During a March 2017 meeting of retired U.S. and Russian senior military and intelligence officers, the Russian participants asked their American counterparts whether relations between the two countries would improve under the newly elected American administration. The American officers themselves did not know how to answer, with the new administration being only two months old.

Since the publication of the new National Defense Strategy Summary in January 2018, however, the answer is much clearer. The relationship will not become friendlier for the immediate future. “Interstate strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security,” states the new Defense Strategy. “Long-term strategic competitions with China and Russia are the principal priorities.”

It is difficult, I imagine, for long-time Russian observers of the United States to decipher where American defense policy toward Russia will go under the Trump administration. (It is difficult for us in America.) President Trump has indicated often that he sees areas for cooperation and is confident he can reach deals with President Putin. But President Trump is not the only center of power in American foreign relations.

Congress has the power to appropriate money or withhold it for policy initiatives. Institutions like the Department of State, Department of Defense (DoD), and the intelligence community have expertise in foreign relations, which influences the thinking of the president and Congress. So, for example, despite President Trump’s inclinations toward smoothing relations, both houses of Congress have increased sanctions against Russia for various reasons including the continued division of Ukraine and alleged Russian violations of arms treaties.

In the post–Cold War era, American defense strategy documents such as the National Security Strategy (NSS), National Defense Strategy (NDS), and National Military Strategy (NMS), when they were published by administrations, were readily available in lengthy unclassified versions, providing detail on American strategic defense thinking. But beginning in 2016, a Republican Congress and a Democratic President passed a law that changed how these documents are prepared and distributed, classifying all but the summary versions of them.

So, how can one find out American defense policy toward Russia? And what might the policy be?

How to Determine American Defense and Security Policy Toward Russia

A first rule of thumb to remember is, “policy is whatever the government says or does.” One must not only read the published strategies crafted by institutions and the statements of leaders, but also consider the actions of those leaders and institutions. In many cases, the statements and actions coincide, but when they diverge, one must choose which to accept as the correct reflection of American policy.

An example of this would be considering the defense projects to which Congress appropriates money. In the 2018 defense budget, Congress, in reaction to alleged Russian INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty violations, has authorized $58 million for the Defense Department to begin development of new intermediate-range ground-launched missiles. If Congress subsequently appropriates (actually gives) the funding for this project, that “action” will reinforce the “statement” implicit in the authorizations. If Congress does not appropriate the money, we will be left to wonder what the policy truly is.

To fully understand American defense strategy thinking in 2018, one must read not only the National Defense Strategy Summary, but also at a minimum the unclassified version of the National Security Strategy (published in December 2017), the National Military Strategy Summary (when it is published), and the Nuclear Posture Review (published on February 2, 2018). These four publications, although not the only strategic documents, are the most important to deciphering overall defense strategy. Even though these public documents do not have all the details that their classified versions include, they can still provide a good compass direction for American defense strategy.

In accordance with Public Law 114–328 (dated December 23, 2016), the Secretary of Defense’s National Defense Strategy lays out Defense Department objectives to enable it to implement guidance in the President’s National Security Strategy. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in turn publishes a National Military Strategy which further specifies how the uniformed military will implement the Secretary of Defense’s guidance. These strategic documents provide top-down guidance to the defense community on priorities for the Defense Department.

Although the National Defense Strategy Summary leaves many details for the classified version of the strategy, it nevertheless provides enough information for us to understand the main policy directions for DoD.

What is new for Russia in the key strategy documents?

• Recent defense strategies considered China and Russia regional powers with regional threats, but the 2018 strategy sees China and Russia as global powers with global impacts, and they have become America’s main adversaries. (NDS)
• “Interstate strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary national security concern.” (NDS)
• The previous 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance stated that America “will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.” But in 2018, the U.S. Defense Strategy is focused on balancing forces in four regions: “the Indo-Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, and the Western Hemisphere.” (NDS)
• American military forces will be sized to win a war with a major power while deterring or fighting lesser adversaries in other theaters. “We will make targeted, disciplined increases in personnel and platforms to meet key capability and capacity needs.” (NDS)
• America will rely on its nuclear deterrent and security relationships to accomplish its goals. Nuclear modernization is not intended to increase the size of the force, but will ensure the ability to use low-yield non-strategic weapons. “The United States does not need to match the nuclear arsenals of other powers, but we must sustain a stockpile that can deter adversaries, assure allies and partners, and achieve U.S. objectives if deterrence fails.” (NSS, NDS, NPR) 
• Ballistic missile defenses are not being sized to defeat the Russian nuclear deterrent. “[Missile Defense] investments will focus on layered missile defenses and disruptive capabilities for both theater missile threats and North Korean ballistic missile threats.” (NDS)
• Conflict occurs in many domains and DoD must team with an expanding number of agencies, including “Departments of State, Treasury, Justice, Energy, Homeland Security, Commerce, USAID, as well as the intelligence community, law enforcement, and others.” (NSS, NDS)

