Four Russian Scenarios

June 1, 2003

What military challenges does today’s Russia pose for the United States? Certainly Russia cannot present even a fraction of the threat the Soviet monolith posed and for which the United States prepared for decades. Yet, if certain negative trends continue, they may create a new set of dangers that can in some ways prove even more real, and therefore more frightening, than the far-off specter of Soviet attack ever was.

As a weak state, Russia shares some attributes with “failed” or “failing” states. Tracing through the specifics in Russia reveals a great many additional dangers, both humanitarian and strategic.

While some might argue that Russia’s weakness, or even the potential for its eventual collapse, has little to do with the United States, the truth is that a range of US interests is directly affected by Russia’s deterioration and the threats that it embodies.

The dangers of proliferation or use of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction quite directly threaten the United States and its vital interests. Organized crime in Russia is linked to a large and growing multinational network of criminal groups that threaten the United States and its economy both directly and through links with (and support of) global and local terrorist organizations. Russia is also a major energy producer and a transit state for oil and gas from the Caspian at a time when the US government has identified that region, and energy interests in general, as key to its national security. Washington’s allies, closer to Russia physically, are not only the customers for much of this energy but are also the likely victims of any refugee flows, environmental crises, or potential flare-ups of violence that Russian decline may spur. Finally, recent history suggests a strong possibility that the United States would play a role in seeking to alleviate a humanitarian crisis on or near Russian soil, whether it was caused by epidemic, war, or a nuclear/industrial catastrophe.

This article outlines several notional scenarios for crises in and near Russian territory. While the likelihood of any of these specific scenarios occurring is remote, they illustrate the possibility that events in or near Russia can threaten vital US interests.

This is relevant to the US Air Force because the sheer size of Russia and its geography would almost certainly necessitate the use of Air Force assets in any US action in the region.

War in Asia

Substantial state decline or the appearance thereof can invite foreign adventurism. To date, Russia’s military weakness has not been seen as an invitation for ambitious rival states to wrest away a chunk of Russian territory. Russia’s large arsenal of strategic and nonstrategic nuclear weapons is no doubt a factor. This may change over the next decade or so, particularly if Russia continues to weaken and demographic trends stay on their present downward paths.

The Scenario

This scenario takes place around the year 2015 and assumes that Russia has continued to deteriorate militarily throughout the intervening period. This decline has been especially severely felt in the Far East, where troops are unfed, unpaid, and untrained and equipment is obsolete. Chinese migration into the Far East and Russian emigration from it have continued, and significant numbers of Chinese have settled permanently in the area.

Beijing, whose military might has increased as Russia’s has declined, has begun to make noises about its historic right to southeastern Russia, territory that was annexed between 1858 and 1860 from a China weakened by the Opium Wars. In 2015, with a rapidly growing Chinese population in that area (where families are unhindered by population control regulations), Beijing is able to create considerable domestic support for “reclaiming” the territory.

Domestic pressure in China to take back the “lost territories” is bolstered by an increasingly hostile Russian policy and attitude toward Chinese immigrants. Driven by ethnic tensions that have increased along with the Chinese population, laws now limit the duration and location of Chinese residency. Discrimination in employment and housing against people of East Asian ancestry is rampant. Despite this, economic opportunities attract more and more Chinese to the area. Whatever “strategic partnership” might once have been evolving between Beijing and Moscow has long disappeared. Relations between the two countries are poisoned by Russian anti­Chinese sentiment and by Beijing’s insistence on pursuing the rights of co-ethnics living in Russia, even if this means regaining long-lost land.

In addition to historical claims and the desire to protect the rights of ethnic Chinese, China has a strategic interest in the land southeast of the Amur River. This territory provides an outlet to the Sea of Japan, an outlet China now lacks. China’s strategy for acquiring the territory is based on a plan to provoke Russia into attacking Chinese forces in the region. China, pleading self-defense, could then counterattack into Russia. Beijing, possessing by now a large strategic nuclear force, is confident that Moscow will not risk nuclear war and the destruction of European Russia to defend the poor and underpopulated Far East. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) therefore begins to shift more forces toward the border with Russia. The plan goes awry, however, when Chinese forces get into a firefight with Russian border guards near the border at the Ussuri River. Chinese commanders on the scene seize territory in Primorsky Krai; the weak and disorganized Russian forces in the region are able to put up little resistance. With this fait accompli, Beijing orders its navy to gear up for an amphibious landing at Vladivostok and elsewhere on the coast. (Fig. 1).

