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Pavel Koshkin

Ph.D., Fellow of The Institute of U.S. and Canadian Studies at Russian Academy of Sciences, Former editor-in-chief of Russia Direct, an analytical media outlet, RIAC Expert

In mid-April the U.S.-led coalition conducted an airstrike on Damascus and Syria’s Homs province shortly after Washington accused Syrian President Bashar Assad of using chemical weapons against civilians. Fortunately, Russia and the U.S. avoided direct confrontation this time.

Earlier U.S. President Donald Trump recommended that Moscow prepare for another American bombing of Syria. These warnings came as a response to the statement made by the Russian Ambassador in Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin. “Russia is ready to shoot down all missiles aimed at Syria, including the American ones,” — said Zasypkin in an interview to Al-Manar.    

“Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!” Trump wrote in his Twitter. At the time when he came up with this tweet, the situation seemed to have almost got out of control, yet fortunately common sense prevailed. Nevertheless, the situation around Syria is still tense and unpredictable, especially amidst the growing militarism both in Russia and in the U.S.

In late March, the U.S. Army Cyber Institute at the West Point released a series of science fiction comic books for military personnel. They describe current threats for the American army and the U.S., in general. Among these threats are North Korea, nuclear terrorism and Russia. These graphic novelettes are said to be disseminated among soldiers and army officers for educational purposes. These materials aim at preparing the American army to strategic challenges to help the U.S. top brass to anticipate future risks, according to one of the authors of the project, Lt. Col. Natalie Vanatta. To quote her, these comic books will shed light on the differences between future and past wars.

One of the comic books (“Silent Ruin”) deals with an imagined conflict between Russia and NATO countries on the territory of Eastern Europe, where Moscow wins tactically thanks to a cyber attack. “Russian Cyber Command launches a second wave to disable NATO tanks” and “converge on the U.S. consulate,” reads the comic book. Such scenarios are also presented in other formats: in February 2016 the BBC2 channel released a faux-documentary “The World War III: Inside the War Room” simulating a nuclear war between Russia and the West.

Such plots are no news: they were popular during the Cold War. For example, in 1951 Collier’s Weekly released “the Preview of the War We Do Not Want”. It also simulated a nuclear war between Moscow and Washington and created a hostile image of the Soviet Union, with the issue having consisted of fictional stories and reportages. “Russia’s Defeat and Occupation 1952–1960,” reads the cover topic.

In mid-April the U.S.-led coalition conducted an airstrike on Damascus and Syria’s Homs province shortly after Washington accused Syrian President Bashar Assad of using chemical weapons against civilians. Fortunately, Russia and the U.S. avoided direct confrontation this time.

Earlier U.S. President Donald Trump recommended that Moscow prepare for another American bombing of Syria. These warnings came as a response to the statement made by the Russian Ambassador in Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin. “Russia is ready to shoot down all missiles aimed at Syria, including the American ones,” — said Zasypkin in an interview to Al-Manar.

“Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!” Trump wrote in his Twitter. At the time when he came up with this tweet, the situation seemed to have almost got out of control, yet fortunately common sense prevailed. Nevertheless, the situation around Syria is still tense and unpredictable, especially amidst the growing militarism both in Russia and in the U.S.

In late March, the U.S. Army Cyber Institute at the West Point released a series of science fiction comic books for military personnel. They describe current threats for the American army and the U.S., in general. Among these threats are North Korea, nuclear terrorism and Russia. These graphic novelettes are said to be disseminated among soldiers and army officers for educational purposes. These materials aim at preparing the American army to strategic challenges to help the U.S. top brass to anticipate future risks, according to one of the authors of the project, Lt. Col. Natalie Vanatta. To quote her, these comic books will shed light on the differences between future and past wars.

One of the comic books (“Silent Ruin”) deals with an imagined conflict between Russia and NATO countries on the territory of Eastern Europe, where Moscow wins tactically thanks to a cyber attack. “Russian Cyber Command launches a second wave to disable NATO tanks” and “converge on the U.S. consulate,” reads the comic book. Such scenarios are also presented in other formats: in February 2016 the BBC2 channel released a faux-documentary “The World War III: Inside the War Room” simulating a nuclear war between Russia and the West.

Such plots are no news: they were popular during the Cold War. For example, in 1951 Collier’s Weekly released “the Preview of the War We Do Not Want”. It also simulated a nuclear war between Moscow and Washington and created a hostile image of the Soviet Union, with the issue having consisted of fictional stories and reportages. “Russia’s Defeat and Occupation 1952–1960,” reads the cover topic.

Alarmist think-tank

Some experts from RAND Corporation warned NATO countries about Russia’s threat in early 2016. They argued that “Russia’s recent aggression against Ukraine” had undermined the regional stability, which should have puzzled the Baltic states first and foremost. According to RAND, “the longest it has taken Russian forces to reach the outskirts of Tallinn and Riga is 60 hours,” which “would leave NATO with a limited number of options, all bad.”

