Russia as the New, All-Purpose US Pretext for Military Intervention

by | Aug 29, 2023


Since the end of World War II, America’s political elite have cycled through a variety alleged foreign demons to justify a militarized, global interventionist policy. Vladimir Putin and the Great Russian Menace is the latest version. Not surprisingly, US officials cite it as the reason for providing extensive military and economic aid to Ukraine. The Biden administration contends that Ukraine is on the front lines of a global battle between autocracy and democracy. In a more substantive fashion, US leaders and their supporters portray Ukraine as a key barrier against Russian imperial expansion into the heart of Europe.

America’s foreign policy establishment has shamelessly exploited the “Russian threat” to justify stationing more US troops, planes, ships, and missiles in Europe – especially in NATO’s eastern members. They also generated a panic among the previously neutral countries Sweden and Finland to join the US-dominated alliance. The Ukraine conflict has served to perpetuate and consolidate Washington’s hegemonic status in Europe and to whip sometimes obstreperous NATO allies into relying more on US leadership for their defense.

Using the Russia threat as a pretext for a policy US leaders wanted to pursue in any case is not confined to the European theater. Nor is it the only case of threat inflation generally. During much of the Cold War, administrations repeatedly invoked the threat of international communism (both the Soviet and Chinese varieties) to explain Washington’s militarized meddling in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa. The so-called Truman Doctrine of aid to Greece and Turkey was an early manifestation. Dwight Eisenhower’s presentation of the Domino Theory, which argued that a communist victory in Indochina would lead to a sweeping totalitarian triumph from India to Japan, became a graphic expansion of that thesis. Not only did it become a pretext for Washington’s military intervention in Vietnam, it foster later initiatives in places as diverse as Nicaragua, Lebanon, and Afghanistan – with horribly destructive effects.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union briefly caused problems for the U.S, foreign policy establishment and led to a desperate search for a new, credible enemy. Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, complained that he was “running out of demons” and was down to Cuba’s Fidel Castro and North Korea’s Kim Il Sung. It became difficult to justify an expensive, global imperial policy to counter such minor players, and Washington’s military budget did decline slightly on an inflation-adjusted basis. Both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, though, moved to antagonize Russia by expanding NATO eastward and by humiliating Moscow’s long-standing ally, Serbia, during the Balkan struggles. Those measures built the foundation for a new cold war.

It was uncertain whether the slow-motion anti-Russia strategy would have worked, but the terrorist attacks on 9-11 spared Washington’s elite from confronting that possible dilemma. The US policy establishment now had a new, very scary adversary to justify bloated military spending as well as military interventions in various regions. And unlike the Cold War, which came to an end abruptly, there was little danger that a war against an amorphous enemy, “Islamic terrorism,” would suffer a similar fate.

Nevertheless, US leaders likely were relieved when NATO’s provocative attempts to make Ukraine an Alliance military asset finally provoked an unwise, aggressive response from Russia. Western publics, (especially the American people) were showing signs of war weariness as interventions in the so-called War on Terror, notably those in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan, became expensive, bloody, seemingly endless fiascos. Russia’s actions in Ukraine, especially the February 2022 invasion, gave Washington a more credible bogeyman – one reminiscent of the Soviet threat during the Cold War.

Countering the “Russia threat” not only has become the rationale for a hardline US policy in Europe, it also is an excuse for a more activist policy in such places as West Africa and Syria. Although US policymakers still drag out the alleged menace of Islamic extremism as a reason for worry in both areas, it clearly has become a secondary justification. Both Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland have stated that one of their main concerns is the possibility of Russia’s Wagner Group forces moving into Niger following the military coup in that country. Experts have noted that Syria is increasingly a battleground for US and Russian influence. Indeed, Washington’s official rationale for keeping US troops in Syria against the explicit wishes of the Syrian government to counter a steadily deteriorating Islamic State threat now borders on farcical.

The American people need to be far more alert and resistant to the tired ploy of using a foreign bogeyman to justify a militarized US global presence. Putin and the alleged existential Russian threat is just the latest version of that cynical propaganda technique.

Reprinted with permission from


  • Ted Galen Carpenter

    Ted Galen Carpenter is senior fellow for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. Carpenter served as Cato’s director of foreign policy studies from 1986 to 1995 and as vice president for defense and foreign policy studies from 1995 to 2011.

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