Japan is alarmed by this turn of events. It sees the landgrab in Russia as an example of aggressive Chinese military adventurism and feels particularly threatened by the prospect of a Chinese outlet to the Sea of Japan. After consultations, Japan and Russia decide that, given both states’ relative military weakness, it is time to call on the United States for help.

Washington initially offers to mediate, but while China responds that it is willing to enter into talks, the PLA continues to shift more forces to the Russian border and ships are heading for Vladivostok. Russia therefore invokes its status as a Partnership for Peace (PFP) state to request NATO consultations. Japan, in turn, asks the United States to assist in rolling back the Chinese landgrab in Russia.


This scenario may at first read more like fiction than a plausible future. Projecting 15 years forward is difficult under the best of circumstances, and doing it with regard to two states in as much flux as Russia and China is particularly challenging. Furthermore, even if events were to evolve as outlined, the United States would retain freedom of choice: It would be under no obligation to intervene to defend Russia against the Chinese. On the other hand, especially if US­Chinese relations continue to deteriorate, the United States may find it difficult to refuse the request of its close ally, Tokyo, and a Russia in need.

Furthermore, a conflict between Russia and China would be a clash between two nuclear weapon states. Although China has a “no first use” policy, Russia does not. This scenario posits that Beijing is betting that the nuclear taboo will hold, but one can easily imagine that a Russia that is weakened conventionally and facing a foreign incursion onto its soil may feel that it has no choice but to escalate to nuclear use.

Thus, while this scenario is not likely, it is included because it has serious implications for US interests. While the probability of such a course of events is low, it is far from negligible, for China does have interests in the Russian Far East, and Japan (like other states in the region) is highly attuned to the possibility of Chinese adventurism.

Nuclear Accident

The possibility of a major mishap (whether arising from accident or deliberate sabotage) occurring at one of the many civilian and military nuclear and nuclear-related facilities in Russia is very real. The risk ranges from a Chernobyl­type power reactor accident to terrorist use of nuclear waste to contaminate a large area of Russia (or, potentially, elsewhere).

Such a catastrophe could happen almost anywhere in Russia. In European Russia, it would have serious implications for many US friends and allies. On the other hand, there would be numerous Western countries nearby, ready and willing to help, and fairly well-developed infrastructure to support their doing so. Further into Russia, depending on wind direction, the dangers may be limited to Russia itself or they may reach other states in Asia. In that case, deteriorated road and rail networks as well as simple distance could make the provision of aid and evacuation of the local population a very challenging task.

Regardless, it is plausible that Moscow would have difficulty coordinating a response on its own. Moreover, it would clearly be in the interest of the world community to assist in mitigating the damage, if only to ensure that it does not spread.

The Scenario

Tomorrow, or the next day, or next year, the world awakes to reports of a large-scale nuclear accident at a power plant in central or eastern Russia. It appears likely that wind-borne radioactive dust will reach areas in Asia outside of Russia. After initially denying that an accident has occurred, Russia admits to a minor leak of radioactive material. In the meantime, it is clear that Russian firefighters are at the site and military aircraft are evacuating people from the area. After an aircraft carrying refugees crashes in the Urals, Russia asks the world for assistance in mitigating the effects of the disaster.


The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has had extensive discussions with its counterpart in Russia, the Ministry of the Russian Federation for Civil Defense, Emergencies, and Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters (EMERCOM), precisely about such disasters and how best to respond to them. The two have conducted joint exercises and carried out planning for cooperative activity. This bodes well for their ability to work together in an actual crisis.

At the same time, in domestic emergencies FEMA relies on US military—and particularly US Air Force and Air National Guard—assets to carry out tasks. These same assets would be the most likely sources of support for a crisis abroad, especially if it involved a nuclear accident deep inside Russia. There would simply be no other way to traverse the huge distances quickly and effectively while evacuating people and airlifting in supplies and equipment. The large, heavy aircraft would strain existing runways and information about the condition of facilities would be imperative. Getting fuel to the area for the aircraft would be an additional challenge.

