Escalations in a New Cold War. US-NATO Military Deployments on Russia’s Borders

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The Obama administration poked Russia in the eye again by activating a missile defense site in Romania while building up NATO forces on Russia’s borders, acts that could escalate toward nuclear war, notes Jonathan Marshall.

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Originally appeared at Consortiumnews

If the United States ever ends up stumbling into a major conventional or nuclear war with Russia, the culprit will likely be two military boondoggles that refused to die when their primary mission ended with the demise of the Soviet Union: NATO and the U.S. anti-ballistic missile (ABM) program.

The “military-industrial complex” that reaps hundreds of billions of dollars annually from support of those programs got a major boost this week when NATO established its first major missile defense site at an air base in Romania, with plans to build a second installation in Poland by 2018.

President Barack Obama meets with President Vladimir Putin of Russia on the sidelines of the G20 Summit at Regnum Carya Resort in Antalya, Turkey, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015. National Security Advisior Susan E. Rice listens at left. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Although NATO and Pentagon spokesmen claim the ABM network in Eastern Europe is aimed at Iran, Russia isn’t persuaded for a minute. “This is not a defense system,”said Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday.

“This is part of U.S. nuclear strategic potential brought [to] . . . Eastern Europe. . . Now, as these elements of ballistic missile defense are deployed, we are forced to think how to neutralize emerging threats to the Russian Federation.”

Photo caption: President Barack Obama meets with President Vladimir Putin of Russia on the sidelines of the G20 Summit at Regnum Carya Resort in Antalya, Turkey, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015. National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice listens at left. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Iran doesn’t yet have missiles capable of striking Europe, nor does it have any interest in targeting Europe. The missiles it does have are notoriously inaccurate. Their inability to hit a target reliably might not matter so much if tipped with nuclear warheads, but Iran is abiding by its stringently verified agreement to dismantle programs and capabilities that could allow it to develop nuclear weapons.

The ABM system currently deployed in Europe is admittedly far too small today to threaten Russia’s nuclear deterrent. In fact, ABM technology is still unreliable, despite America’s investment of more than $100 billion in R&D.

Nonetheless, it’s a threat Russia cannot ignore. No U.S. military strategist would sit still for long if Russia began ringing the United States with such systems. That’s why the United States and Russia limited them by treaty — until President George W. Bush terminated the pactin 2002.

President Reagan’s famous 1983 “Star Wars” ABM initiative was based on a theory developed by advisers Colin Gray and Keith Payne in a 1980 article titled “Victory is Possible”: that a combination of superior nuclear weapons, civil defense programs, and ballistic missile defenses could allow the United States to “prevail” in a prolonged nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

Such nuclear superiority, Gray argued, could back up “very large American expeditionary forces” fighting in a future conflict “around the periphery of Asia.” By limiting damage to the U.S. homeland, missile defenses would neutralize Russia’s nuclear deterrent and help the United States “succeed in the prosecution of local conflict . . . and — if need be — to expand a war.”

Gray published that latter observation in a 1984 volume edited by Ashton Carter, who as President Obama’s Secretary of Defense nowchampions the new missile shield in Europe. So it should come as little wonder that Moscow is going all out these days in a sometimes ugly campaign to remind the world of its nuclear potency, lest NATO take advantage of Russia’s perceived weakness.

Russian Tough Talk

Moscow spokesmen have warned that Romania could become a “smoking ruins” if it continues to host the new anti-missile site; threatened Denmark, Norway and Poland that they too could become targets of attack; and announced development of a new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles designed to penetrate the U.S. missile shield.

Secretary Carter responded this month that “Moscow’s nuclear saber-rattling raises troubling questions about . . .  whether they respect the profound caution that nuclear-age leaders showed with regard to brandishing nuclear weapons” — even as he announced new details of a $3.4 billion military buildup to support NATO’s combat capabilities.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.

Photo caption: U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.

U.S. military leaders say they are drawing up even bigger funding requests to send more troops and military hardware to Eastern Europe, and to pay for new “investments in space systems, cyber weapons, and ballistic missile defense designed to check a resurgent Russia.”

Speaking in February at security conference in Munich, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called for an end to such confrontation, noting that “almost every day [NATO leaders] call Russia the main threat for NATO, Europe, the U.S. and other countries. It makes me wonder if we are in 2016 or in 1962.”

But stepped-up conflict comes as a godsend to the Pentagon and its contractors, which only a few years ago faced White House plans for major cutbacks in funding and troop strength in Europe. It allows them to maintain — and increase — military spending levels that today are greater than they were during the height of the Cold War.

