The United States has been pursuing an audacious project to fashion a global system according to its specifications and under its tutelage since the Cold War’s end.
For a quarter of a century, the paramount goal of all its foreign relations has been the fostering of a system whose architectural design features the following:
–a neo-liberal economic order wherein markets dictate economic outcomes and the influence of public authorities to regulate them is weakened;
–this entails a progressive financializing of the world economy which concentrates the levers of greatest power in a few Western institutions – private, national and supranational;
–if inequality of wealth and power is the outcome, so be it;
–security provided by an American-led concert that will have predominant influence in every region;
–a readiness to use coercion to remove any regime that directly challenges this envisaged order;
–the maintenance of a large, multi-functional American military force to ensure that the means to deal with any contingency as could arise;
–all cemented by the unquestioned conviction that this enterprise conforms to a teleology whose truth and direction were confirmed by the West’s total victory in the Cold War.
Therefore, it is inherently a virtuous project whose realization will benefit all mankind. Virtue is understood in both tangible and ethical terms.
The motto: There is a tide running in the affairs of man; so, now is the time for America to steer the current and fulfill its destiny.
The project has registered some remarkable successes (at least by its own definitions). The Washington sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and its counterpart`, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTPI), ensconce a privileged position for corporate interests that supersedes that of governments in binding international law.
The towering financial conglomerates have emerged from the great financial panic and Great Recession, which they caused, not only unscathed but bigger, stronger and with a stranglehold over macro-economic policy across most of the globe.
The United States, the progenitor of neo-liberalism and its operational guide, has seen its democracy converted into a plutocracy in all but name. The more things change, the more they must be made to seem the same.
These tenets of neo-liberalism have been codified into an orthodoxy whose dogma permeates the intellectual fiber of academia, the media and the corridors of state power. Challengers are ruthlessly put down – as witness the crucifying of Greece’s first Syriza government. Political leaders who deviate find themselves the object of international campaigns to oust them, e.g., Honduras, Venezuela, Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina, Iran and Russia.
As an indirect consequence of the project’s successes, political resistance now comes not from the Left but rather from a recrudescent nationalist Right as is occurring in Europe – the rebellion in both the East and the West against the European Union’s brave new world of technocracy of, by and for the corporate elites.
Trumpism represents the analogous phenomenon decked out in stars-and-stripes garb. This exacerbates the tensions generated internally by the guided globalization project. Within the decision centers of Washington power, that could either provide new impetus to the external dimension of establishing a global order under American aegis – or handicap it.
Whichever proves to be the case, the turn toward authoritarianism and xenophobia within the liberal democracies shows how ill-conceived and ineptly executed the design for a new world order is. For it has overreached at home and abroad.
At home, the flaw (fatal or not) is the absence of all restraint in grabbing for riches and powers without leaving a reasonable portion, along with credible illusions of democratic control, for the mass of citizenry. Abroad, hubris fed by a combination of faith in American exceptionalism, the intoxication of power, and studied ignorance has generated fantasies of molding alien societies in our image – while ignoring the strength of countervailing forces as embodied by China, Russia and the multiple expressions of fundamentalist Islam.
It is in the political/security sphere that the historic American project faltered badly. Individual developments signal at once basic design flaws and obtuse implementation The upwelling of serious counter currents carries the message that setbacks are neither temporary nor readily containable.
The Middle East, of course, is where the pressure cooker of our own creation has exploded leaving a mess that covers the entire region, with the further risk of spreading beyond it.
Every major initiative has failed – and failed ignominiously. Iraq has fragmented into factions none of whom are reliable friends of Washington. Once a forbidden zone for Islamist jihadis, our intervention has spawned the most dangerous movement yet – ISIL, while inspiring Al Qaeda and its other spin-offs.
