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Research Questions

  1. How might the United States' forward military posture be used to deter Russia from additional aggressive actions in the competition space?
  2. Which U.S. military postures might provoke Russia to escalate?
  3. What are Russia's escalation options and their implications?
  4. What preventive or mitigating measures can the United States take to reduce the likelihood of escalation?

The deterrence of armed conflict has been studied intensively for decades, as have escalation dynamics along the path to such conflicts. The deterrence of forms of aggression below the level of armed conflict — such hostile measures as economic coercion, political subversion, and military intimidation — has received much less attention.

In this report, the authors investigate how the United States might use its military posture in Europe (specifically, ground forces) as part of a strategy to deter these Russian malign activities.

The authors identify how forward posture could deter hostile measures through signaling the United States' commitment to its allies and partners, providing irregular capabilities for those partners and allies threatened with political subversion, providing conventional capabilities to neutralize hostile powers' coercion attempts, and providing support for other instruments of U.S. power, such as sanctions. However, forward posture can also lead to an escalation in competitor activities, increasing their sense of threat, incentivizing partners to undertake aggression at levels below armed conflict, and incentivizing third parties to act in ways that increase the likelihood of confrontation. The authors propose ways to calibrate U.S. forward posture to minimize such risks while enhancing deterrence.

Key Findings

  • The same logic of deterrence that has been applied to armed conflict for decades generally also applies to competition below the level of armed conflict, but the effects of U.S. forward posture are more subtle in the competition space.
  • U.S. military forward posture (including U.S. forces positioned overseas, activities conducted by U.S. military forces, and military agreements) has the potential to deter hostile measures (such as economic coercion, political subversion, and military intimidation). Employed inappropriately, however, it also has the potential to provoke them.
  • Whether the outcome is escalatory or deterrent depends on the type of posture (forces, activities, and agreements) and three characteristics of its employment: proximity, continuity, and capability.
  • Of the elements of forward posture, U.S. forces are most consistently associated with deterrence. Forces send a strong signal of U.S. commitment and provide important capabilities. When these forces are first introduced in-theater, however, they can make host countries the targets of Russian hostile measures.
  • U.S. military activities (such as multilateral military exercises) are less likely to deter Russian hostile measures and more likely to lead to escalation. Escalatory risks are reduced when the United States conducts such activities farther from Russia and takes measures to increase their predictability.
  • Military agreements also can deter malign activities, especially when the United States enters into an alliance, thus putting its international reputation at stake. Lesser military agreements are weaker deterrents.
  • Many escalatory consequences are not proximate in space or time. Instead of a clear action-reaction cycle, there are often considerable lags before Russian reactions and thus greater opportunities for misunderstanding.
  • Typically, forward posture is one contributing factor to competition outcomes, is seldom the primary driver, and most often has effects that are cumulative and long-term.

Recommendations

  • U.S. decisionmakers should think of U.S. posture primarily as an enabler of a much broader strategy that incorporates the full range of the instruments of national power.
  • U.S. decisionmakers should base U.S. forward posture changes on specific objectives.
  • Dynamic Force Employment is best used as a supplement to persistent presence, not a substitute, and only if appropriate measures are taken to mitigate the associated risks.
  • The United States should adopt rigorous interagency risk assessment and evaluation processes. When evaluating the consequences of U.S. posture decisions after the fact, the United States should not only look for immediate Russian reactions but should also explore longer-term and indirect dynamics.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by U.S. Army Europe and conducted by the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program within the RAND Arroyo Center.

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