In December 2017, RAND Corporation was less alarmist about Russia, but made it clear that the Kremlin strengthens its army not only to defend the country from a potential attack, but also to conduct military campaigns or preserve its influence in the neighboring countries, and reinforce “a series of defensive bulwarks,” if necessary. Moreover, RAND’s experts paid attention to the fact that Russia’s conventional military arsenal is weaker than that of the Western countries, but Moscow can “use indirect action strategies and asymmetric responses across multiple domains” to reach its strategic goals. Russia might threaten to employ its nuclear weapons “in response to a conventional attack that would undermine the regime's control of the state or threaten Russia's nuclear deterrent,” highlights RAND.

Western military and politicians echo the experts. President Trump described Russia as a rival that challenges the American interests and values. Likewise, Pentagon and NATO top brass views Moscow as one of the main threats. In July 2017, former Director of U.S. National Intelligence James Clapper and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford called Russia one of the most challenging threats to America.

No wonder, the topic of a probable war between Russia and the U.S. is very relevant for the expert community and the academia. Today, amidst the Russia-West diplomatic crisis over the Skripal case and the U.S.-led investigation into the Kremlin’s alleged interference in the American election, Russian and American foreign policies are based on emotions, with none of two sides ruling out the use of military methods as a political tool if their national interests and existence are under threat.

A warning signal from Putin

“Nobody listened to us. Listen now,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin at the end of his presentation of new weapons during the March 1 Federal Assembly address. This speech became a warning signal to the West. But what puzzled the U.S. and NATO countries most is the statement of the Russian president about new hypersonic cruise missiles with almost unlimited flying range. Putin described this missile as “a small-scale heavy-duty nuclear energy unit,” which is capable to bypass the American missile system in Eastern Europe.

The tone of Putin’s address is decisive. His critics would say he tries to earn respect and equality in the West through heavy expenses on the country’s military industry, but instead his policy leads to the boomerang effect while provoking a new arms race. Putin’s supporters would question this statement and say that President Trump increases the Pentagon’s budget and modernizes America’s nuclear arsenal to counter “Russian aggression in the region”; the military expenses in the U.S. are expected to exceed $700 billion in 2019, which is 15 times bigger than the Russian defense budget for 2018.

However, mutual finger-pointing is not constructive in this situation. Far from resolving the problem, it aggravates it. Anyway, Russia is losing in the informational war: by flexing its muscles, it doesn’t earn respect, rather than fuels fears about its aggression in the West, as indicated by the West’s response to Putin’s Federal Assembly address.

In early March, U.S. Department of State Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that Russia’s new weapons target the U.S. and pose a serious threat to Washington. America will be able to give an adequate response to the challenge from Moscow, highlighted Mike Pompeo. The U.S. is able to destroy Russia with its nuclear submarines, said Gen. John Hyten, the head of U.S. Strategic Command.

The modernization of Russia’s nuclear arsenal will lead to significant expenses for the country, and “it would happen at great expense to the Russian people,” said Pentagon’s Head James Mattis. He clarified that Washington would keep containing Moscow regardless of “how much money they want to put into this arms race with themselves.” Mattis described Putin’s address as “disappointing but unsurprising.”

Military exercises

The current credibility crisis and the arms race between Russia and the West provoke them to conduct planned military drills more frequently. In October, NATO will conduct the large-scale maneuvers in Norway, which borders Russia from the northeast. The exercises will involve about 35, 000 soldiers from 30 countries (NATO and their partners). Seventy warships and about 130 planes and jets will be deployed in central and northern Norway to be ready to ward off all threats from any directions.

Every year, NATO countries participate in the Baltic Operations (Baltops), which are conducted in summer in Germany, Latvia, and Poland and across the Baltic coast. They bring together 14 countries from NATO out of 29, including the partners of the Alliance — Finland and Sweden. They involve about 50 warships and submarines, 55 planes and jets. In 2017, the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance planned to conduct over 40 drills in European countries and Turkey in Baltic and Mediterranean seas. At the same time, NATO officers make no bones about the fact that some of their exercised are based on the worst-case scenario of a nuclear attack.

Russia is alarmed by such NATO activity close to its borders, and the Kremlin reiterated its position. However, Russia is also conducting military drills not far from Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. According to the Western sources, Moscow conducts military exercises much more frequently than NATO. All this brings about the alarm in the West. One can remember the buzz around the Russian-Belarusian military exercises Zapad, which took place on the territory of Belorussia: the Baltic states, Ukraine and Poland expected some provocations from Russia.

Before the drills Germany’s Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen described the Zapad maneuvers as a clear “demonstration of capabilities and power” of Moscow. She claimed that over 100,000 troops would participate in the drills, while Russia’s Defense Ministry said that the exercise will bring together almost 13,000 soldiers and officers. However, the NATO leadership questioned these official figures.