Syria, where we have dedicated ourselves to unseating the still internationally recognized government, is embroiled in an endless civil war whose main protagonists on the anti-Assad side are ISIL and Al Qaeda/Al Nusra & Assoc. So, the Obama people have put themselves in the position of feeding arms and providing diplomatic cover to groups who were our No. 1 security threat just yesterday.
Accordingly, for all of our bluster, we refuse to confront Turkey which has provided invaluable aid, comfort and refuge for both groups. Nor do we call out the Saudis for their succoring with money and political backing.
Embracing the Saudis
Washington’s deference to the Saudi royals has reached the extremity of its participating in the Saudi organized and led destruction of Yemen despite the cardinal truths that the Houthis, their enemy, is not a foe of the United States, and that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has made extensive gains as a result of the war (and ISIL has succeeded in implanted itself there as well).
For these contributions to the War on Terror, Secretary of State John Kerry effusively thanks Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman – the author of these reckless Saudi policies – for the fulsome contribution the Kingdom is making to suppress Islamic extremism. Why? American diplomacy is locked into the idea that it must reassure Saudi Arabia of our loyalty in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal.
Hence, we embrace an obscurantist autocratic regime whose self-defined interests are antithetical to our stated objectives, and whose behavior highlights the hypocrisy of America’s trumpeted crusade to promote democracy and to protect human rights. It has the added effect of vitiating any chances to engage Iran pragmatically to deal with the civil wars in Iraq and Syria.
Fifteen years ago, the United States launched its Middle East wars to make us secure from terrorism and to politically transform the region. Instead, we face a greater menace, we have destroyed governments capable of maintaining a modicum of order, we have registered no success in nation-building or democracy building, and we have undercut our moral authority worldwide.
Our leaders talk of “pivots” away from the turbulent Middle East, President Barack Obama voices an ambition to demilitarize foreign policy, yet the reality is that today there are American troops fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and now Libya with no prospect of those conflicts concluding.
The most stunning, and noteworthy, reaction at home to this unprecedented record of unrelieved failure is the lack of reaction. All the elements in America’s fantastic views of another, post-Cold War American Century not only survive, they exercise near total influence over our foreign policy elite – in government and outside it. The learning curve is flat.
The number of places where the U.S. is militarily engaged grows rather than diminishes. The definition of “terrorism,” of security, of American national interest broadens rather than narrows. The defense budget points upwards rather than downwards. The contradictions multiply. How to explain this perverse pattern?
Avoidance behavior is a natural if not universal response to stress and cognitive dissonance. It passes into the range of the pathological when it becomes persistent and diverges more and more from experienced reality. At that point, it enters the realm of fantasy – often, with fantasies succeeding each other in serial fashion.
To adapt what Clarence Ayres has written: “In important ways, (American foreign policy) is being run by a web of Belief that has been separated from Reason and Evidence. Its ways resemble … the network of mythological convictions” that characterize some primitive tribes. “The contradiction between experience and one mystical notion is explained by reference to other mystical notions.”
Hence, the Belief that human societies carry the innate political DNA for democracy (to be spontaneously recognized by Iraqis once liberated by the Americans) is supplanted by the belief in COIN (counter-insurgency warfare) which, in turn, is supplanted by faith in the power Special Operations forces … ad infinitum.
This behavior pattern matches that associated with classic avoidance devices. One feature is compulsive reiteration. In terms of actions, that means the repeated attempt to resolve complex political problems through the application of coercive force. The national instinct when confronted with a challenge is to hit out – from Congolese warlords and Nigerian thugs to Islamist jihadis and anyone whom our so-called friends dislike, e.g., the Houthis.
This is the mind-set of the muscle-bound bully whose mental development hasn’t caught up with his physical development. In Afghanistan, we continue fighting and spurring the hapless Kabul government to keep it up when there isn’t a snowball’s chances in hell of defeating the Taliban (an outfit that never has killed an American outside of Afghanistan).
