In May 2, 2022 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Scott D. Berrier and Director of National Intelligence Avril D. Haines identified China, Russia, and Iran, as well as terrorist organizations, as the greatest threats to U.S. national security. Both China and Russia are nuclear powers and both have significant intelligence, cyber, and information warfare capabilities.
Russia’s threat to the United States includes: direct military conflict, cyber attacks, supporting separatists, threats to freedom of navigation, and territorial expansion. On November 15, a missile blast killed two people in Poland, near the Ukraine border. Russia was the primary suspect. President Joe Biden later told the Poles that the missile was part of a Ukrainian defense system. Whether the missile actually came from Russia directly or was the indirect result of Russian shelling, the incident underscores the danger Russia poses. A perceived attack on a NATO member could cause NATO to invoke Article 5, which states that an armed attack against one member is considered an attack against the entire alliance.
Moscow has repeatedly accused the U.S. and NATO of wanting to destroy Russia. Since the end of the Cold War, 13 countries have been admitted to NATO: the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland (1999); Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia (2004); Albania and Croatia (2009); and, in 2017, Montenegro. Consequently, Russia has been focused on maintaining its influence and control in former Soviet republics, including Ukraine, Belarus, and the Central Asian states.
Defeating the U.S. or breaking from a U.S.-led world order was a primary goal of the USSR and has carried over to modern Russia. Opposing Europe and the U.K. are secondary objectives, seen as a proxy for defiance against the U.S. One of the concerns of the Department of Defense is that Putin often uses threats, including the threat of nuclear war, to get what he wants. If his threats continue to go unheeded, there is the danger that he will finally act, launching a strike, to show that he is serious.
Since the fall of the USSR, there have been numerous opportunities for cooperation between the U.S., E.U. NATO, and Russia, including participation in joint military exercises and peacekeeping operations. Tensions, however, run deep, complicating attempts at relationship-building. In 1999, Russian and NATO forces nearly engaged in a firefight at Pristina Airport, at the end of the Kosovo War. In 2004, Russia accused the U.S. of supporting the revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, and raised objections when the Bush administration positioned U.S. ballistic missile defense systems (BMD) in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia then positioned its own missiles in Kaliningrad, the former East Prussia. In 2008, Russia opposed Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia. In August 2008, Russia blamed the U.S for supporting Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in a war against separatist South Ossetia. At one point, Georgian and Russian forces exchanged fire.
In 2014, NATO canceled all attempts to cooperate with Russia, in response to the invasion of the Crimea. Four years later, Russia attempted to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a British citizen living in the U.K.
The current invasion of Ukraine is making cooperation between the West and Russia less likely, while increasing the chance of war.
Ukraine became independent in 1991, shortly after the collapse of the USSR. In 2004, Viktor Yanukovich, a pro-Russian candidate, won a general election, which was presumed to have been rigged. In 2014, Russia backed separatists in the Donbas region, sparking off a conflict in which
an estimated 15,000 people died before the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. In 2019, pro-European candidate Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected president of Ukraine, and the country began its pivot back to the West. In 2021, Zelenskyy asked President Biden to support Ukraine in joining NATO.
In December 2021, Russia began deploying troops close to its border with Ukraine. At the peak, 190,000 Russian soldiers were threatening Ukraine. Putin demanded that the U.S. remove its weapons from Eastern Europe. In response, the U.S. sent 3,000 troops to Poland and Romania. In February 2022, Russian-backed paramilitaries seized parts of Ukraine’s Donbas region. Shortly after, Putin recognized the region’s independence. Three days later, on February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. Since the invasion began, the U.S., NATO and the E.U have been supporting the Ukrainian military with weapons, money, and intelligence.
Smaller nations, particularly in Southeastern Europe, are worried about being gobbled up, should Russia continue its expansion. Apart from the threat to U.S. interests in continental Western Europe, there is also the threat of Russia’s expansion into the Arctic, positioning submarines and missiles, which could potentially threaten shipping and freedom of navigation in the North Sea, as well as possible attacks on Canada, Alaska, and Scandinavia. Most recently, Finland and Sweden have been given permission to join NATO.
China seeks to surpass the U.S. militarily, economically, technologically, and in terms of global influence. The FBI identifies China as the greatest threat to the U.S. in terms of information warfare. China coopts U.S persons, politicians, academics, and businesspeople, to support legislation which is favorable to Chinese Communist Party. Beijing’s stated goal is to become the world’s number-one superpower, a goal they are slowly achieving through predatory lending to developing countries, systematic theft of intellectual property, as well as hacking and other cybercrimes.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin identifies China as the single greatest threat to the United States. While he also considers Russia a threat, he pointed out that China, unlike Russia, has the stated goal to remake the world order in their own image and that China has the economic and military capability to do so. The Department of Defense reported that, in China and Russia, the U.S. now faces two hostile nuclear powers.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has vowed to capture Taiwan, and has declared that China has the right to use force to do so. If he launches an invasion, given the ambiguity of the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022, it is unclear if Washington would go to war. President Biden, however, has publicly stated, on several occasions, that the U.S. would defend the island nation. Japan also identifies an attack on Taiwan as an attack on Japan, because a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) invasion of Taiwan is sure to violate Japanese air and sea space. If Japan is forced to defend itself, the U.S. is treaty-bound to join the fight. Consequently, Taiwan is the single most likely flashpoint for a war between the U.S. and China.
