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Putin plays for high stakes and high tension

What Russia’s president hopes to accomplish with the attack on a U.S. drone

Photo taken from video that shows a Russian Su-27 approaching the back of an MQ-9 drone over the Black Sea and beginning to release fuel as it passes. U.S. Department of Defense via Associated Press

Putin plays for high stakes and high tension
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For decades, Russian military doctrine has been built on the premise known as “escalate to de-escalate.” In other words, Russia’s military strategy is to increase tension further and further until eventually the other side blinks and backs down. It makes a certain logical sense, even if it’s scary coming from a nuclear state. It’s hard to see the recent fracas in the Black Sea as anything other than a Russian escalation trying to force the United States to pull back in Ukraine.

On March 14, two Russian military jets downed an American MQ-9 Reaper drone, an unmanned flying vehicle that was conducting a surveillance mission over international waters in the Black Sea. Though in the past Russian jets had buzzed uncomfortably near American planes, this was the first time the Russians physically interacted with an American asset, first by dumping fuel on it, then by bumping its propeller.

The Russians are splitting hairs by saying they “did not use airborne weapons or come into contact” with the drone; the first statement is true only if discharging fuel isn’t considered a weapon. The second statement is contradicted by the drone’s camera footage. “The Russians have been just flat out lying, flat out lied” in their account of what happened, in the words of a senior U.S. official.

The Russians’ action seems like a calculated move to poke the United States over Ukraine. Russian soldiers have been dying by the thousands while Ukrainian troops fire American bullets and artillery into Russian military formations, all provided for free by American taxpayers. It is not unusual for countries to engage in that sort of fake neutrality, providing military hardware without formally intervening with troops and tanks. Americans did much the same thing with Lend-Lease in the early years of World War II. So we cannot exactly be surprised that the Russians are angry at us, especially when they are at best stalemated in the Ukrainian ground game. But they started this war by invading a U.S. ally.

What won’t work is the tepid U.S. response so far.

Hence the play—escalate to deescalate. The attack an American drone didn’t actually kill an American soldier or airman, but it did destroy a U.S. military asset. If the United States responds, i.e. escalates, then Russia has an excuse to draw the United States further into Ukraine, and to escalate again until eventually the United States pulls all the way back because it does not want a hot war between two nuclear superpowers. If that happens, Putin saves face by bragging he got the United States to back down. If the United States does not respond or does not destroy a similar Russian military asset (“a proportionate response”), then the United States looks weak and Putin can brag he took down an American military asset without consequence. Either way, as he sees it, he wins.

The United States went through much the same calculus in 2019, when the Iranians downed a MQ-9 Reaper over the Strait of Hormuz. As then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper recounts in his memoir A Sacred Oath, President Donald Trump ordered preparation for an American strike on an Iranian military facility, but canceled the plans at the last minute due to the possible casualties, deciding instead on a mix of sanctions and cyber attacks. Trump faced a similar choice early in 2020 after the United States conducted a successful targeted strike on senior Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, who was in Iraq plotting with anti-U.S. insurgents. Iran responded with a barrage of rockets that struck U.S. military bases in Iraq. No American personnel were killed, and Trump considered a further response before deciding not to engage in a further tit-for-tat.

As Trump’s 2019 response shows, military leaders face a spectrum of options in these instances: sanctions, cyber attacks, and other non-kinetic tools. Other options include kinetic attacks on unmanned assets or kinetic attacks that result in casualties. Other, lesser options include a show of force, like steaming a “freedom of navigation” patrol through international waters with ships from the United States and several allies. That option is complicated in this instance by our lack of direct access to the Black Sea, where the incident took place.

What won’t work is the tepid U.S. response so far. The Department of Defense statement charged the Russians with flying in “a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner. This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional.” It is hard to chalk this up to incompetence by the individual pilots. With tensions already high in the Black Sea, and the Ukraine war underway, any Russian engagement must be presumed to be intentional. Regardless, Russia won’t back down over complaints that its actions were “environmentally unsound.”

Daniel R. Suhr

Daniel R. Suhr is an attorney who fights for freedom in courts across America. He has worked as a senior adviser for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, as a law clerk for Judge Diane Sykes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, and at the national headquarters of the Federalist Society. He is a member of Christ Church Mequon. He is an Eagle Scout, and he loves spending time with his wife Anna and their two sons, Will and Graham, at their home near Milwaukee.

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