Imagine… it’s 1914 all over again, the drums of war are beating
The Independent (London) | August 2, 2014
Newport had never seen anything like it. On 4 September 2014, the luxury spa and golf resort of Celtic Manor in South Wales hosted the longest, loudest sigh of relief since the end of the Cuban missile crisis. A planned Nato summit meeting became the venue for a collective outpouring of gratitude for last-gasp deliverance. The Third World War would not take place – or, at least, not yet. Bleary and haggard, diplomats, generals and backstage crisis managers high-fived, backslapped or simply sighed with bone-weary satisfaction. "Das war verdammt knapp!" cried the Germans around Chancellor Merkel. "Nous l’avons échappé belle!" the retinue of President Hollande agreed. "Close shave, guys," the Obama camp echoed. A few old hands from the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence remembered the first Duke of Wellington, and "the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life". In Wales, however, the Nato allies convened to celebrate, with near-hysterical fervour, a Waterloo that never happened.
Even in the midst of a nail-biting sequence of events, many people had noted that the August crisis of 2014 brewed just as all its major players unrolled their programmes to commemorate the outbreak of the First World War, exactly 100 years before. It had proved far easier to organise centenary shindigs than to learn any serious lessons from the prelude to that bloodbath. Sage after sage had explained that the July crisis of 1914 toppled into total war in spite of the lack of any appetite among the major actors for a prolonged conflict. For historian Christopher Clark, in his classic study The Sleepwalkers, the scheming powers of summer 1914 had "exploited the possibility of the general catastrophe as leverage in securing their own specific advantages". All had hoped to gain. All would lose – on a cataclysmic scale. In August 2014, everyone knew that story. Yet they failed to act on the hard-won historical memory – until the last minute.
After the downing of flight MH17 by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, the belated US and EU sanctions of late July had tried to slap a bill for proxy aggression on Vladimir Putin. But no one had dared to present it after the annexation of Crimea back in March. That inaction had emboldened his overt and covert backing for destabilisation in Ukraine. To the Kremlin, this lurch from acquiescence to punishment cast the West in an unstable, capricious light. Who knew what those dithering hypocrites might do next? Putin’s closest advisers did know that Nato was about to rattle its sabres just over their fence. The unsubtly titled "Exercise Sabre Junction" had been arranged for late August. Due in October, "Exercise Black Eagle" in Poland would have a British battle group on board. The Russians detected a not so subtle plan to goad the bear.
Besides, they could see the West’s internal divisions. Within the EU, Paris and Berlin wanted the City of London to foot the bill for anti-Russian sanctions and leave their sweetheart deals on ships and gas intact. Meanwhile, Washington was distracted by the Gaza conflagration and the bloody march of the Islamic State. Luckily for the West, the Russians had thrown in their lot with secular tyrants such as Syria’s Assad. But the fear that Moscow might make an overture to anti-Israeli forces, most likely in Iran, gave Putin a high-value chip.
Under blazing skies, Dutch and Australian crash investigators picked over the grim debris of MH17. Then, on 6 August, the stakes rose again. Ukrainian army assaults on the rebel??’held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk resulted in scores of civilian deaths when schools and hospitals were hit. Who had fired the deadly rockets? In the dust storm of claim and counterclaim, Russia moved. Within a few days, tanks and troops surged across the border in a "humanitarian" mission to support the "Donetsk People’s Republic". They rapidly pushed back Kiev’s overstretched units. A worldwide hearts-and-minds blitz portrayed the Donbas as a second Gaza, with the Kremlin its liberator. That link terrified Nato.
Although not a formal member of the alliance, Ukraine had since its 1997 partnership charter benefited from Nato guarantees. Could it now call on its "partners" for military support under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, with its principle of "attack one and you attack us all"? Put on the spot, Western powers procrastinated. Behind all the brinkmanship and bluster, confusion reigned. At least the deepening crisis had pushed Obama into brokering a robust ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. Day by day, Putin’s tanks continued to bite off bleeding chunks of eastern Ukraine. Then, on 14 August, came the Rezekne incident. Three ethnic Russian families were massacred in the provincial capital of Latgale in Latvia – another half-Russian region. Had Moscow special forces carried out the murders and blamed them on extreme Latvian nationalists?
Rival waves of propaganda swirled through cyberspace. The electronic fog of 21st-century "asymmetrical" warfare thickened. One fact lay beyond ambiguity: Latvian membership of Nato. If the Rezekne atrocity were exposed as a Russian provocation, then Latvia could plead Article 5. As it happens, a report of the House of Commons defence committee had, on 31 July 2014, pointed out the vulnerability of the Baltic states to the "information warfare" and "the inciting of disturbances that have caused such chaos in Ukraine".
It also sounded an alert about "the difficulty of invoking an Article 5 response following an asymmetric attack where it is difficult to prove a state actor is responsible".
