Rostislav Ishchenko

Translated from the Russian by Robin

For the second year in a row, almost uninterrupted military exercises are taking place in Russia. The number of troops involved is comparable to or even greater than the number of participants in the largest exercise held by the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact military alliance – even though the Soviet armed forces totaled 3.5 million in 1991 and today the Russian Federation’s armed forces barely number 1.5 million.

Strategic bombers are constantly on patrol. These aircraft have not only reverted to old areas of combat duty, but are also developing new ones. The navy is being strengthened at a rapid pace. To ensure a global presence for military aircraft and warships, a network of bases is being prepared, including in Latin America. When the Russian leadership asserts that it is not in talks about bases, that is most likely true.

Thus Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay, which is used to refuel Russian bombers, cannot be called a Russian military base because it has no such status. But in effect it is. In fact, it is so effective that the United States demanded in a panic that Vietnam stop Russia’s bomber-refueling flights, only to meet with a refusal. Such a refusal detracts from the superpower’s prestige. The outcome was predictable, but the situation was so distasteful to the United States that it took the risk.

Actually the attempt to prevent Russia from using Cam Ranh to refuel its aircraft is not the United States’ only attempt to counteract Russia. The Black Sea is regularly visited by NATO ships, with the obligatory participation of U.S. warships. NATO’s naval exercises in the Black Sea have also become a regular practice. No sooner does one group of ships leave the region than another shows up to take its place. In the Baltic states, the presence of NATO ground troops has been increased.

Characteristically, it was U.S. troops and equipment that were sent there. Plans have been announced to strengthen the NATO forces in Poland by rearming the Polish army and by transferring additional troops there from other countries in the bloc (most likely they will also be Americans). There is also talk of a deployment of U.S. troops to Bulgaria and Romania.

At the same time, the two sides are conducting media campaigns to intimidate each other. In the United States, the topic du jour is the provision of lethal weapons to the Ukraine, which is supposed to dramatically enhance the combat capability of the helpless Ukrainian army (sort of like giving the Aegis Combat System to a Zulu).

Russia, for its part, is filling the media with information on electronic warfare devices that can be mounted under the fuselage of a plane or in the cockpit of a helicopter and used to disable any electronic system within a radius of hundreds of kilometers, destroy any quantity of airborne missiles, and maybe even make bullets fly backwards. Another favorite theme of the Russian media is the immense superiority of any given Russian arm over its foreign counterparts.

All this indicates that Washington and Moscow are seriously considering a situation where the armies of the two nuclear superpowers come into direct contact. On the one hand, there is a hasty buildup of arms and moving of troops to the front lines, where possible. On the other hand, each side is trying to psych the other out to undermine its will to resist before weapons are even used. To that end, they talk up the latest super-powerful weapons that can kill “seven at one blow.”1

It’s small wonder that Russia appears much more active in this regard. The Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), which took into account the capabilities of NATO and the Warsaw Pact (after which all members of the Warsaw Pact and three former Soviet republics became members of NATO), placed restrictions on the signatories’ number of key armaments. As a result, in terms of tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery pieces with a caliber of more than one hundred millimeters, and attack helicopters, Russia’s armed forces are significantly outnumbered by their probable enemy in the European theater of war, without taking into account the United States’ ability to quickly transfer additional troops and equipment to Europe.

Russia’s suspension of the CFE Treaty doesn’t change the situation. Thousands of pieces of military equipment cannot be delivered to the troops overnight, just as it is impossible to provide trained crews instantly. Therefore it is necessary to frighten the enemy with quality.

That all this is not a joke is evidenced by the fact that, since January 2015, the word war is increasingly being used by world leaders. Note that it isn’t just U.S. senators who were damaged in Vietnam, such as McCain, who are talking about it, but major European leaders.

Hollande spoke of the threat of war when he and Merkel rushed to Putin to beg for a truce in the Donbass. A Russian invasion is the subject of discussions, expectations, and the almost perverted lust of the Baltic political elites, who are all abuzz about reports that after the Ukraine they will be “Putin’s next victim.” Polish politicians talk about war as if it were a likely occurrence, with a former minister of foreign affairs advising his fellow citizens on live television that, if Russia decides to go to war, they should pack their bags and flee to Australia.

All this is extremely dangerous, not only because Ilf and Petrov were spot on when they wrote that if everyone expects a fire, then the Rookery2 is bound to burn. Constantly keeping an army in a high level of combat readiness comes at a steep material and emotional cost. Moreover, if soldiers of two superpowers get close enough to see one another (i.e., to shoot at one another), the risk of an incident will increase. Finally, at some point military preparations escape politicians’ control and begin to dictate the agenda.

No one wants war but everyone is getting ready for it. Just in case, additional forces are being deployed, an information war is being waged, attempts at financial and economic sabotage are being launched, and allies are being recruited. So far, it all amounts to a flexing of muscles designed to show that both sides are ready for anything. But as such a game advances, it leaves less room for maneuver. At some point, you have to take responsibility for your words, actions, hints, and promises to allies. Otherwise you will lose face and be defeated without going to war. As the confrontation escalates and the saber rattling grows louder, it becomes more difficult to retreat and to save face.

We live in a state of military alert. Sometimes such circumstances are inconsequential; a compromise is found or one side concedes in time. More often than not, it is impossible to back down, and there is no room for compromise. Today, the confrontation between Russia and the United States has gone too far for either side to give way without suffering catastrophic consequences. There are no available resources to ensure a compromise; thus it must be achieved through a third party, but there are no willing parties. We are at a decisive point in the confrontation: it is clear that only one side will survive, but it is not clear whether the United States will give up without a fight or risk starting a military conflict.

So far they have never left the battlefield without having tried all means. At some stage, it might occur to them that provoking a conventional (non-nuclear) conflict will frighten Russia, because it will show Moscow that the United States is not afraid of a direct military confrontation with it, and nuclear Armageddon will be avoided, because Russia will have to back down.

I think that in such a case the United States will soon be faced with a choice: to surrender Europe to Russia or start a nuclear war itself. NATO’s quasi armies, although they have a significant quantitative advantage, are no match for the armed forces of the Russian Federation, and the United States does not have enough troops in Europe to seriously affect the course of events.

In short, the most reliable way to avoid war is not to start thinking about it and preparing for it. We have already passed that stage. The only thing left is just not to start a war, although that is a very complex matter.

1 Refers to Seven at One Blow, the Brothers Grimm story of a tailor who kills seven flies with one swipe.

2 Refers to a communal apartment depicted in The Little Golden Calf.

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