The European Leadership Network (ELN), a pan-European think tank notable to me only for my never having heard of them before, has published a report (“Dangerous Brinkmanship” – ELN – 2014-11) notable in this blog for being a useful assemblage of Russian intimidations of the West, although it only notes Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine in passing, a war which continues to slog on despite a cease-fire. That cease-fire (and the combat deployment of Russian Special Forces in unmarked uniforms using unmarked materiel) was useful only in that it enabled Russia to provide cover for the Neville Chamberlains of world leadership who would much prefer the Russians please-please-please just stop acting like the expansionist thugs they really are.
The topics are related. As Russia continues to attack Ukraine and seize territory they are simultaneously flexing their military to intimidate the West into acquiescing to their aggression. The Washington Free Beacon has been covering these intimidations for years (and note how often they are cited as sources in the footnotes of the ELN report!), but if you need to play catch-up this report at least covers 2014 and as such it’s a good place to start. I’ll also add caveats to that: the characterizations in this report tend to underplay the disturbing reality. Just for example by way of illustration, they say the Ukraine-Russia truce is “shaky”. “Shaky” in this context is a euphemism, as it often is when used to describe any kind of agreement or treaty. The agreement still exists because neither side has formally declared it null but there’s plenty of just cause to do just that; armed conflict erupts nearly daily somewhere in the Ukraine between the opposing forcees, and Russia just sent 74 trucks carrying unmarked troops and towing GRAD rocket launchers & 155MM artillery, after having just sent another 32 tanks, 16 artillery pieces, and 30 trucks hauling ammunition and fighters a couple of days prior.
The ELN recommended actions are pitifully inadequate and give the impression that the problem is primarily one of communication – timidly acknowledging in passing that Russia should reassess the costs & risks, but more importantly the West should use diplomacy to get them to reconsider and stop (or, as they delicately put it, “move in this direction”). And, really, “All sides should exercise military and political restraint”, and “All sides must improve military-to-military communication and transparency”? As if to say, hey, all sides are to blame here, we need more restraint and open communication from everyone to resolve this. Perhaps my expectations of the ELN are too high – after all, they are a “European” think tank that considers Europe to include Russia, Turkey, Ukraine and all the countries of the Caucasus. I’m sure that bit of wishful thinking seemed like a good idea at the time but they should have sobered up by now.
– Russia does not want more military-to-military communication or openness. A “red telephone” hotline is useful for unintentional incidents, but when it comes to acts of aggression Russia wants the West to be unsure and afraid to obstruct or retaliate, and so to acquiesce.
– Russia will not exercise restraint because that would interfere with above-stated goal.
– Russia has already assessed the costs and risks and found themselves to be in a position favorable to aggression. The report recommends clearly communicating to Russia the risk of escalation, intentional or otherwise, but for that to work the risk has to be credible. Europe is dependent on Russian natural gas, economically distressed, militarily weak, and culturally meek. America is economically distressed (albeit to a lesser extent) and militarily strong but weakening. More to the point, the American Commander-in-Chief is a Leftist with a soft spot for anti-Western totalitarian regimes; only internal pressure will get the POTUS to defend our interests abroad.
America should roll up a newspaper and smack the bear on the nose. Escalation works when used against a militarily inferior and rational opponent. Troop buildups and wargames on their borders are all well and good, too, but here we start running into our own problems. European nations must want us there, doing that, and give us support and cooperation on the scale that’s necessary – but it’s a questionable proposition given that they do not appear or act scared of the Russian trajectory and committed to forming a united defense against it. Granted, American-led NATO is trying to do that now, but the deployment numbers are trivial – and obviously ineffective.
Russia needs to receive stronger messages; close-in overflights of our ships should be met with SAMs. That’s right – shoot them down. No potentially hostile aircraft should ever be allowed to get that close to our warships or military installations. Also, Sweden should have dropped ordinance on the “mystery” sub, whether or not they thought they had a kill-shot, but they chose not to do so. Overall, my concern is that we need to stop the Russians but do so in a way that doesn’t exacerbate the military decline of Western Europe by virtue of our acting as a stand-in for their hollowed-out military forces, as we did for decades during the Cold War and continue to do so to this day. In short, we might be able to save them from Russia but we can’t save them from themselves.
Russia’s assessment of the prospects of getting a buffer zone of thrall states is realistic. As I noted previously in this blog post, we should also be enthusiastically inviting former Soviet Bloc countries to free trade talks and security agreements; we need to strengthen our ties to European NATO members (excluding Turkey, which should be ejected altogether) even as we hold their feet to the fire until they rebuild their military capabilities as we rebuild our own. Until we get a POTUS with two on the vine this is unlikely.