Main Points on Russia From the 2018 National Defense Strategy 

According to the 2018 National Defense Strategy Summary, the Department of Defense has the overarching mission to “defend the homeland, remain the preeminent military power in the world, ensure the balances of power remain in our favor, and advance an international order that is most conducive to our security and prosperity.” This mission statement is largely the same as in previous defense strategies.

Strategic Priorities. The National Defense Strategy Summary, however, announces a major shift in the strategic environment from the last decade plus of U.S. defense strategy. “Interstate strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary national security concern.” “Long-term strategic competitions with China and Russia are the principal priorities.” Russian leaders, for their part, had long ago framed the United States as Russia’s main adversary, so this change in U.S. thinking brings the two countries to a common understanding of the relationship.

The change in American priorities will affect all aspects of DoD budgeting, weapons development, and force management. Training already has shifted its focus to high intensity conflict with near-peer or peer adversaries. Heavy armored equipment has been returned to stockpiles in Europe, and an armored brigade combat team (about 3,500 troops with tanks) is now stationed continuously in Poland, the farthest east deployment of U.S. combat troops in Europe since the 1918 Intervention in the fledgling USSR. Today, U.S. forces train regularly with allies on deploying from the United States to Europe, something they had not done since the Cold War. Back home, the U.S. Army is investing in more artillery and short-range air defense units and the Navy and Air Force are likewise modernizing their high-intensity conflict weapons platforms.

The 2018 NDS also requires DoD to do the following missions, which will keep the United States militarily engaged in Central Asia, the Middle East, and Northeast Asia for the foreseeable future: deter and counter rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran, defeat terrorist threats to the United States, and consolidate our gains in Iraq and Afghanistan while moving to a more resource-sustainable approach.

Regional Goals. The National Defense Strategy Summary states, “During normal day-to-day operations, the Joint Force will sustainably compete to deter aggression in three key regions—the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East; degrade terrorist and WMD threats; and defend U.S. interests from challenges below the level of armed conflict. In wartime, the fully mobilized Joint Force will be capable of defeating aggression by a major power; deterring opportunistic aggression elsewhere; and disrupting imminent terrorist and WMD threats.”

This means that the U.S. military will be focused on three regions: the Indo-Pacific (which is slightly larger than the 2012 strategy construct of the Asia-Pacific), Europe, and the Middle East. Our goals in each region will be to deter the main adversarial states (by having credible military forces) and to fight against terrorist organizations and combat attacks that fall below the level of armed conflict (such as cyber attacks and subversion).

The NDS also says elsewhere that the country will balance forces in these three regions and the Western Hemisphere as well, ensuring that sufficient forces are available to defend the homeland. This is essentially what the U.S. military is already doing, but the 2018 defense strategy no longer prioritizes one region over others.

Defense Department Objectives. The new National Defense Strategy lists eleven key objectives for DoD (below). Each of the first nine objectives is a response to perceived threats which involve Russia in some way:

• Defending the homeland from attack;
• Sustaining Joint Force military advantages, both globally and in key regions;
• Deterring adversaries from aggression against our vital interests;
• Enabling U.S. interagency counterparts to advance U.S. influence and interests;
• Maintaining favorable regional balances of power in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, and the Western Hemisphere;
• Defending allies from military aggression and bolstering partners against coercion, and fairly
sharing responsibilities for common defense;
• Dissuading, preventing, or deterring state adversaries and non-state actors from acquiring, proliferating, or using weapons of mass destruction;
• Preventing terrorists from directing or supporting external operations against the United States homeland and our citizens, allies, and partners overseas;
• Ensuring common domains remain open and free;
• Continuously delivering performance with affordability and speed as we change departmental mindset, culture, and management systems;
• Establishing an unmatched twenty-first century National Security Innovation Base that effectively supports Department operations and sustains security and solvency.