U.S. and other NATO leaders justify their buildup by pointing to Russia’s allegedly aggressive behavior — “annexing” Crimea and sending “volunteers” to Eastern Ukraine. They conveniently neglect the blatant coup d’état in Kiev that triggered the Ukraine crisis by driving an elected, Russian-friendly government from power in February 2014. They also neglect the long and provocative record of NATO expansiontoward Russia’s borders after the fall of the Soviet Union, contrary to the pledges of Western leaders in 1990.

That expansion was championed by the aptly named Committee to Expand NATO, a hot-bed of neoconservatives and Hillary Clinton advisers led by Bruce Jackson, then vice president for planning and strategy at Lockheed Martin, the country’s largest military contractor. In 2008, NATO vowed to bring Ukraine — the largest country on Russia’s western border — into the Western military alliance.

Cold War Warnings

George Kennan, the dean of U.S. diplomats during the Cold War, predicted in 1997 that NATO’s reckless expansion could only lead to “a new Cold War, probably ending in a hot one, and the end of the effort to achieve a workable democracy in Russia.”

Last year, former Secretary of Defense William Perry warned that we “are on the brink of a new nuclear arms race,” with all the vast expense — and dangers of a global holocaust — of its Cold War predecessor.

U.S. diplomat George F. Kennan who is credited with devising the strategy of deterrence against the Soviet Union after World War II.

Photo Caption: U.S. diplomat George F. Kennan who is credited with devising the strategy of deterrence against the Soviet Union after World War II.

And just this month, President Obama’s own former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warnedthat NATO’s plans to deploy four battalions to the Baltic States could result “very quickly in another Cold War buildup here, that really makes no sense for either side.”

If “we continue to build up the eastern flank of NATO, with more battalions, more exercises, and more ships and more platforms,” he told an audience at the Atlantic Council, “the Russians will respond. I’m not sure where that takes you.”

Nobody knows where it takes us, and that’s the problem. It could take us all too easily from small provocations to a series of escalations by each side to show they mean business. And given the trip-wire effect of nuclear weapons stored on NATO’s soil, the danger of escalation to nuclear war is entirely real.

As foreign policy expert Jeffrey Taylor commented recently, “The Obama administration is setting the stage for endless confrontation, and possibly even war, with Russia, and with no public debate.”

Returning to the days of the Cold War will buy less security and more danger. As President Obama contemplates what he will say about the lessons of nuclear war in Hiroshima, he should fundamentally reconsider his own policies that threaten many more Hiroshimas.

Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books on international affairs, including The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War and the International Drug Traffic (Stanford University Press, 2012). Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Risky Blowback from Russian Sanctions”; “Neocons Want Regime Change in Iran”; “Saudi Cash Wins France’s Favor”; “The Saudis’ Hurt Feelings”; “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Bluster”; “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; and “Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.” 

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  • Doom Sternz

    Thomas Hardy once said “You can do anything with bayonets except sit on them.”

  • Veritas Vincit

    There is growing recognition of the gradually increasing probability of a nuclear war event resulting from a significant escalation of unfolding developments. As for ABM architecture, Russian analysts are correct that it relates to overcoming retaliatory missile/nuclear deterrent capabilities particularly of the Russian Federation and the PRC. Such multi-layered, multi-phase, land/sea/space platform systems are associated with the U.S./NATO/allied pursuit of nuclear primacy (first strike with retaliatory missile interception capabilities):

    “the United States stands on the verge of attaining nuclear primacy. It will probably soon be possible for the United States to destroy the long-range nuclear arsenals of Russia or China with a first strike…. the era of U.S. nuclear primacy has begun” (The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy, Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, March/April 2006)

    “We are starting to build a deterrent construct that will be better than mutual assured destruction” (General James E. Cartwright: Missile Defense Goes Global)

    “It would be impossible for the system to stop thousands of incoming Soviet missiles at once, so missile defense made sense only as a way of mopping up after an initial US strike.” (Wired)

    “We are perfectly aware that missile defense systems are defensive only in name. In fact, this is a significant component of a strategic offensive potential,” [V. Putin]

    Disingenuous claims by U.S./NATO officials are however irrelevant. Russian analysts will continue to assess capabilities. Fortunately, Russia has and will almost certainly continue to maintain capabilities of overcoming such anti-missile architecture.

    “We make no secret that we have military-technical means to neutralize the possible negative impact of the U.S. global missile defense system on the Russian nuclear forces,” [Russian Chief of Staff Valery General Gerasimov]

    It is self evident that in the situation of a significant escalation resulting in a potential nuclear warfare event (which would likely be conducted in desperation rather than calculation and therefore may occur regardless of efforts to prevent this outcome), those who employ a first strike will be in a significantly better position than those adopting a retaliatory response.