Putin, the master of deniable, "ambiguous" combat, understood all that. Then, as he had before but with apocalyptic risks this time, he overplayed his hand. On 23 August 2014, exactly 75 years after the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, the Russian attacks on Latvia changed everything. As in Crimea, remotely orchestrated "uprisings" of Russian-speaking Latvians were suddenly guided by mysterious well-armed strangers. On 26 August, planes from the Russian base just across the border blitzed the Latvian air force headquarters at Lielvarde, knowing that its usual shield of Nato fighters had moved closer to Ukraine.
Putin cited as precedent the French, US and UK air attacks on Libyan forces around Benghazi in 2011 in order to forestall a massacre. In Latvia and Ukraine, Russia claimed that its operations served to defend civilian communities made up of its "own people". As in 1914, so in 2014. "Non-state actors", either genuine or fictitious, could disrupt the global balance of power. Now the White House, with Europe tagging behind, had no choice but to react. All UN-sponsored mediation collapsed. With Article 5 in force, and de facto extended to Ukraine, the Nato forces already scheduled to move into the region on exercises were heavily reinforced.
Nato issued its 28 August ultimatum: a demand for an immediate end to all Russian military activity in and over Latvia, and a withdrawal of forces from Ukraine by midnight on 1 September. Without compliance, the Western assets mustered close by in Poland could exercise the right to act under Article 5. Few were comforted by the thought that both sides envisaged "only" non-nuclear strikes.
To a backdrop of the slaughtered children of Gaza and Donetsk, Putin indicted Western hypocrisy across the global media. Behind the scenes, however, the Russian elite squabbled and split. Blanket sanctions had cut deep into the ability of Moscow’s crony cash to move around the world. The oligarchs had begun to smart and bleed. So had the state-controlled banks and energy giants.
Meanwhile, Nato commanders were privately aghast. The most limited raids in Latvia or Ukraine would call forth an overwhelming counterstrike. Even without the nuclear option, that would leave both Ukraine and the Baltic states back in Moscow’s hands for good. Only in July, those British parliamentarians had warned that Nato "is currently not well prepared for a Russian threat against a member state". Moscow knew the score and its hawks relished reversing at least some of the losses of 1989 and 1991. It also had much popular opinion around the global "South" firmly on its side. But the very integration into Western capital and markets that had enriched the Putin clique also proved the fatal chink in its armour. By 1 September, the Kremlin had decided to claim a moral victory and back down. Its price? An autonomous Donetsk Republic that would, in short order, race down the Crimean route into complete integration with the Russian motherland. The ethnic Russians in the Baltic, having served their patriotic purpose, turned out to be rather more expendable – although Moscow mandated severe curbs on future Nato deployment in those states.
So, on 1 September, the planes stayed grounded and the tanks rolled back. Moscow had lost – and it had won. This was a reprieve, but not a resolution. "Ambiguous" war might still at any point flare into a red-hot menace to world peace. The August crisis of 2014 had not, as with the July crisis of 1914, led straight through the gates of hell – in part because no one now knew for sure where those gates stood or what precisely lay behind them.
Welcome to the long war in the shadows, Nato delegates darkly joked at Celtic Manor. Some of the relieved officials spotted that the resort normally offered guests an hour-long session of Laser Combat – "an exhilarating, pain-free, family combat game using hi-tech guns which fire infra-red beams". Now, if only Moscow and Washington could settle for a best-of-five shoot-out with laser guns instead.
U.S.-Russia Nuclear Deal Stalls as Tensions Over Ukraine Rise
DAVID E. SANGER and WILLIAM J. BROAD
The New York Times | August 3, 2014
WASHINGTON — The growing confrontation between Washington and Moscow over Ukraine has derailed a recent accord that promised one of the most expansive collaborations ever between the countries’ nuclear scientists, including reciprocal visits to atomic sites to work on projects ranging from energy to planetary defense.
It was only 11 months ago that the American energy secretary — Ernest J. Moniz, a former M.I.T. professor who has championed scientific programs that would bury the Cold War competitions between the United States and Russia — went to Vienna to sign the agreement, an indication of how recently the Obama administration believed it had a chance of building on a quarter-century of gradual integration of Russia with the West.
Handshakes and congratulations exchanged with Mr. Moniz’s Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Kirienko, sealed an arrangement that would let Russian scientists into, among other places, the heart of the American nuclear complex at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was constructed 70 years ago, and a dozen sister laboratories devoted to the making of the American nuclear arsenal. In return, American scientists would be allowed deep into Russian nuclear facilities, including the birthplace of the Soviet bomb.
