a key role for the SCO “as a link and a platform.” Putin said elsewhere that Moscow hopes that the SCO would become a platform to solve international issues.

Suffice it to say, Russia and China have gained such extraordinary “strategic depth” today on the Eurasian landmass that the US’ containment strategies toward them have been rendered ineffectual. More than that, the Russian-Chinese entente in Eurasia also means that the two powers can conduct their economic relations with Europe insulated from US interference.

Clearly, short of launching an outright war against Russia and China (with unpredictable consequences), it becomes impossible for the US to browbeat these two defiant great powers. They are not seeking confrontation with the US, but simply by “combing efforts,” they can make a confrontation far too costly for the US to mount vis-à-vis either of them.

Suffice it to say, the elusive goal of the “New American Century” looks more and more a chimera today. It is this sense of profound disquiet in the American mind that finds its reflection in the Pentagon report and in Dunford’s outburst.

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