In 2017, from 70 to 150 thousand troops participated in the Zapad maneuvers, according to the estimates of the Western intelligence. This significantly exceeds the notification and monitoring threshold established by the Vienna Document of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), said NATO’s spokeswoman Oana Lungescu.

The Vienna Document on confidence- and security-building measures requires the annual exchange of military information, regular and timely notifications on any military exercises conducted on the territory of the OSCE countries. It was signed in December 2011 to strengthen trust between Moscow and the West, during Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency and the U.S.-Russia reset.

NATO believes that Russia violates the strict provisions of the Vienna Document (Chapter VI “Observation of Certain Military Activities”), doesn’t notify the Western countries in advance about its large-scale drills, doesn’t invite competent military observers, it covers up real figures and understates the number of soldiers participating in the military exercises.

On the contrary, Russia claims that it provides all necessary information and invites representatives of the Western states to monitor its maneuvers. In late September 2017, NATO’s representatives attended the Zapad exercises, said Anatoly Sidorov, the chief of the Joint Staff of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Six threats and ‘domino effect’

The key problem in the Russia-West relations is a grave credibility crisis. The Skripal case that led to the accusation of the Kremlin of poisoning former Russian spy and his daughter, the diplomatic crisis that resulted from the expulsion of Russian officials from the U.S. and Europe, the Moscow-Washington differences over Syria, growing anti-Russian sentiments in the West and anti-Americanism in Russia — all these events are several parts of one problem.

Furthermore, the Russia–West trust crisis aggravates old threats and causes new ones. And this vicious circle could produce a “domino effect”: mutual distrust turns into overt hostility and leads to other problems that could become fatal.

First, IS terrorists might boost their activity amidst the Moscow–Washington confrontation.

Second, a new arms race may create the environment of greater distrust globally: other countries will be interested in developing their military and nuclear industries, because the world becomes more unstable and dangerous. One cannot rule out that the nuclear club will be expanded, with North Korea bolstering its nuclear program overtly or secretly and the Iranian nuclear deal being in limbo. The problem of keeping chemical and nuclear weapons out of hands of non-state groups (terrorists) might be back on the agenda in the near future.

Third, the appointment of “hawks” — former CIA Director Mike Pompeo and neoconservative John Bolton — on the positions of U.S. Secretary of State and Trump’s national security adviser might increase anti–Russian rhetoric and hostility in Washington. After all, one should not forget about the fact that Bolton wanted to bomb Iran. Moreover, he called for hitting North Korea to neutralize the nuclear arsenal of the country.

On the other hand, by showcasing Russia’s newest weapons during the Federal Assembly address Putin makes it clear that Russia is ready to respond to any challenges from the U.S., including the ones in the Middle East. Russia’s warnings about shooting down American missiles in Syria and Trump’s advice for Russia to be ready for the Syria bombing create a favorable environment for another military confrontation. And there is nothing good in this situation: any reckless step from both sides might lead to war.

Forth, the diplomatic crisis undermines the efforts of Russian and Western diplomats to conduct a constructive dialogue at the time when it is urgently needed.

Fifth, today’s politicians and army officers did not participate in two world wars and could not witness them personally. So, they cannot adequately assess all horrors and implications of these events. Hence their possibly impulsive and reckless behavior, which is not a good sign. It poses a serious threat to Russia and the West, according to Ivan Kurilla, a professor of the European University at St. Petersburg.

Finally, the number of common threats that require greater attention from Moscow and Washington is increasing: the global warming, the spread of infectious diseases, and bioterrorism present new risks, which are underestimated today. Russia and the West are more concerned with short-term problems, forgetting about long-term challenges amidst the mutual confrontation. After all, politicians are not used to thinking 50-100 years ahead, but it is the expansion of a planning horizon that might help to restore the lost trust between the countries.

Today, one should remember about the key principle of diplomacy no matter how idealistically it may sound: Russia and the West have to relearn to disagree and at the same time continue and deepen their collaboration on resolving the global challenges. To reach this goal, they need to foster professional exchange programs between academics, politicians, journalists and students. It is vital to maintain a dialogue among experts.

Fortunately, there are some examples both in Russia and the West: several times per year the NATO Information Office in Moscow organizes professional trips for Russian academics, researchers and journalists to the NATO headquarters in Brussels and Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Mons, Belgium. From the Russian side, the Center for the Support and Development of Public Initiatives Creative Diplomacy (PICREADI) promotes public diplomacy: for the second time it conducts the international forum Meeting Russia in Moscow, which brings together experts, researchers and journalists from Western countries. This creates the environment of trust.

However, politicians from both sides also need to overcome the lack of trust, they have to stop pursuing imagined enemies and threats and, instead, fight with the real ones. They need to understand that NATO is not a threat to Russia, Russia is a not a threat to NATO. Suspicion and mutual distrust pose the main danger to their national interests. After all, the key task for today is to prevent further escalation of the conflict and keep the situation under control.

(votes: 9, rating: 5)
 (9 votes)

Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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