Russia: A Powerful Adversary
In his senior capstone project, international studies major Nick LaFever ’18 examines Russia’s military might.
Russia’s re-emergence as a threat to the U.S. has been a growing concern since the 2016 election. But Nick LaFever ’18 has been on top of the story since 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia and seized control of the border region of South Ossetia. His senior capstone project is an ambitious—and alarming—look at how that five-day war inspired Russia to modernize its military and reestablish itself as a great power.
“I was in the seventh grade during that war and found it fascinating,” he says. “Russia should have been able to crush a small country like Georgia, and they did win the war, but it exposed the extreme weakness of their military. Most of their fighters were shot down, their vehicles were broken, their soldiers didn’t even have matching uniforms, and that’s not the worst of it. In a U.S. military campaign, the general on the ground is in charge of everything, including where to use the air force—‘I need a plane to bomb this’—but the Russian general on the ground in Georgia at one point had to ask Russian journalists if he could borrow a cell phone to call his soldiers and find out where they were. And their air force was being led by some guy back in Moscow telling the pilots where to bomb. It was an international embarrassment.”
Vladimir Putin had always wanted a stronger military, and he used that humiliation to press for modernization of the country’s armed forces. LaFever says Russia spent the next decade completely reorganizing its chain of command and developing new technology—including missiles and armored vehicles and submarines—that in some cases are superior to existing U.S. systems. But LaFever is especially impressed with their new capabilities in cyber warfare. “What they did in Ukraine (during the invasion that began in 2014) was unprecedented,” he says. “They jammed all the cell phones so soldiers couldn’t communicate with one another, they took down the power grid and left 250,000 people in the dark for a few days, and they flooded the country with fake news. This is very threatening to the U.S. For the past 17 years, we’ve been fighting terrorists. We’ve never had to think about an adversary that can shut down our communication systems and attack our grid.”
LaFever’s advisor is Andrew Oros, Ph.D., Associate Dean for International Education and Professor of Political Science and International Studies. “I am impressed with the way Nick synthesized a number of U.S. policy planning documents with more scholarly literature on military strategy,” Oros says. “What makes his thesis stand out is his clarity of expression and the smooth way he is able to discuss U.S. and Russian weapons systems without falling too far into technical jargon.”
LaFever hopes his findings will help convince people, “including some members of my family, that we have to stop thinking we can work with Russia. As I like to say to my Mom and Dad, they’re not going to work with us unless we bend their arm behind their back and kick them up against the wall.”
An international studies major, LaFever came to Washington College to play basketball and study business. Now he sees a clear path to a career in government service. He recently won a scholarship to a small and distinguished private graduate school, The Institute of World Politics, in Washington, D.C., which he says has a strong relationship with the U.S. Army and the intelligence community.
“As the world becomes increasingly interconnected and information warfare becomes more and more real, everyday people can and will make a difference,” he says. “It’s a pretty interesting time to be alive.”