Giuliani is dangerously wrong on Russia

On Monday, Rudy Giuliani — reported to be the front runner for secretary of state in a Trump Administration — shared this bit of wisdom at The Wall Street Journal CEO Council.

“Russia thinks it’s a military competitor, it really isn’t,” Giuliani said. “It’s our unwillingness under (President Barack) Obama to even threaten the use of our military that makes Russia so powerful.”

In a sense, Giuliani isn’t off the mark in his characterization of the military threat from Russia. Limited excursions to Syria notwithstanding, Russia doesn’t have a power-projection capability even remotely close to the United States.

But that is the wrong yardstick. A better question might be does Russia have the capacity to dominate its near abroad, including NATO member states like Estonia and Romania? Arguably, yes.

And perhaps more importantly, can Russia use limited showcases of military capability to degrade U.S. strategic influence in global crossroad like the Middle East? It’s already doing so.

In Eastern Europe, the United States has few forward-deployed forces, and deploying reinforcements after a crisis would be extremely difficult because of sophisticated Russian weapons like the S-400 air defense system. Within the regional contexts that matter, Russia’s military capabilities are very credible, despite what Giuliani may think.

Even so, counting tanks and ships — as Giuliani seems to be doing — is a strikingly limited way to think about geopolitical balancing. Putin’s core strategic insight is that the best way to confront the West is to exploit its structural political weaknesses.

A weak and divided NATO is less likely to have the political will to act in response to provocation. Putin doesn’t need the military capability to defeat the United States in theaters such as Ukraine — he just needs to raise the military costs of acting to politically unacceptable levels.

If a president uses their bully pulpit to weaken the case that countering Russian aggression is in the U.S. strategic interest, then the acceptable costs of action are diminished. Thus, the Trumpian policy of downplaying the importance of NATO and normalizing Russia’s flagrant violations of international law invites aggression.

Giuliani’s critique that the Obama Administration didn’t use enough military rhetoric to confront Russia is also dangerous and shortsighted.

For starters, confrontational rhetoric is hollow if the military and political reality on the ground means it’s not credible. In a worst-case scenario, such rhetoric can actually inflame a crisis — giving Russia the pretext it needs to act aggressively. It also reinforces the siege mentality that Putin has relied on consistently in recent months to exercise control over his domestic political situation.

More fundamentally, the threshold for militarily threatening a country with thousands of nuclear weapons should be very high. Giuliani seems to be taking global stability for granted — the same core foreign policy error as Donald Trump.

Let’s hope he never gets the chance to test his theories.