To achieve these goals, DoD will work on three main lines of effort: build a more lethal force, strengthen alliances and attract new partners, and reform the Department for greater performance and affordability.

The Size of the Force. Of these three main lines of effort, “building a more lethal force” is understandably the priority for the Defense Department. The NDS states: “The surest way to prevent war is to be prepared to win one.” “To address the scope and pace of our competitors’ and adversaries’ ambitions and capabilities, we must invest in modernization of key capabilities through sustained, predictable budgets.” “We will make targeted, disciplined increases in personnel and platforms to meet key capability and capacity needs.”

Calls for “targeted, disciplined” increases in personnel probably mean between 5,000 and 20,000 additional ground troops. (Other branches of service would have equivalent increases.) Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has largely been reducing the size of its military. In 2000, the authorized size of the active duty ground forces had shrunk from the 1990 level of 732,000 active duty troops to 480,000. The new Bush administration had plans to shrink it lower. But the attacks on September 11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq reversed that policy temporarily, increasing the active duty ground forces to a high of about 566,000 in 2011.

Today, as of the publication of the 2018 NDS, the number of active duty ground troops has fallen again to about 475,000, driven largely by a congressional effort to save money. The 2018 budget, though, authorizes an increase to 483,500, roughly the same number as before the “war on terror” began with its increased mission requirements.

Current worldwide defense requirements would seem to argue for more troops than 483,500, but budgetary concerns probably argue for something less than the wartime high of 566,000. The NDS says ultimately, “The force will be sized to win a war with a major power while deterring or fighting smaller adversaries in other theaters.”

Allies and Partners. The NDS makes clear that our reliance on, and commitment to, allies and partners remains central to American security. The National Defense Strategy Summary devotes far more attention to the need for allies and foreign partners than it does to the need for integration with other U.S. agencies: ten times more text.

This may be because the summary is unclassified and easier for partners to access, while the classified version of the NDS will be more open with internal U.S. agencies. But it is also obvious that the strong commitment and respect for allies and partners written in the NDS is an attempt to reassure friendly countries that have been spooked by the focus of the current administration on putting “America first.”

Russia’s attempts to destabilize other nations by multi-domain attacks have given new urgency to U.S. efforts to counter such threats. DoD has long coordinated its defense efforts with other U.S. agencies, but the team of partners is expanding and the depth of integration is increasing. The NDS lists several partners: “Departments of State, Treasury, Justice, Energy, Homeland Security, Commerce, USAID, as well as the intelligence community, law enforcement, and others.”   

Ukraine. Neither the National Security Strategy nor the National Defense Strategy make any specific declarations about Ukraine or American plans for supporting Ukraine, such as delivering weapons. But the National Defense Strategy Summary does state an objective of “Defending allies from military aggression and bolstering partners against coercion.”

The clearest statement of U.S. policy toward support for Ukraine came on December 22, 2017, when U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert announced that the United States will provide Ukraine with “enhanced defensive capabilities as part of our effort to help Ukraine build its long-term defense capacity, to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to deter further aggression.”

The State Department also said the “U.S. assistance is entirely defensive in nature, and as we have always said, Ukraine is a sovereign country and has a right to defend itself.” Ukraine has previously requested anti-tank weapons, and a State Department official said that among the weapons going to Ukraine are Javelin anti-tank missiles. This step reflects the U.S. decision that America will no longer do nothing if the status quo in Ukraine does not change.

Ballistic Missile Defense. The deployment of U.S. ballistic missile defenses in Europe will continue. Both the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy maintain that those systems (such as the Romania- and Poland-based Aegis Ashore SM3 systems) are being deployed to counter regional threats.

The National Security Strategy states, “We will work with NATO to improve its integrated air and missile defense capabilities to counter existing and projected ballistic and cruise missile threats, particularly from Iran.” “Enhanced missile defense is not intended to undermine strategic stability or disrupt long-standing strategic relationships with Russia or China.”

The National Defense Strategy Summary echoes that policy and makes clear that the only country whose intercontinental missiles the United States is preparing to defeat is North Korea. “[Missile Defense] investments will focus on layered missile defenses and disruptive capabilities for both theater missile threats and North Korean ballistic missile threats.”

Ballistic missile defenses are not being sized to defeat the Russian strategic nuclear deterrent. However, if Russia launches a regional attack in Europe using ballistic/cruise missiles, one can be sure that U.S. missile defense systems will be used to protect U.S. and allied interests.