As long as Russia had issued a request for help, however, many of these problems could be mitigated— first by Moscow’s cooperation and second by the ability to base out of nearby countries, where facilities might be in better condition and/or better known. On the other hand, if regional separatism has continued to evolve, operations outside the danger zone might be hampered by uncooperative local officials who equate US help with Moscow’s interference. The prevalence of crime and corruption raise the risk of theft of fuel, supplies, or parts, as it has for Russian forces throughout the country. Furthermore, if the accident turns out to be the result of sabotage, outside intervention might be targeted by the groups responsible.

This scenario is both plausible and a near-term danger. While core US interests may not be affected by an accident, the United States has a history of assisting with humanitarian missions, and it is unlikely that it would refuse to assist with one of this sort.

Terrorist Use of Nuclear Materials

While most experts agree that Russian nuclear weapons, strategic and tactical, are generally under sound and reliable control, the theft or diversion of a tactical nuclear weapon is possible, if not very plausible. Insofar as it is not known where these weapons are stored or how many of them there are, it is even possible (if not very likely) that such a diversion has already occurred. Moreover, terrorists would not need a ready-made nuclear weapon to create a real threat: If they are able to gain sufficient high-quality nuclear material and have the know-how, they can create their own weapon. Or, instead of a detonation, they can acquire some amount of nuclear waste and threaten to render a large area uninhabitable through its release.

The Scenario

Sometime in the 2003­06 time frame, a splinter group of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) releases announcements through the world press, claiming that it possesses one or more nuclear devices. Attacks in Russia, Europe, and the United States are threatened unless the United States and others release 2,000 accused and convicted terrorists and all those captured during the Afghanistan conflict.

As the global community attempts to assess the credibility of the threat, pinpoint the location of the group and its claimed arsenal, and determine appropriate actions, the terrorists’ deadline approaches. Two days before it arrives, Russian Special Forces, believing they have located the group’s headquarters within Central Asia, launch an attack on the suspected site in Tajikistan. They find nothing. The failure of the Tajikistan attack creates a government crisis, and Russian political figures and the press call for a full accounting of this unwarranted attack on foreign soil that needlessly endangered Russian military men. Moscow is paralyzed as military and political officials exchange recriminations. The next day, a nuclear explosion, believed to be caused by the detonation of a nuclear landmine, takes place on the outskirts of Nizhny Novgorod. Thousands of people are killed instantly and the effects are still being tallied when the terrorist group takes responsibility for the attack and announces that the United States and the European Union are next.

The US intelligence community reports that it has pinpointed the group’s location, and its arsenal, and that they are both within Russia.


If a terrorist group were to acquire the ability to threaten Russia and the world with nuclear use, Russia would almost certainly cooperate with the United States in efforts to stop it. If the terrorist group was located on Russian territory, however, Russia might have qualms about allowing US forces in to assist and prefer to handle the matter on its own. Its ability to do so, on the other hand, may not be certain enough for Washington’s comfort. Similarly, a lengthy period of Russian indecision could create an imperative for the United States to act, as could a split within Russia. Regional leaders, might for instance, ask for US assistance even if Moscow did not. If the United States felt confident that it could prevent nuclear use and Russia could not, it might well ignore Russia’s sensitivities or confusion.

The prospect of carrying out a small-scale armed operation on Russia’s soil, with or without Moscow’s consent, raises many issues. The use and condition of existing facilities is only one challenge that would face US forces. Local attitudes toward Russia, the United States, and the terrorist group; the breakdown of loyalties in the area; and the capabilities of Russian military and police forces and their potential to assist or hinder operations are just a few of the critical unknowns. There is then the question of how Russia and/or the United States should retaliate.

If the United States chose to act, the sheer size of the Russian landmass, combined with the need for operational speed, would place much of the burden on the US Air Force. There would simply be no other way to reach most potential targets. The US Air Force might also be engaged in other operations to ameliorate the consequences of any nuclear explosion. Regardless of what action is taken, there seems little question that the United States would be involved in such a scenario. It engages core US interests and would create a real imperative for the United States to act.