In Iraq-Syria, we struggle mightily to check the ISIL irregulars while blithely allowing them to carry on a lucrative oil commerce without interference from the U.S. air force. There, too, we make believe that the Russian presence doesn’t exist even though it has done more to shift the balance away from the jihadist groups than we have. Why? The powers-that-be have decided that Putin’s Russia actually is a bigger threat to America than is ISIL and Al Qaeda.
Black Hats/White Hats
Reiteration also takes the form of populating the strategic map with good guys and bad guys whose identification never changes whatever the evidence says. Hence, the white hats include the Saudi royals along with their school of Gulf Cooperation Council minnows, Erdogan’s Turkey, and of course Israel.
The black hats include: Iran, the Baathist regime in Syria, Hezbullah, Hamas, some Shi’ite factions in Iraq (Moqtada al-Sadr), and whoever opposes our sponsored, obedient would-be leaders in Libya, Yemen, Somalia, or wherever (think Latin America). Washington’s costume department does not stock gray hats.
The Global War on Terror notwithstanding, this casting makes us friends of ISIL’s and Al Qaeda’s friends and enemies of their enemies. No intellectual effort is evident to make the reconciliation.
In extreme circumstances, one resorts to outfitting with white hats whatever bunch of guys you can round up through Central Casting. That is exactly what we currently are doing in cobbling together an odd lot of stray Libyans into an ersatz “government” which Washington and its more obedient allies literally escorted into a bunker outside of Tripoli last month where they are offering themselves as national saviors.
This so-called Government of National Accord (GNA), which no significant body of Libyans had asked for, is meant to supersede the democratically elected government whose parliament is seated in Benghazi and engaged in a multi-party civil war with an array of sectarian and tribal formations.
Our seven-man GNA controls no territory but has entered into tacit alliance with a variety of Islamist militias attracted by the money and arms which the United States and partners have transferred to them from official Libyan accounts abroad. Shades of Syria circa 2011 -2013.
Prolonged residence in one or another fantasy bubble is made all the more comfortable by eluding contact with any respected party who might offer a different perspective that more closely conforms to reality. An oddity of our times is that the only criticism within range of power centers comes from those whose answer to all these dilemmas is to “hit ‘em harder.”
That is to say, the John McCains and fellow travelers among Republican hawks reinforced by the aggressive neocon contingent ensconced in the think tanks and media. The unfortunate consequence is that the President, and his less than sterling foreign policy team, now add the belief in their own moderation and prudence to their complacent plodding along the same rutted paths to nowhere.
We got a candid, uncensored look at one member of Obama’s inner circle when Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Adviser, was featured in that embarrassing Sunday New York Times Magazine story a few weeks ago.
Susan Rice, National Security Advisor and Presidential confidant since 2007, put herself on display via an interview with Fareed Zakaria (May 15) where she declared that “almost the whole Russia Air Force is deployed in Syria.” The truth is that the 70-odd Russian aircraft in Syria represent roughly 5 to 6 percent of their combat aircraft and about 2 to 2.5 percent of all aircraft in the Russian Air Force. It is one thing to off by a factor of 20 when spouting forth at a think-tank seminar where other participants’ minds are on their own next intervention or imagining whom they plan to latch onto during the coffee break. It is quite another to be so casually ignorant when you are in a position to shape actions that could affect the lives of millions and major interests of the United States.
This all too typical failure to recognize the difference helps to explain why the Obama administration’s foreign policy-making is so undisciplined and its diplomacy is so disjointed.
There is yet another pathological element in this mix of illusion and faith. Manifest failure poses a threat to the powerful image of prowess and superiority imbued in our national leaders, and in the country’s collective personality.
Heavy doses of reality by now should have brought to light our ultimate “ordinariness” – however impressive the national record of accomplishment has been. That, though, is proving very hard for Americans to swallow.
Instead, we discern a pattern of denying manifest outcomes while relentlessly searching for fresh opportunities to establish our unique greatness. It took decades and much self-induced amnesia to come to terms with the loss of Vietnam. We seemingly shed that shroud in the first Gulf War. But then came 9/11 and the vengeful reaction of a scared country which led us into a new string of failures.
