Written by Ilya Kramnik; Appeared in Bulgarian at A-specto, translated by Valentina Tzoneva exclusively for SouthFront
In recent years, the tension between Russia and the United States (US) has been compared to a modern day Cold War. This comparison is too treacherous: although the level of opposition is far from the levels of the past, the relations between the two countries are much more unstable.
The Effect of the Scale
The comparison of the present day’s events with the events during Cold War times have been common for a long time, but their correctness is questionable, mostly due to the force of the disparate scale of the events.
Thus, when listening to the speeches of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) commanders regarding the activities of the Russian submarines now, compared to the years of the Cold War, one must keep in mind that in 1991, when the USSR was collapsing, the Soviet Navy had at its disposal over 250 submarines, and in the early 80s, there were much more. Today, the Russian Navy has about 60 submarines. Considering these numerical parameters, to speak of a fivefold increase of activities today compared to 25 years ago, is a bit difficult.
The same can be said about the regular flights of Russian interceptors and bombers over aircrafts and ships of NATO armed forces.
A reason for the lengthy discussions in the press arose when a squadron destroyer of NATO approached the Russian coastline and was met by two Russian front bombers. In Cold War conditions, this incident would have simply been standard background; at that time, the real shootings looked significantly different.
“The following three days were most impressive for the duration of the passing – wrote Captain Thomas Mercer. Russian airplanes, including TU-95, Il-35 and BE-12, as well as ships and submarines, constantly followed the two air carriers, interfering with their schedule and making the exhausted crew maintain day and night air cover. The air ‘phantoms’ taking off from Japanese airports helped us intercept part of the Soviet bombers. Some of the Soviet crew proved too brave to come close to our machines regardless of the activities of the interceptors.
On the morning of 2nd December, two TU-16 missile carriers approached the aircraft carriers at less than 150 miles, and soon afterwards, two TU-95 airplanes started circling the buffer zone of 180-220 miles north-west with the aim of collecting intelligence.
The crew of the machines was ready to intercept a big group of approaching planes from ‘north north-west’. Admiral Sylvester R. Foully, the Commander of the Pacific fleet, observed it all from the board of the air carrier, ‘Carl Vincent’.
The operators of the radar station fixed the approach of several groups of airplanes, whose number was making up a regiment. Three TU-22 M, two TU-95, nine TU-16 and six Il-38, came closer from different directions, breaking the barrier of the air patrol. ‘Tomcats’ and ‘Phantoms’ got hold of the Russian bombers at the moment of their approach, and the tension decreased slightly.
Without scruples, the next day the Russians appeared again – this time in groups of two TU-95, two TU-16, two Il-38 and two BE-12 – escorted by two interceptors MiG 23 and two SU-15. They started circling around the air carriers at low altitude, forcing us to rise the ‘Tomcats’, which escorted them for two hours.”
This is how episode of the approach of the force unit led by the air carriers ‘Carl Vincent’ and ‘Midway’ to the Soviet coast in the Japanese Sea in November-December 1984 is described in the book, Carrier Warfare.
“The common maneuvers” which, at the time were considered as “sharpening the relations”, took place in sea space covering a region of millions of square kilometres with the participation of tens of ships and submarines, hundreds of airplanes and helicopters and satellite groups.
On land, the confrontations are similar in size. We can look at the following example in order to understand the degree of change: the ground troops of Russia acting today in the huge space from Crimea to Kamchatka, and from the Calks peninsula to Syria and Tajikistan, in numbers and equipment, respond to, let’s say, the number of Soviet troops in Germany in the mid-80s.
The reduction of arms affected another side – the total number of tanks of the Bundeswehr now equals a German tank division from the time of the Cold War.
Yes, of course, the Leopard 2A7 of today has nothing in common with the Leopard 2A2 from 1984; and T-90A is not the T-72A, but in any case, the density of the spread of military units amongst the enemies and the intensity of their actions have decreased considerably.
The same applies for the nuclear missile confrontation, where the number of the strategic and tactical heads from both sides has been reduced from 65 000 in the 80s to less than 10 000 today.
Everything Is Ok?
No. The reduction in the ‘physical’ level of confrontation, the spacing and the reduction of the density of military units, the drastic reduction of armed forces are, regretfully, not a guarantee for security. To believe that “a hot conflict” between Russia and NATO is not going to take place is – alas – naïve; the probability of it happening is greater now than 30 years ago.
The nature of the problem lies in several processes developing in parallel. First, the process of ignoring the “red line”; second, the process of degrading the signal system; the third process, which in many ways is supported by the first two, is the lack of clear understanding of the goals and intentions of the confronting party for both sides. And quite often there is a lack of desire for such understanding.
To ascribe all these sad events to the “ruthless annexation of Crimea” as they do in the West, is incorrect at the very least – the described processes started long before Crimea, even before Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia.
The present-day relations between Russia and NATO are a result of a long road, which started in the 90s in the Balkans and Chechenia, continued with the extension of the alliance, went through numerous and fruitless consultations on issues of anti-missile defense, and finally and logically, finished with the events of 2014-2015.
After all, both sides started to ignore each other and the actions of Russia in the Caucases in 2008, in Crimea in 2014, as well as Russia’s exit from the Contract for Ordinary Military Forces of Europe (COMFE) in 2015, are from a Russian point of view, justified. NATO’s actions are justified from Washington and Brussels’ point of view.
How far can such development of the events go? It’s difficult to say. During the Cold War, situations of direct military confrontation from both sides emerged not only once, which in any case, were resolved with the help of a complex multi-level system of signals and discussions of mutual compromises and critical zones. Moreover, the necessity of compromising became an axiom coded in the relations between Moscow and the US.
Now, the public rhetoric of the West is to speak of Moscow’s interests and opinions, in principle, as those which do not matter, and the only possible step is the refusal to take a position, which (it is possible) could be favourably accepted in any case regarding Crimea.
Regarding the NATO expansion and the problems regarding the anti-missile defense, everything is simpler: the opinion of Moscow, at the starting point, is ignored; while the unavoidable consequences are interpreted as aggressive pressure from the side of the neighbors.
On top of this, a double concept of the Russian military and political machine exists in the American political consciousness: from one side – as a dangerous enemy which is trying to reach the levels of the Cold War; on the other side – an old and low-in-efficiency system which is unable to develop and lacks the ability to preserve its potential for a long time.
Such duality brings dual results – in politics, the image of the enemy gradually comes back as an enemy with whom one must not compromise but wait until it collapses on its own, stimulating the process when possible, including interference in the internal affairs of an independent state.
A considerable role is attributed to the reduction of fear from the possible use of nuclear weapons, for which there are numerous reasons: the improvement of the weapons, which are becoming more ‘cleaner’; the exit from the political stage of generations who remember the results of the nuclear experiments in the atmosphere, and not in last place, the results from studying the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons in Japanese cities in 1945 and the Chernobyl incident in 1986.
The problem becomes more complex due to the catastrophic degradation of the American research potential regarding Russia, which is expressed in the lack of an adequate reference group. Even the Americans acknowledge the decline in the level of American military expertise.
A considerable part of the political elite representing the US regarding Russian potential and political processes, are based on a rather reverse picture of the world, shaped for them by “politically convenient“ correspondents telling the listeners what they would like to hear.
In the past, our military potential and political structure were presented in a similar way to the Third Reich.