Nuclear Policy. According to the National Defense Strategy Summary and the newly published Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), Russia continues to modernize its nuclear forces as its leadership threatens to use those forces in a regional conflict.

Terrorists and rogue states, such as Iran and North Korea, seek weapons of mass destruction. The NDS states, “During peace or in war, the Joint Force will deter nuclear and non-nuclear strategic attacks and defend the homeland.” The NDS reinforces the nation’s earlier decision to modernize its nuclear triad and infrastructure. “The Department will modernize the nuclear triad—including nuclear command, control, and communications, and supporting infrastructure. Modernization of the nuclear force includes developing options to counter competitors’ coercive strategies, predicated on the threatened use of nuclear or strategic non-nuclear attacks.”

According to the Nuclear Posture Review, a key objective of U.S. nuclear policy is to dissuade Russia from its mistaken impression that a first use of nuclear weapons by Russia in a conflict would de-escalate the conflict on terms favorable to Russia. The NPR says in no uncertain terms that U.S. policy is to make both strategic nuclear weapons and forward-deployed nuclear weapons available to the defense of NATO.

The new NPR states, “There is no ‘one size fits all’ for deterrence. Consequently, the United States will apply a tailored and flexible approach to effectively deter across a spectrum of adversaries, threats, and contexts. Tailored deterrence strategies communicate to different potential adversaries that their aggression would carry unacceptable risks and intolerable costs according to their particular calculations of risk and cost.”

For example, the NPR states, “the United States will modify a small number of existing SLBM [submarine-launched ballistic missile] warheads to provide a low-yield option, and in the longer term, pursue a modern nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM). Unlike DCA [dual-capable aircraft that can carry conventional or nuclear weapons], a low-yield SLBM warhead and SLCM will not require or rely on host nation support to provide deterrent effect.”

The NPR maintains that these and other new steps do not lower the threshold for use of nuclear weapons. “Rather, by convincing adversaries that even limited use of nuclear weapons will be more costly than they can tolerate, it in fact raises that threshold.”

The NPR recommends doubling spending on nuclear forces from about 3 percent of DoD budget to 6.4 percent. But this increase in spending would not cause the United States to break its commitments in strategic arms treaties. In fact, the National Security Strategy claims: “The United States will sustain a nuclear force structure that meets our current needs and addresses unanticipated risks. The United States does not need to match the nuclear arsenals of other powers, but we must sustain a stockpile that can deter adversaries, assure allies and partners, and achieve U.S. objectives if deterrence fails.”

The message from the NDS, NPR, and NSS documents is that the United States will retain a strong nuclear force which can be used in both strategic and regional conflicts as a deterrent to Russia and other adversaries.

Strategic Arms Control. The National Defense Strategy does not provide much insight into strategic arms control policy. Congress, however, has made clear that it will not support any new arms control agreements until the situation in Ukraine (Crimea and eastern Ukraine) is resolved, and alleged Russian violation of the INF Treaty is reversed. On the contrary, Congress has ordered the Secretary of Defense to begin preparing American ground-based intermediate-range missile systems to counter the alleged Russian systems. While U.S. adherence to the 2010 New START Treaty is likely not in question, it is not clear that the United States (or Russia) will remain in the INF Treaty.


It is safe to say that many of the threats and missions identified in the 2018 National Defense Strategy Summary are similar to those of earlier defense strategies. But the priorities have changed dramatically. The 2018 NDS declares that “interstate strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary national security concern,” and the United States is in a “long-term strategic competition” with its main adversaries Russia and China. This policy supports the view of the National Security Strategy and is bolstered by the positions of other key U.S. strategy documents.

Congress is allocating significant funds for the programs suggested in the National Defense Strategy Summary and Nuclear Posture Review, which solidifies the defense policy priorities for years to come.

It is not in the best interests of our two countries to have a dangerous relationship, which can quickly escalate into conflict. It will not be easy for any one man or any one event to change the relationship from the U.S. side, much less from both sides.

There is, however, always opportunity for reversing direction. The ability of the United States and Russia to achieve major reductions in strategic arms, even during the height of the Cold War, was a commendable example. Today’s generation of strategists must find new opportunities for today’s national leaders. Tomorrow’s leaders depend on it.

This material is a part of “Minimizing the Risk of an East-West Collision: Practical Ideas on European Security” project, supported by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

  • Kevin Ryan