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Research Questions

  1. Where might future Russian flashpoints emerge that could entangle the United States?
  2. What are the key drivers of Russian disputes and conflicts with other countries?
  3. What are the planning implications for the United States and specifically the U.S. Army?

Even before Russia's February 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia had many ongoing and potential disputes with other countries, motivated by a variety of territorial, political, and economic issues. Furthermore, as Moscow has sought to expand its international role, it has increased Russian involvement in civil conflicts, using both overt and covert means. Russian activity in Syria and Libya has raised the prospect that the United States might find itself militarily entangled with Russia in various global hotspots. Therefore, the authors of this report sought to identify possible Russian flashpoints with countries in and near the U.S. Army Europe area of responsibility that could entangle the United States and present distinct military challenges to the U.S. Army.

Using quantitative and qualitative methods to analyze historical data on Russian disputes and conflicts, the authors identified the key drivers of such flashpoints. They then leveraged these findings to derive planning implications for the United States and the U.S. Army in particular. The authors also examined two additional potential drivers of conflict not captured in historical data — Russia's use of private military contractors and its operations in the information environment — to see whether either might lead to a flashpoint in the future.

Key Findings

Geographical proximity is central in driving Russian disputes and conflicts

  • All Russian militarized conflicts in the timeframe considered (1992–2019), except those related to operations in Syria, have been located in the former Soviet region.
  • Quantitative analysis underscores the correlation of territorial contiguity and former Soviet republic status with the onset of a militarized interstate dispute (MID), a term that covers conflicts and interstate frictions that did not lead to recorded fatalities. Russia shares a land border with 16 different countries, the most of any state in the world. The elevated risk of conflicts involving Russia, therefore, spans many countries and several important regions.

Additional variables also emerged as important MID onset drivers

  • States with unresolved land or maritime border issues with Russia are more likely to become involved in a MID with Russia.
  • Time is also a factor. A recent MID between Russia and another state strongly suggests that another MID could follow.

Geopolitics was central when friction escalates to conflict

  • Broader geopolitical factors are key drivers of escalation to conflict. Russia's dissatisfaction with its place in the international system, acute uncertainty about the future, and perceived reputational costs for nonintervention were central to the escalatory dynamic in the examined conflicts. However, perceived external threats, stemming from the country or conflict, were often the immediate triggers of violence.
  • These observations reinforce the view of Russia as a status-seeking, geopolitically minded, but predominately regional power — or at least one that sees its immediate environs as the source of significant threats.

Recommendations

  • The identified drivers of escalation should inform and motivate U.S. Army planning. Territorial contiguity with Russia, former Soviet republic status, and unresolved border issues are characteristics of states likely to be engaged in disputes or conflicts with Russia. Recent Russian disputes with a particular country might serve as an augur for future ones. Additionally, the broader geopolitical context at the time of any interaction with Russia should be considered when gauging the risk of conflict. Whatever its actual weight in the international system, Russia acts like a great power in its sphere of influence: Geopolitical considerations can drive its decisionmaking about military engagement.
  • Planning for the expected surprise should be considered. The degree to which Army planning is able to take contingencies in the states identified as possible flashpoints into account should increase its capacity to forge a timely and effective response.
  • U.S. Army engagements with countries in Russia's immediate periphery in post-Soviet Eurasia should consider the increased risks of disputes or even flashpoints in the region. Appreciating this potential in advance could help prevent escalation.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was prepared by the United States Army and conducted by the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program with the RAND Arroyo Center.

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