One psychological method for handling that dissonance is to claim that the game isn’t really over. The fat lady hasn’t sung (or if she did, we tuned her out). In Iraq, our most ignominious failure, the concrete manifestation of that failure in ISIL, gives us a second chance to demonstrate that Americans are winners after all.
In this warped psychology, if we are able to push them back and/or cripple them, that achievement somehow will confirm that we are winners. It just took a little while longer than expected. Political chaos in Baghdad and across the country? No one is perfect – only Allah. Besides, there are always the Iranians to blame.
What about Afghanistan? There, too, the final whistle hasn’t blown. There is no time limit – 48 minutes, 60 minutes, or nine innings – or 15 years. Operation Eternal Effort.
A quite different psychological coping mechanism, one that carries the seed of far greater risk, is to demonstrate macho self-confidence by searching out additional challengers to confront. That mechanism not only offers several new chances to prove to oneself and to the world how great we are; it also demonstrates our brave sense of duty.
So, we expand Special Operations and send teams of various sizes into scores of countries to take on the bad guys. More demonstrably, we make it known that our nuclear deal with Tehran notwithstanding, we’re ever ready to go one-on-one with the mullahs who just aren’t our sort of people.
Fighting the Big Boys
The ultimate expression of this psycho-mentality is to pick a fight with the really big guys: Russia and China. We know them from the last movie – and everybody remembers how we whipped the Russians’ ass – to use the hard-nosed parlance favored around Washington.
The extreme hostility toward a more assertive Russia and Vladimir Putin personally goes well beyond any realpolitik calculus. It has an emotional side clearly evident in the cartoonish exaggeration that marks almost all coverage of the country and the man – and the remarks of President Obama himself. Indeed, it is all the starker for the contrast to Putin’s cool rationality.
Obama, personally, cannot abide Putin. To continue the line of psychological analysis, we might find some clues why in the President’s behavioral record. He typically is uneasy around, and therefore tries to avoid, strong, independent-minded persons who are at least as intelligent as he is. None of his inner circle are exceptions to this generalization.
The real tough guys on Wall Street and in the Pentagon/Intelligence Establishment he defers to – anticipating what they want and holding them at a respectful distance. Putin fits neither category. In addition, he is as cerebral and exhibits as much self-control as does Obama – thereby challenging the latter’s sense of uniqueness and superiority. Putin also is infinitely more skillful politically.
Of course, there is ample evidence that significant elements of the American government and foreign policy Establishment have long viewed Russia as a potential obstacle to the American grand design. Therefore, they have reached a calculated conclusion that it must be denatured as a political force or eliminated.
The resources that we expended in bending Russian institutions and policies to our will during the Yeltsin years testify to that. Putin, though, has shown himself a far sterner, autonomous character with his own pronounced view as to how the world should be structured and Russia’s place within it.
His objective from the first was to restore Russian dignity, Russian independence and a measure of Russian control over its strategic space. That inevitably brought him into conflict with the American plan to keep Russia dependent, weak and marginalized.
The central element of that strategy was the policy of bringing all of the former Soviet republics into Western institutions – Ukraine above all, as Zbignew Brzezinski has explained with brutal candor. The Washington encouraged coup in Kiev two years ago was the culmination of a plan that temporarily had been thwarted by Moscow’s maneuvers that aimed at keeping Ukraine out of the E.U. (aka NATO) orbit.
Putin’s unexpectedly decisive action on Crimea, the Donbass and then Syria has changed the strategic map and upset American assumptions about the insignificance of its old foe. That in itself helps to explain the intensity and emotionalism of Washington reaction.
