There’s a lot of talk out there about Russia, the U.S., and NATO being back to a Cold War footing.
But the map tells a different story. It’s only a bit different, but that difference is significant.
In the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s maritime aggression built slowly, and was prosecuted in a deliberate, sometimes tentative manner – and always one that evinced unspoken respect for the capabilities and intentions of the other side.
Confronting Western ships when they were near Soviet waters, or in common operating areas (e.g., the most-traveled parts of the Mediterranean Sea), was one thing. Many sailors have stories to tell about that. And it’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about Soviet-era versus modern Russian manifestations in the open ocean, or near the waters of a Western nation.
When the USSR made that kind of “demonstration” in the maritime realm, it typically tried to do it either well outside the threat envelope of Western weapon systems, or from a position the West would find moderately provocative, but not so slap-your-face provocative that it had to be reacted to vigorously.
That was then. What Russia is showing today is an utter lack of respect for the West.
Two recent maritime instances of this have been reported publicly. I wrote about one in March 2016, when a Russian submarine was detected operating in the Bay of Biscay – an extraordinary place for a Russian submarine to be, and indicative of a Russian intention to seriously intimidate NATO Europe.
The basis of this intimidation is different now. That’s where the lack of respect comes in. During the Cold War, the Soviet Russians didn’t get closer than they had to, to (a) be effective with their older-generation weapons, and/or (b) make the point that they were there. The older weapon systems were of different, cruder types, and didn’t have the reach of modern weapons. Even where the former Soviet platforms operated fairly close to a target, it was because they had to.
And in most cases, they actually took care not to do it overtly.
The March detection in the Bay of Biscay was remarkable because it is unnecessary for a Russian sub to operate that close to Europe – all up in Europe’s face, basically – yet the Russian navy put the sub there anyway.
Now we have a fresh, even more remarkable instance. UK media reported on Monday that the Royal Navy, in the last few days, tracked a pair of Russian Akula class attack submarines going through the Irish Sea (see here as well). Reportedly, the subs were part of the Admiral Kuznetsov task group headed for the Med (but transiting separately).
The Akulas are nuclear-powered attack subs, or SSNs. A Russian Kilo class attack sub – a diesel-electric powered sub, or SS – was also tracked at about the same time from the Norwegian Sea into the English Channel. It is also thought to be heading for the Med. The submarines appear to have been following behind the surface units of the Russian task group.
Going through the Irish Sea was never a pattern of Russian submarines during the Cold War. There were a couple of basic reasons for this. One, a better-armed and more highly alerted UK would have considered that over-the-top provocative. And two, the Brits had a bigger fleet of their own SSNs, and a much more extensive antisubmarine warfare (ASW) force than they have today. Its capabilities were formidable in their own right. Soviet Russia didn’t make a point of messing with it, certainly not in the little UK alleyway formed by the Irish Sea.
If anything, the level of provocation is most similar to the very earliest days of the Cold War, from perhaps 1947 to the mid-1950s. Essentially, before it became the “Cold War” through custom and use.
But the events are occurring now in a different dimension. They involve the Russians coming out to the West’s back yard and messing provocatively with Western nations. Not just messing dangerously with central points of confrontation like Berlin, or proxy lines of confrontation elsewhere, as in Vietnam or Africa. Messing dangerously with the UK, and France.
(Notably, the manner in which Russia is messing with the U.S. in the Western hemisphere – via Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela – is in some ways more reminiscent of the more regularized period of the Cold War. But in other ways, it’s become more provocative along the same lack-of-respect lines. The extent of Russian reach seems to have more to do with this than any respect for the current U.S. posture.)
I say “the last couple of years,” because there may have been a Russian submarine in the Irish Sea in April 2015. The British Ministry of Defence never confirmed that one way or another, but it was considered probable after a fishing vessel’s net was caught by a sub, and the trawler was dragged at substantial speed for some way before releasing its net in order to disentangle. The ship nearly capsized.
