Back in the Cold War, the Soviets used to refer to the United States as the ‘glavnyi protivnik’ (‘main enemy’). When presidential candidate Mitt Romney declared in 2012 that Russia was America’s ‘number one geopolitical foe’, he was roundly condemned for hyperbole. Now, his point of view seems mainstream. Today, the nominee for America’s top military post (the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), General Joseph F. Dunford, told a Congressional hearing that, ‘My assessment today, Senator, is that Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security’. He went on to say ‘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.’
In terms purely of capability, Dunford isn’t wrong that Russia ‘could’ pose an existential threat to the United States. Russia owns the world’s second largest nuclear arsenal, and there is no other power on earth able to cause as much destruction to America as Russia. But threat is more than a question of capability. It is also a matter of intent. The United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons could destroy numerous American cities; so could those of France. America does not consider those countries threats because there is obviously no intent to attack. Why is Russia any different?
Even during the Cold War, there was good reason to doubt that the Soviets had any real wish to wage war against America. However, an argument could at least be made that Soviet ideology was incompatible with that of the United States. Communist theory predicted the collapse of the capitalist order, and communist leaders sought to hasten that day. There was some hostile intent.
That simply isn’t the case today. Russia is a trading nation, thoroughly linked into international markets, dependent upon the ups and downs of the world economy. Seeking the collapse or destruction of the United States and its associated global order would be suicidal. That does not mean that Russia will not react to defend its interests against what it considers (rightly or wrongly) American encroachments, but that is not at all the same as having aggressive intent.
The Soviet Union didn’t destroy the United States. The idea that contemporary Russia, which is much weaker, much less ambitious, and actually much less hostile, might ever wish to do so, is absurd. That does not mean, however, that Dunford doesn’t believe what he says and that Russians can lightly dismiss it. As I have written elsewhere, perceptions frequently matter far more than reality. It is important for political leaders to correctly understand how others perceive them, and choose their behaviour accordingly. In Ukraine and elsewhere, Russians may believe that they are acting defensively, but they need to be aware that others perceive their actions very differently.