The Energy Department’s announcement of the deal also highlighted its potential for ”defense from asteroids,” shorthand for a proposal to recycle a city-busting warhead that could be aimed at an incoming earth-destroyer — a plot Hollywood had imagined 15 years before in two far-fetched thrillers, ”Armageddon” and ”Deep Impact,” in which Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck, among others, saved humanity.
Today, the real-life accord is on ice. This year, the Energy Department canceled nuclear meetings, symposia and lab visits with Russia.
Daniel B. Poneman, the deputy energy secretary, said that Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March had prompted the decision to freeze the accord.
”We’ve made it very clear that this is not a time for business as usual,” Mr. Poneman said Friday in his office. He added, however, that the Energy Department continued to work with Russia on the security of atomic materials.
American officials and experts say the decision will limit how much each side knows about the other’s capabilities and intentions after more than two decades in which American and Russian nuclear scientists worked alongside one another. Those programs let once-bitter rivals, locked in the ultimate arms race, take each other’s measure and deepen relationships, reducing the chances for deadly miscalculation and technological surprise.
Now, both sides are slipping back toward habits reminiscent of the Cold War. The joint atomic projects have declined substantially. Last week, Washington accused Moscow of violating a major arms treaty on missile technology. After the negotiation of the modest New Start treaty in 2010, progress toward another round of nuclear warhead reductions is dead in the water and unlikely to be revived during President Obama’s term in office.
Satellite photographs released publicly by American intelligence agencies purport to show the movement of heavy arms across the Ukrainian border from Russia — evidence reminiscent of the kind released by the United States during conflicts half a century ago over Cuba and Berlin.
Perhaps most startling is not the direction of these steps, but their speed: As recently as January, the two sides were meeting regularly on joint arms control and scientific programs. The cancellations show how rapidly Mr. Obama has moved from a strategy that assumed Russia’s continued interest in cooperation to one that assumes that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is out to take as much territory and control as he can, and that letting Russian scientists into America’s nuclear complex is unwise.
For Mr. Obama, the motivation for negotiating the accord clearly had much less to do with asteroid destruction than geopolitics.
The United States’ 20-year effort to secure Soviet nuclear materials was winding down. Siegfried S. Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos weapons lab who has worked closely with Russian scientists, said the agreement had promised a new phase of teamwork and technical collaboration.
”It was an attempt to get back to good scientific cooperation,” Mr. Hecker said. ”Unfortunately, such things were struggling before Ukraine and have gone nowhere since.”
That is not true of every effort at cooperation. Americans and Russians are still working alongside each other, though increasingly at cross-purposes, on the Iranian nuclear negotiations. The United States still needs its astronauts to ride to the International Space Station on Russian rockets, and it wants to keep buying Russian engines for its missiles.
Even so, at a moment when the White House is imposing sanctions and working to counter the flow of weapons into Ukraine, it might be difficult to justify an exchange of nuclear scientists. But some experts say it is when times are tense that such midlevel interchanges are the most critical.
”The idea of having thick relations with Russian nuclear scientists is a good idea,” said Graham Allison, a Harvard professor who negotiated some early deals on securing the Soviet arsenal during the Clinton administration, the peak of cooperation between American and Russian nuclear weapons scientists. ”People get to know each other, work on joint projects, and there is a basis for conversation and cooperation.”
That was part of the impetus, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, behind the West’s effort to fund new projects for Russian nuclear scientists. Keeping them busily employed, the theory went, made it less likely that they would sell their expertise to Iran, North Korea or a terrorist group with nuclear ambitions.
But the agreement last fall went far beyond that: It promised cooperation on complex, if peaceful, nuclear programs, including wide Russian access to the American nuclear complex.
While it would have allowed both sides to exclude ”sensitive” military sites, it listed 137 American installations at 15 locations from coast to coast, including the centers for nuclear weapons design at Los Alamos and in Albuquerque and Livermore, Calif.
The 25 installations at Los Alamos included firing sites, the Warhead Verification Test Lab, the Sigma Complex for materials development and the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test Facility, a giant X-ray machine that can peer into bomb processes.
The accord also listed five installations at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, including a giant particle accelerator that runs through miles of tunnels. At the Livermore lab, the Russians were to get access to a $5 billion laser the size of a football stadium designed to ignite miniature hydrogen bomb explosions.
The September accord was posted online late last year by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit news organization based in Washington. The disclosure received little public notice.
In October, a month after the accord was signed, Russian and American scientists from the nuclear laboratories held preliminary discussions on planetary defense, said an American official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the topic’s political implications.
In January, the State Department held a space forum in Washington with representatives of many countries, including Russia. It called for international cooperation on projects such as defending Earth from asteroids.
”We may have different flags patched to our spacesuits,” John P. Holdren, the president’s science adviser, said in an opening address. But as cooperative space projects have demonstrated, he added, ”we can transcend these differences.”