In the Middle East, in particular, the Russians have been useful partners: in winning Iran’s acquiescence to concessions that cleared the way for the nuclear accord; in resolving of the sarin gas crisis when Putin opened an avenue for Obama to escape the corner he had painted himself into by making hasty accusations that were contradicted by the intelligence community; and finally by forcing us to face up to the unwelcome truth that the only alternative to Assad is a radical jihadist dominated regime that would empower the very people we have been trying to exterminate since 2001.
Rather than acting on that pragmatic logic, the Obama administration – egged on by the country’s entire foreign policy Establishment – has decided to treat Russia as America’s global enemy No. 1, officially.
In Syria, blocking the Russians at every turn and doubling-down on the ouster of Assad now shapes everything else we do in that country. In Europe, the United States has pushed NATO into a full-blown confrontation: stationing several brigades in the Baltics and Poland; staging a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Romania for the missile defense system that also can serve as a platform for nuclear tipped cruise missiles; conducting exercises in Georgia; and proposing to make Georgia and Ukraine de facto NATO members whose militaries would be integrated into the NATO command structure (the 28 + 2 formula).
These moves have been accompanied by a barrage of bellicose rhetoric from top American commanders and the Secretary of Defense to the President himself. These are all steps that contravene long established treaties, some dating back to the Soviet era, and fly in the face of solemn promises made by President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev between 1989 and 1991.
This provocative strategy is justified as a response to Russia’s alleged aggressive and growing moves darkly portrayed as a precursor to a possible assault against former lands of the defunct Soviet empire. The empirical evidence for this dire assertion is lacking – nor is there interest in making the case with a modicum of empirical logic. For the impulses spring from within the American political psyche – not from our external environment.
There are those who calculatingly have actively sought to isolate Russia, topple Putin and remove both as thorns in the side of American grand strategy. And there are those, including President Obama, whose behavior reveals a deep compulsion to portray a complex situation in terms of a simple, exaggerated threat; to show their mettle; to strut; and to compensate for the frustrations and failures that have bedeviled the United States’ foreign policies.
This is foreign policy by emotion, not by logical thought. It is rooted in the psychological reaction to the hopelessness of the post-Cold War grand design. It stems as well from the unpalatable experience of being unable to live up to the exalted self-image that is at the core of Americans’ national personality.
And it is intensified by the need, compensating for heightened insecurities, to prove that America is Number One, always will be Number One, and deserves to be Number One. That maelstrom of emotion was almost palpable in Obama’s last State of the Union Address where he declaimed:
“Let me tell you something. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close. Period. It’s not even close. It’s not even close!”
So? Is this meant as a revelation? What is the message? To whom? Is it any different than crowds of troubled and frustrated Arab demonstrators shouting “ALLAH AKBAR!” Words that are neither a prelude to action nor inspire others to act – nor even impart information – are just puffs of wind. They are affirmations of self rather than communication. As such, they are yet another avoidance device whereby bluster substitutes for a deliberate appraisal of how to adjust to the gap between aspiration and declining prowess.
Making Narratives Fit
A complementary device for perpetuating a crucial national myth of exceptionalism and superiority is to stress systematically those features of other nations, or situations, that conform to the requirements of the American national narrative while neglecting or downplaying opposite features.
Currently, we are witnessing the unfolding of an almost clinical example in the treatment of China. The emergence of the PRC as a great power with the potential to surpass or eclipse the United States poses a direct threat to the foundation myth of American superiority and exceptionalism. The very existence of that threat is emotionally difficult to come to terms with.
Psychologically, the most simple way to cope is to define it out of existence – to deny it. One would think that doing so is anything but easy. After all, China’s economy has been growing at double digit rates for almost 30 years. The concrete evidence of its stunning achievements is visible to the naked eye.
Necessity, though, is the mother of invention. Our compelling emotional need at the moment is to have China’s strength and latent challenge subjectively diminished. So what we see is a rather extraordinary campaign to highlight everything that is wrong with China, to exaggerate those weaknesses, to project them into the future, and – thereby – to reassure ourselves.