A British sub – or any NATO sub, for that matter – would have been obliged to stop and check on the trawler. But the sub in this incident never did. Business Insider noted that a NATO ASW exercise was underway at the same time in the North Sea, and speculated that the Russian sub was there to observe it. In the northern Irish Sea, of course, a Russian sub would be unable to observe an exercise in the North Sea – but would be ideally positioned to look for British ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) operating out of their base at Faslane, on the west coast of Scotland.
(Interestingly, in this regard, a Russian special-purpose tug, Nikolay Chiker, spent a lot of time operating in the Irish Sea in 2011 and 2013. I wrote about that here. Nikolay Chiker has also spent quality time running around off Kings Bay, Georgia, where the U.S. Navy’s East coast SSBNs are homeported. This kind of suspect activity by a special-purpose vessel is a very characteristic Cold War pattern. It’s putting submarines in the Irish Sea that represents a break.)
The maps show the difference between Cold war-era submarine transits from the Northern Fleet to the Med, and the in-your-face path used by the Akulas in late October. The Kilo submarine’s transit through the English Channel was also unusual for a Northern Fleet sub, but former-Soviet submarines from the Baltic Fleet did regularly transit from the Kattegat-Skagerrak passage through the English Channel for Med deployments.
There are two sides to this very dangerous dynamic we’ve got going on here. Putin’s Russia is unquestionably bellicose and aggressive. But we won’t get that fixed by refusing to face the fact that the posture of the Western nations over the last seven years has been passive-aggressive and frivolous to a psychotic degree.
The West has been eagerly disarming itself for a quarter of a century, while at the same time hopping the globe probing at its problems just enough to stir things up, but not enough to reestablish order and thus make the intervention worthwhile for the locals.
Once the Obama administration took over in the U.S., projects like the European dialogue with the Ukraine and the Caucasus could hardly have been handled with less finesse. The path these outreaches have been on is extremely alarming to Russia, especially after the partitioning of Serbia. And that’s not all for bad reasons.
In the pre-2011 timeframe, it might well have been possible to acknowledge Russia’s legitimate security interests in her near abroad, and reset the whole project from its us-versus-them basis, to avert the very destabilizing course we’re all on now.
But an Obama-led West didn’t do things that way. Obama’s “reset” was about an ideological hallucination: U.S. self-abnegation somehow removing a force of occult evil from the world. This was always nothing but a psychotic fantasy view of human affairs. But it has had its destructive effect, and today’s world is a very different one for Russia.
Instead of “the Islamic problem” on Russia’s southern flank being Chechnya and Dagestan, it includes everything south, west, and east of the Caspian Sea. Instead of the “Atlantic West” being a passel of overbearing Teutonic-Celtic yobs with Ph.D.s, it’s an alarming scene of Islamic invasion. Instead of China seething, frustrated, inside the Second Island Chain, China is pushing outward on a 270-degree front of territorial transformation, turning features of landscape and seascape into “China” by putting dams and roads and railways and runways all over them.
Through all of this, the West is paralyzed, eating its own over questions like who must decorate what cake for whom, and what daily-changing pronouns people must use to avoid being fined their entire life’s savings.
This West, which can’t be bothered to provide for its own defense, is not the West the Soviet Union had to reluctantly respect during the Cold War. So, predictably, the respect isn’t there anymore. And that’s the most perilous situation there is.
Keep in mind, however, that the Cold War itself was not a static situation. Most of it was spent with the map of the globe turning redder by the decade. It was a “Cold War” because the NATO West and the Warsaw Pact East didn’t get into a hot war with each other. But that didn’t keep a whole lot of territory, and millions of the earth’s peoples, from changing hands, with the peoples condemned to chains and slavery.
So there can be no complacency about a new Cold War. It’s not a neat little solution to our problems. Right now, we could well be on course for a hot war of some kind and scope, which is what too often happens when one side has no respect for the other. But rebuilding respect will be only half the battle. A Cold War is not a good place to be.