William J. Burns, the deputy secretary of state, told the group that the United States welcomed global support for missions that would ”help us learn how to better defend our planet from a catastrophic asteroid collision.”
While asteroid defense may seem like the stuff of science fiction, the risk burst into public consciousness early last year when a meteor exploded over Russia and injured more than 1,200 people, mostly as windows shattered into clouds of flying glass. ”It’s not a laughing matter,” said William E. Burrows, author of the new book ”The Asteroid Threat.” ”If it brings the international community together, that’s a good thing.”
But the cooperative mood vanished after the invasion of Crimea. Russia complained bitterly: In April, Rosatom, its state nuclear energy company and partner in the accord, put out a statement calling the suspension of the partnership ”a mistake that contradicts the constructive atmosphere that has built up.”
Politics, it added, ”should have no place in this field.”
SHOOTDOWN FURTHER REVEALS NATO WEAKNESS
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | August 4, 2014
The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has claimed yet another casualty: the NATO alliance.
Most assuredly the human costs – the loss of 298 lives in the shootdown of the Malaysia Airlines flight, on top of nearly 500 Ukrainians killed since April alone – are the real tragedies of Ukraine’s national turmoil now turned into geopolitical struggle. But tragedy comes with strategic costs, too: Ukraine’s loss of Crimea, a Russian economy battered increasingly by Western sanctions.
And among these now, is the credibility of the NATO alliance. Having just turned 65, NATO is conspicuously absent from this latest turn of events, despite the loss of hundreds of lives from member nations. This may be a display of subtle diplomacy – certainly a better alternative than war – but it undercuts the credibility of the world’s most successful political and military alliance, too.
Contrary to public opinion, unfortunately, military shootdowns of civilian aircraft are horrendously common. Since 1950 there have been some 20; on average that is one every three years or so. China, the old Soviet Union, the United States, France, Israel and Ukraine itself have been implicated in these shootdowns either immediately or years later, as have irregular forces from Africa to Georgia to Sri Lanka.
The blame is usually a messy mix of exercises gone awry, mistaken targeting in combat or quite purposeful mass murder. Often, militaries will deny responsibility despite overwhelming evidence. Usually, the nation that lost the airliner will back away from confrontation because incidents are just awful military mistakes. And no such incident in the last 60-plus years brought an entire alliance nose-to-nose with an adversary – except perhaps the destruction of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983. That is, until now.
The expansion of the NATO alliance nearly to all of Russia’s western borders has provided an important backdrop in the struggle over Ukraine, which made a bid for membership only to drop it a few years ago. The Putin government in Moscow continues to fan the flame of fear over NATO in its propaganda as it intervenes in Ukraine and effectively divides the country in two, with Russian Crimea in one hand and separatist pro-Russian eastern Ukraine in the other.
Now, the shootdown of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has killed not just 298 individuals – but over 200 citizens of NATO nations, including Belgium, Canada, Germany, Great Britain and the Netherlands. If the shootdown was a purposeful act – either by Ukrainian separatists or Russian forces – NATO could easily invoke its core founding principle: Article 5 of its charter, which provides for collective defense, meaning that an attack on any member is an attack on all.
In doing so, for example, the alliance could impose and enforce a no-fly zone over eastern Ukraine. Alliance aircraft could search out and destroy illegal surface-to-air missile sites not only in self-defense but in the name of preserving security in Europe – even if the shootdown was not purposeful.
This may sound radical but it’s not; there is plenty of precedent. NATO invoked Article 5 after 9-11 to join the American invasion of Afghanistan. And NATO has gone beyond collective defense to collective security in military operations in Bosnia, Kosovo and, most recently, Libya.
Yet this time the alliance is remaining curiously silent. It is the dog that doesn’t bark, leaving individual member nations to take their own individual actions. There is probably a very sound reason: NATO action on the Russian periphery, however they might be justified, would provoke a Russian military response. The unwillingness of the alliance to even risk such a response strongly suggests it would have difficulty in really fulfilling Article 5 and defending, say, Poland and the Baltics. It is already clear that the alliance has not transformed some new member militaries into effective, integrated fighting forces.
People may wonder why the United States hasn’t taken a stronger line against Russia over Ukraine. This is why. The Putin government has determined that what happens in Ukraine, a day’s drive from Moscow, is of vital, strategic importance. The United States and its allies have determined that it is not. President Barack Obama himself quashed the idea of an American military response immediately after the shootdown. It was a prudent decision, not unlike Ronald Reagan’s after the shoot-down of KAL 007.
But in this case there is collateral damage to the world’s most successful alliance. It has never been bigger nor have its missions ever been more ambitious. And yet it is paralyzed, incapable of playing any role in a crisis right on its European doorstep. Whether the wounding of NATO’s credibility is merely grave or mortal has yet to be seen. But it will not go unnoticed in Moscow, and elsewhere.
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