Coverage of Chinese affairs by the United States’ newspaper of record, The New York Times, has taken a leading role in this project. For the past year or two, we have been treated to an endless series of stories focusing on what’s wrong with China. Seemingly nothing is too inconsequential to escape front page, lengthy coverage.
The current signs of economic weakness and financial fragility have generated a spate of dire commentary that China’s great era of growth may be grinding to a halt – not to be restarted until its leaders have seen the error of their ways and taken the path marked out by America and other Western capitalist countries.
This latest upwelling of China-bashing could well serve as a clinical exhibit of avoidance behavior. For it goes beyond sublimation and simple denial. It also reveals the extreme vulnerability of the American psyche to the perceived China “threat,” and the compelling psychological need to neutralize it – if only by verbal denigration.
At present, the United States has no strategic dialogue with either China or Russia. That is a failure of historic proportions. There is no vast ideological chasm to bridge – as in the Cold War days. There are no bits of contested geography that directly involve the parties. Putin and Xi are eminently rational leaders – whether we agree with them or not.
The Russian leader, in particular, has laid out his conception of the world system; of the Russo-American relations; of why Russia is pursuing certain polices – all with a concision and candor that probably is unprecedented. He also stresses the need for cooperation with Washington and offers guidelines for sustained exchanges. We have done nothing analogous. Indeed, it appears that no policy-maker of consequence even bothers to read or listen to Putin.
To take him seriously, to engage the Chinese on the strategic plane, requires statesmanship of a high order. An America – and its leaders – who are tied into psychological knots by their inability to view reality with a measure of detachment and self-awareness never will muster that statesmanship.
Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. email@example.com
Iran says Saudi Arabia is the “biggest sponsor of terrorism” in Iraq and elsewhere, dismissing Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir’s allegations that Iran was meddling in regional affairs.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaberi Ansari was reacting on Friday to Jubeir’s “foolish” remarks about Iran’s role in Iraq and the presence of its military advisers, including Qassem Soleimani, the Fars news agency said.
“The presence of Iran’s military advisers in Iraq under the command of General Qassem Soleimani is at the request of the country’s legitimate government in order to fight terrorists and extremists who have beset Iraq and the region with instability and insecurity,” he said.
“To know its interests and its friends and enemies, the Iraqi nation doesn’t need the remarks by the foreign minister of a country which has been the biggest agent and sponsor of instability and terrorism in Iraq, the region and the world,” he added.
“Instead of trying to deceive the public opinion and distort facts, Adel al-Jubeir must not forget that his country is currently perceived at the international level as the first and most dangerous sponsor of terrorism and the spread of insecurity in the world,” Jaberi Ansari added.
Ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been tense since Tehran strongly condemned of the kingdom’s execution of prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in January.
Riyadh later severed diplomatic relations with Tehran following attacks on two vacant Saudi missions in Iran by angry protesters.
On Thursday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced Russia’s readiness to help resolve “specific problems” in ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Moscow enjoys “good ties” with both sides, he said, adding, “We will be ready to use these good relations in order to help create the conditions for a specific conversation on normalization, which can be attained only through direct dialogue of the two sides.”
He made the remarks during Jubeir’s visit to Moscow, denouncing “unacceptable” attempts to portray disagreements between Iran and the kingdom as a rift in the Muslim world.
“We know about the existing disagreements that are purely specific in nature, but we also know about the very dangerous attempts to present these disagreements as a reflection of a split in the Muslim world,” Lavrov said.
Moscow, he said, believes that “such attempts to provoke the situation in this sphere are unacceptable.”
“It is in the interests of Islam to ensure unity of all its branches,” Lavrov added.
From ministerial offices to barricades on the streets, Europe is in open revolt against anti-Russian sanctions which have cost workers and businesses millions of jobs and earnings. Granted, the contentious issues are wider than anti-Russian sanctions. However, the latter are entwined with growing popular discontent across the EU.
