For whatever reason, peace is not busting out at all over. After months of coyness and denials from Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, Russia has deployed the first of what will reportedly be a full squadron of fighter jets to a base in Belarus, where they will remain deployed for defensive alerts against – well, NATO. Hard as that is for members of NATO to believe, given the parlous state of our unity, purpose, and military readiness.
The former Soviet Union used bases in what was then a “federated socialist republic” in Belarus during the Cold War. But the Russians will be using a different base this time. Their Su-27 Flanker jets will operate out of Baranovichi, where the Belarusian Air Force has had its main base for the last two decades.
Baranovichi has special historical significance, having been disputed for centuries between Russia and Poland. The Poles held it, off and on, up through the beginning of World War II; by the end of the war, after the death struggle between Soviet Russia and Germany, Baranovichi was in Russian hands, and the Poles who were still there in 1944 and 1945 were forcibly deported to the Far East and Central Asia. About half of Baranovichi’s population had been Jewish, in the century preceding World War II; during the period of German occupation, virtually all of the city’s 12,000 Jews were sent to the death camps. Some 250 are known to have survived.
As the Pax Americana fades, history is back with a vengeance. Everywhere Russia goes – or China, or any modern mover and shaker – there will be history trodden on, scattered like broken glass. Russia remembers, and means to make points with her geographic choices, her timing, and the choreographed nature of her activities. Poland has good reason to be concerned.
The context just keeps growing. Only today (Monday, 16 December), Russia has confirmed deployment of the short-range Iskander (SS-26 Stone) ballistic missile to Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave tucked between Poland and the Baltic republic of Lithuania. The Russians have been threatening to deploy the Iskander there for several years, in a move they characterize as a counter to U.S. and NATO missile defense plans in Europe.
The difference, of course, is that NATO’s missile defense deployments involve weapon systems which can only be used in a tactically defensive role. The Iskander is a weapon that is used to attack; it is not used to intercept incoming missiles.
Still MAD after all these years
That being said, the Russians have long espoused a strategic philosophy that rejects the U.S. view of defensive preparations as purely “defensive.” The Russian view is carefully crafted to reject the whole Reaganite perspective on strategic defense: that strategic defense can and should be a basis for eliminating “mutual assured destruction” as the maintainer of the peace. Russia continues to operate on the axiom that she can only be secure if she can hold foreign populations hostage with her nuclear arsenal. For Russia, having the ability to attack promptly is “defense.”
But that only works one way: for Russia. No one else is assumed to be preparing merely for defense if he makes any kind of preparations, whether to attack or to shield himself from attack. Regardless of what the U.S. and NATO do, the Russia of Vladimir Putin, reverting to her old patterns, assumes we are preparing to make threatening moves against Russia.
There was a brief moment, between 1987 and 2007 or so, when a different perspective struggled for a while to emerge among the Russian leadership. The American presidents after Reagan hewed, if to differing degrees, to the perspective of the Strategic Defense Initiative. George W. Bush went all-in with it, in 2001 explicitly disavowing MAD as the basis for U.S. security, and announcing that the U.S. did not feel bound by any expectations related to mutual nuclear hostage-holding with Russia. Bush’s policy was that the U.S. would rely on defense against nuclear missiles, not on a balance of hostage-taking capability with them. Russia agreed to disagree, perceiving a reliable continuity in the U.S. position, if not a change in the overall “correlation of geopolitical forces.”
But U.S. military operations in Southern Asia, dragging on for years after the original regime-change campaigns in 2001 and 2003, made Moscow nervous. Then Obama came along, and effectively repudiated the SDI premise, along with most of the other longstanding premises of American security policy. He has done this in practice, but without making policy announcements to clarify his intent. This has not made Moscow feel more secure, nor has it reassured the Russians about our intentions. It has actually had quite the opposite effect.
So, in the space of a week, Russia has dispatched fighters to Belarus and missiles to Kaliningrad. I perceive Russia to be trying to exert pressure on the West to abandon our missile defense plans, apparently while the opportunity looks especially promising; i.e., our leadership looks weak. Russia’s push won’t stop with that, but that’s the proximate goal of the current campaign.
Moscow has vigorously disputed U.S. and NATO missile defense plans for some time, as little mollified by Obama’s cancellation of the Bush plan in 2009 as by any other conciliatory measure. Since the non-deal Iran “deal” was non-concluded in November, Russia has been relentlessly flogging the theme that now the U.S. has no excuse for insisting on deploying missile defense assets to the European theater. (See here as well.)
There is no meaningful deal with Iran; there is only the possibility of continued “negotiations”; but Russia has seized the opportunity afforded by the mirage of a deal, and the West’s longing embrace of it, to press for the abandonment of our missile defense plans.
The Russians made another overt move in late November, right about the time of the non-deal Iran “deal.” Around 23 November, Cypriot and Greek media began reporting that the Russians were requesting a lease for the Andreas Papandreou military air base in Paphos, Cyprus, to be used for the deployment of Russian military aircraft. According to Hellenic media, the U.S. was pressing Nicosia to reject Moscow’s request. It’s probably only a matter of time before Russia gets the use she wants of a Cypriot air base – which, of course, would improve the tactical favorability of her posture vis-à-vis foreign ships patrolling off Syria, among other things. The request to Cyprus comes at a time when Russia is emphasizing her ongoing enlargement of the Mediterranean fleet.
As an aside: it speaks volumes that the U.S. is mentioned in the Greek reporting, but not members of the EU, such as Britain, which has a long relationship with Cyprus and has been deploying military aircraft there for years (much more routinely, in fact, than the U.S. does). It is equally interesting that Russia is making so many military moves less than eight weeks before the Sochi Olympics start, on 7 February 2014.
We might almost suspect here a lack of respect for America and the West: at the very least, an absence of concern about any political backlash from them over Russian military activities. (Perhaps The Russians figure nothing worse can happen, after the top officials of both France and Germany have announced they won’t be going to Sochi. The speculation, of course, is that the European leaders are protesting Russia’s policy on “homosexual propaganda.”)
It bears repeating that when Russia perceives the West to be weak and inconsistent, that makes her more likely, not less, to engage in destabilizing military activity.