According to the Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, published in February 2022, “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), al-Qa‘ida, and Iran and its militant allies, will take advantage of weak governance to continue to plot terrorist attacks against U.S. persons and interests, including to varying degrees in the United States, and exacerbate instability in regions such as Africa and the Middle East.”
While Russia is dominating headlines with the Ukraine invasion and China’s economic, political, and military expansion is monitored by the media, as well as national security and military intelligence agencies, Iran and Iran-sponsored terrorism remains the third-largest challenge, according to the U.S. intelligence community. Iran’s threat to the U.S. and U.S. interests in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Middle East include direct missile attacks, cyber attacks, assassinations, and sponsorship of terrorist organization and proxy forces, as well as the increasing danger posed by Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.
Iran projects its own power in the Middle East and North Africa, eroding U.S. influence. In particular, Iran threatens U.S. military and civilians in the region, Israel, and U.S. oil-trade partner Saudi Arabia. Although the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has been fraught with difficulties, Saudi Arabia is crucial to U.S. interests, because they are an important oil trade partner, a weapons trade partner, and they offer support for the internationalization of the U.S. dollar. Additionally, U.S. forces use Saudi Arabia as a base of operations to counter other threats in the region, such as Iran. As important as Saudi Arabia is to U.S. operations, they are not exactly a reliable ally. In October, OPEC, which is led by Saudi Arabia, refused a U.S. request to raise production volumes. Many in the U.S. Congress advised the president to stop providing Saudi Arabia with weapons, which would leave the kingdom vulnerable to an Iranian attack.
Saudi Arabia, which shares intelligence with the United States, warned in November 2022 of possible Iranian attacks on targets inside of the Saudi territory. Iran was also blamed for missile attacks on Saudi refineries in 2019. Iran backs Shia forces in Iraq, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, and Lebanon, which fight proxy wars against Western countries and Sunnis in the region. Iran supports terrorist groups, including Hammas, as well as Lebanese Hizballah, Shia militias in Iraq, the Huthis in Yemen, and provides direct support to the regime in Syria. Through their support of the Syrian government, Iran and Russia together are indirectly responsible for the deaths of over 400,000 Syrians.
Iran often engages in provocative actions against U.S. Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. Over the past three years, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence has been responsible for cyber attacks, including attacks on Israeli water infrastructure in 2020, the Boston Children’s Hospital in 2021, and Albania’s government in 2022.
In September, Iran captured two U.S. Navy drones. In 2020, Iran launched missile attacks on Iraqi bases hosting U.S. forces. In August 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice formally charged a member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Shahram Poursafi, with attempting to pay for the assassination of former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton and of a second individual, who authorities believe was former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Iran has also sold drones to Russia which are now being deployed in Ukraine. U.S. authorities believe that the August shipment of Mohajer-6 and Shahed-series drones to Moscow is the first of many planned transfers of Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) of various types to Russia. In October, Iran agreed to sell Russia surface-to-surface missiles, as well as more drones.
With over 3,000 missiles, Iran has the world’s largest arsenal of conventionally armed ballistic missiles, many of which are precision-guided, with ranges of up to 2,000 kilometers. And this does not include Iran’s growing supply of land-attack cruise missiles. While Iran does not possess nuclear capabilities yet, many of these missiles are capable of carrying a nuclear payload. For this reason, watchdog agencies keep a close eye on Iran’s nuclear development programs. In August 2022, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Commander-in-Chief Hossein Salami threatened that there were “hundreds of thousands of missiles” pointed at Israel.
The threat from Iran has increased since anti-government protests started in September 2022. The government has reacted violently to the protests, killing at least 130 protesters. In October 2022, the country’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, publicly blamed the protests on the U.S. and Israel.
The Institute for Science and International Security monitors the threat posed to the U.S. from Iran. As of October 2022, the institute ranked the Iran threat as “high danger,” 130 out of a possible 180. The assessment is conducted across six dimensions, each of which is assigned a score of 0 to 30 points. Hostile actions scored 22 out of 30; hostile rhetoric, 28; lack of transparency in compliance with nuclear inspections, 17; nuclear breakout, 30; sensitive nuclear capabilities, 17; and beyond breakout, converting highly enriched uranium into nuclear weapons, scored 16. The institute concluded that Iran’s recent hostile actions and deeds, as well as speculation that they are closing in on nuclear weapons technology, have increased the threat level.