War in the Caucasus

The prospect of something going terribly wrong in the Caucasus is often raised—and for good reason. The United States and Russia support competing plans for the exploitation of Caspian energy resources and their export through the Caucasus region. The United States supports natural gas and oil pipeline routes transiting Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey. Russia has opposed these plans and would simply expand existing routes through its territory. (Fig. 2)

Russia has seen efforts by NATO and Turkey in the region as unabashed poaching in its area of interest and influence and has repeatedly warned Georgia and Azerbaijan against aligning themselves too closely with the West. It has also been reluctant to agree to the final withdrawal of all of its military forces from Georgia, where several units remain based and where Russian peacekeepers continue to serve in the more unstable secessionist regions of that republic. Russia has repeatedly accused Georgia and Azerbaijan of assisting rebels in Chechnya.

The Scenario

The situation in the region remains unstable following the completion of the Baku­Tbilisi­Ceyhan and Transcaspian pipelines for export of Caspian natural gas and oil to Europe through the Caucasus and Turkey. Russian troops remain in Georgia, ostensibly in a peacekeeping capacity, and both Abkhazia and South Ossetia retain hopes of separating from Georgia. US military trainers are no longer in Georgia, but contingents of Turkish forces remain in Georgia and Azerbaijan.

In Russia, too, the situation remains unsettled, as Russian occupation of the separatist Chechen province is marked by sporadic firefights and terrorist attacks throughout Russia. The most recent accusations by Russia that Azerbaijan and Georgia are providing aid and comfort to Chechen rebels is met by a counterclaim that Russian troops are supplying arms to separatist groups within Georgia. As the war of words escalates, Russia shifts more troops to the Georgian border, as well as some toward Azerbaijan.

Ukraine announces its intent to fully support Georgia and Azerbaijan even as reports surface of terrorist attacks on the pipelines that traverse Georgia in the south, carrying oil and natural gas to Turkey. Ukraine reinforces its contribution to the joint peacekeeping battalion it has formed with Georgia and Azerbaijan to protect the pipelines. Armenian troops move north toward the border with Azerbaijan and there are renewed clashes in Nagorno­Karabakh. Nakhichevan, a region of Azerbaijan that shares no common border with it, asks the central government to dispatch forces to protect it from a possible Armenian invasion.

After clashes between Russian troops in Georgia and units of the Georgia­Ukraine­Azerbaijan peacekeeping force, Russia claims that its units were acting independently of central command. However, the clashes continue, and a terrorist attack on the pipelines significantly slows the flow of oil into Turkey and spills enough oil to create an environmental hazard.

Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Georgia at this point appeal to NATO for consultations, a right they have as PFP states. During the NATO consultations, Turkey argues that a NATO peacekeeping force should be dispatched to the region.


Energy interests, allied involvement, and a history of commitment to the region would create real incentives for the United States to take action in this situation. Unfavorable Russian response to US activities in its backyard and the long-term effects on US­Russian relations would constitute serious disincentives.

Military operations in the Caucasus, with or without Russian cooperation, would be extremely challenging. Moreover, guarding and protecting the pipelines would be exceedingly difficult. In highly forested and mountainous terrain, pipeline routes follow roads and waterways, which make it nearly impossible to distinguish between ordinary traffic and the movement of enemy forces.

Facilities in this region, particularly in Georgia, are on the whole in poorer condition than those in Russia, although there are numerous military bases in the area. There are many separatist enclaves in the Caucasus, and the support of local populations cannot be counted on. Nuclear waste depositories and a nuclear power plant in Armenia are other things to be concerned about. If these should get into the line of fire or be captured by hostile forces, environmental catastrophe could result.

Leaving aside the possibility of having to engage Russian forces, there are ways to limit US involvement in this scenario. Because Turkey is already part of the mix and is agitating for NATO participation, there is no reason that Ankara cannot provide the bulk of whatever NATO force is dispatched. Still, the United States and other allies might find themselves forced to send in some troops of their own, if only to demonstrate commitment. If this is the case, it is almost certain that US Air Force assets would be part of the force mix.

This scenario is plausible and it involves key US interests, including its NATO allies and Caspian energy resources. Furthermore, it is reasonable that events in the Caucasus will evolve in such a way that US military assistance will be requested by one or another of the parties. As always, it will remain Washington’s decision whether to act.

Olga Oliker is an analyst with RAND, a nonprofit research institution based in Santa Monica, Calif. Tanya Charlick–Paley is a visiting assistant professor at Kenyon College and a nonresident consultant with RAND. They are the authors of a new RAND study, Assessing Russia’s Decline: Trends and Implications for the United States and the US Air Force, from which this article has been adapted. This is the first Air Force Magazine article for either author.