Thursday, April 30, 2015

Not So Silver Linings Playbook

Vladimir Putin has an uncanny ability to paint himself into an untenable corner, and then to do the macho thing against those that have helped get him into that corner. Russia is hopelessly smaller than its Western counterparts when it comes to conventional weapons, but it enjoys testing its opponents’ willingness to respond with force. It is absolutely content flying its planes “too close” to allied targets (RAF jet intercepts Soviet “Bear” bomber flying close to UK airspace above), sending its nuclear submarines to the edge, probing and watching, testing a willingness to respond with force. This constant “testing” is right out of the Soviet-era playbook.
If push comes to shove, if Russia were suddenly confronted with overwhelming force, it seems to be telling the world that it is prepared to deploy tactical nuclear weapons against its intruder. And when it comes to nukes, the playing field is fairly level (Russia has actually modernized its nuclear warheads more rapidly than we have). Putin tells his people that taking back Crimea from Ukraine was nothing more than righting a wrong done a long time ago.
But Putin biggest fear is NATO. He likes to remind the West that having NATO at his doorstep, growing constantly by adding new member nations, is like having dozens of Cuban missile crises – a reference to the 1962 confrontation between Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and US President John Kennedy over Soviet missiles unloaded in Cuba, which after many threats, the Russians finally removed – at Moscow’s door. Just about every move from Putin in the Ukraine is a slap against the encroachment of NATO into former Soviet bloc East European and Baltic nations. It’s right out of the Cold War standard expected Soviet response pattern. Predictable if not mandatory from a Russian perspective.
With pressure from American hawks to “do something” against Russian incursions against Ukrainian territory, now focused on the pro-Russian “rebels” in the east, US President Barack Obama has taken what many in this country believe is “military lite” by stationing 590 US soldiers “there” to “train” Ukrainian troops. But to Russia and Mr. Macho-Putin, this “little thing” is a reminder of the slow encroachment of NATO in what was once the strongest sphere of Soviet influence. Indeed Putin is convinced that the overthrow of formerly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who had close ties to Russia, was a precursor to bringing Ukraine into NATO. While Ukraine hasn’t joined yet, that concept is anything but dead.
Reuters journalist, Josh Cohen, thinks that Putin will feel forced to escalate his efforts in Ukraine as a result of the stationing of US troops in that country. What does Cohen believe Putin considers to be viable options? “Due to its weakness vis-à-vis the United States in conventional weaponry, Russia’s nuclear doctrine has recently changed to consider the use of nuclear weapons as a way to ‘de-escalate’ a conflict. As if to emphasize its status as a nuclear power, in a March documentary that aired on Russian state-owned television, timed for the one-year anniversary of its annexation of Crimea, Putin startled viewers by stating that he had been prepared to put Russia’s nuclear forces on full alert at the beginning of Moscow’s operation in Crimea…
“[Aside from the near-miss military fly-bys, last year] Russian missile testing allegedly violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a 1987 pact that eliminated all of the United States’ and former Soviet Union’s nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. Russia recently moved 10 nuclear-capable Iskander missiles with a range of 400 kilometers into Kaliningrad, an exclave that borders Poland and Lithuania. It also terminated an agreement with Lithuania to provide information to Vilnius about Russian weaponry in Kaliningrad. None of this is in America’s interests.
It is also quite possible that Moscow will make additional efforts to undermine America’s NATO allies, particularly the three Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Indeed, Moscow just initiated new criminal charges against an Estonian intelligence officer in Russian captivity. The fact that this was announced on April 20 — the same day that American troops began training exercises with their Ukrainian counterparts — is probably not a coincidence.
“Russia also just took a small, but provocative step against NATO member Norway. Russian Deputy Prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is banned from entering Norway due to international sanctions against him over Ukraine, stopped on the Norwegian island of Svalbard on a trip to the North Pole — an action that infuriated Norway.
“Russia’s actions against both Estonia and Norway are right out of the Kremlin playbook. They are small, seemingly insignificant steps that are over and done before the West even realizes they’re happening — but which nevertheless send a threatening message to American allies.
“Finally, Russia can take any number of actions to cause further disruption in the Middle East, especially vis-à-vis Iran. Russia has just announced plans to move forward with the sale of its lethal S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Iran, a step that the Council on Foreign Relations says will ‘shift military balance across the Middle East.’ Not surprisingly, the impending sale is causing concern in Washington as well as among U.S. allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Obama administration objects to any action by Moscow that could destabilize its P5+1 [nuclear reduction] negotiations with Tehran.” Reuters, April 23rd. In short, we can expect bad to get much, much worse, and Putin to plant provocative poison against US interests wherever he can.
I’m Peter Dekom, and if we think that a nuclear Iran or a devil-without-limits ISIS are our main foreign issues, Russian might well endeavor to change that focus in ways that are terrifying if deployed.

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