    Recognising that the U.S./NATO bloc is already engaged in forms of warfare against the Russian Federation (economic warfare, proxy warfare, destabilisation/ partition operations, etc.) and is pursuing decapitating strike capabilities (involving cruise missiles, PGS, etc.), it is reasonable for the engagement policy of Russian strategic nuclear forces (in the event of an existentially threatening situation) to respond accordingly.

    P.S. Despite all efforts to prevent such an outcome, if it occurs, moral considerations regarding the employment of overwhelming strike capabilities at this stage will be largely irrelevant (such a scenario would translate to kill or be killed). Moral considerations will relate to ensuring the best survivable outcome for domestic populations. Importantly, if such an event were to eventually occur, it does not translate to human extinction. It would however eclipse all previous wars. The Russian Federation will no doubt endeavour to prevent this outcome however it is correct to prepare for this potential scenario.

    • Veritas Vincit

      p2. “The US military-intelligence complex is engaged in systematic preparations for World War III. As far as the Pentagon is concerned, a military conflict with China and/or Russia is inevitable, and this prospect has become the driving force of its tactical and strategic planning…. Each of the hearings presumed a major US conflict with another great power (sometimes unnamed, sometimes explicitly designated as China or Russia) within a relatively short time frame, years rather than decades.” (Washington prepares for World War III, WSWS, 5 November 2015)

      “NATO must prepare for a war with Russia” [U.S. General Breedlove in a joint article with NATO General Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen]

      “[A] report by the European Leadership Network… finds that the military exercises conducted by NATO and Russia this year have made the outbreak of war between the two sides more likely…. the report [Preparing for the Worst] warns that the rapid pace and increasing scale of military exercises along the borders between Russia and NATO member states have gone well beyond the point of signaling deterrence and become an independent factor in increasing the danger of a military conflagration. “Russia is preparing for a conflict with NATO, and NATO is preparing for a possible confrontation with Russia,” the report declares” (Danger mounts of US/NATO war with Russia, Patrick Martin, 13 August 2015)

      “Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a third World War is actually underway -“I call this struggle a third World War by other means.,” he said.” (Russian-Turkish clash building up over Syria, Debka, February 14, 2016)

      “What is happening in Ukraine and Syria is a project of the West, a new type of war: … wars today begin with psychological and information warfare operations. . . under the cover of information commotion, U.S. ships are entering the Black Sea….. They are sending marines, and they have also begun to deploy more tanks in Europe. . . We see that on the heels of the disinformation operation a land-sea, and possibly air operation is being prepared.” (Russian General [Leonid Ivashov]: ‘We Are At War’, February 22, 2014)

      What is occurring is more than a cold war but not yet a hot war. Unfortunately this situation is in time likely to change.

      • Veritas Vincit

        p3. In the ongoing pursuit of global primacy/full spectrum dominance, the U.S./NATO/allied bloc will logically escalate operations (proxy warfare, economic warfare, destabilisation/partition/regime change operations, the build-up of military/missile architecture around strategic opponents, etc.) with the intention of maintaining operations short of direct conflict between opposing military blocs. However desired outcomes are often very different from probable outcomes. There are necessary responses to certain actions. Miscalculations and brinkmanship have limitations. It is evident U.S/NATO policies are being developed with a high degree of wishful thinking (and hubris). Recognising that established behaviours are unlikely to change significantly, the eventual outcome is largely predictable.

        It is worth noting that in the event of direct conflict between military blocs, broader alliance members will be integrated into operations. For example, the Australian military is an extension of the U.S./NATO bloc and its policies are developed in coordination with this bloc (procurements/military assets/forces are interoperable/ integrated). Australia is also a key actor in allied anti-Russian Federation operations (information warfare; advocacy of intensifying economic warfare operations; involvement in allied regime change operations; ADF [Australian Defence Force] is enhancing military ties with the U.S./NATO coup installed Ukrainian regime; augmenting active/successive U.S./NATO offensive foreign military operations, etc.). Fortunately the policies of the Russian Federation (including that of Russian strategic forces) can if required be quietly adjusted.

        Despite (commendable but unfortunately likely futile) Russian efforts to preferentially resolve conflicts through political mechanisms, unfortunately if any party continues on the path of confrontation (with escalation being the logical progression), direct conflict will likely eventually occur. If this unwanted but possible situation occurs resulting in the threat of an imminent (overwhelming conventional and/or nuclear) first strike event, the Russian Federation would be correct to act decisively and respond accordingly.

        • Nexusfast123

          You can forget the ADF. It’s a one man a dog outfit.

    • Nexusfast123

      If the numbnuts in the West have convinced themselves they can win a nuclear war we all have a problem.