Germany’s vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel is among the latest high-profile politicians to have come out against the sanctions stand-off between the European Union and Russia.
At stake is not just a crisis in the economy, of which the anti-Russian sanctions are symptomatic. It is further manifesting in a political crisis that is challenging the very legitimacy of EU governments and the bloc’s institutional existence. The issue is not so much about merely trying to normalize EU-Russian relations. But rather more about preserving the EU from an existential public backlash against anti-democratic and discredited authorities.
Gabriel, who also serves as Germany’s economy minister, said that relations between the EU and Moscow must be quickly normalized. And he called for the lifting of sanctions that have been imposed since early 2014 as a result of the dubious Ukraine conflict. The EU followed Washington’s policy of slapping sanctions on Russia after accusing Moscow of «annexing» Crimea and interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs. The charges against Russia are tenuous at best and are far removed from the mundane pressing concerns of ordinary EU citizens, who are being made to bear a heavy economic price for a stand-off that seems unduly politicized, if not wholly unwarranted.
Russia responded to the sweeping sanctions by implementing counter-measures banning exports from the EU and the US. The stand-off has hit the European economies hardest, with the Austrian Institute of Economic Research estimating that the trade war will cost the EU over €100 billion in business and up to 2.5 million in jobs. By contrast, the US has scarcely felt a pinch from the trade impasse.
Germany, Europe’s biggest economy with the largest trade links to Russia, has suffered most from the sanctions rift. Up to 30,000 German businesses are invested in Russia, amounting to as many as half a million jobs in danger and €30 billion in lost revenues, according to the Austrian Institute of Economic Research.
In one German state alone, Saxony-Anhalt, the local economy minister Jorg Felgner says that exports to Russia have been slashed by 40 per cent, with the loss of €200 million to his state. Felgner is among the growing chorus of EU voices who are calling for the anti-Russian sanctions to be lifted when the EU convenes in July to decide on whether to extend its embargo or not.
The EU has been reviewing its sanctions policy on Russia every six months since 2014. To extend the measures, a unanimous decision is required among all 28 member states. It looks increasingly unlikely that the EU will maintain its hitherto unanimity. It can be safely assumed that if Brussels were to end the sanctions, then Moscow will respond in kind to promptly resume normal trade with the bloc.
In addition to the country’s vice chancellor, Germany’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has also expressed disquiet with the ongoing EU-Russian tensions stemming from the sanctions. Steinmeier noted that «resistance to anti-Russian sanctions is growing across the EU».
He also reiterated dismay over a fundamental contradiction in EU policy objectives. «How can we expect Russia’s help in solving the Syrian crisis while at the same time imposing economic sanctions on Russia?» asked Steinmeier.
It’s not just Germany that is growing leery with the deterioration in relations with Russia. Hungary and Italy, which have also strong historic trade ties with Russia, are increasingly opposed to the EU’s policy towards Moscow, according to a recent Newsweek report.
Added to the maligned mix is Greece. The country’s six-year economic crisis has been greatly exacerbated by the loss of a once-bustling agricultural export business to Russia. The country’s finance minister Dimitrios Mardas attributed major losses specifically to the anti-Russian sanctions, which have piled on fiscal deficits to the teetering Greek economy. Greece is no isolated problem. It threatens to undermine the whole EU from its chronic bankruptcy.
In France, the National Assembly’s Lower House voted last week by 55 to 44 votes to end the EU sanctions on Russia. The vote is non-binding on the government of President Francois Hollande. Nevertheless, it demonstrates the growing popular opposition to what is widely seen as a self-defeating policy of trade antagonism with Russia.
The cancellation last year by the Hollande government of the Mistral dual helicopter-ship contract with Moscow epitomizes the self-inflicted pain on French workers. The cancellation – cajoled by Washington – cost the French government revenues of over €1.5 billion and has put thousands of shipyard jobs at risk. Paris claims to have since directed the ships’ order to Egypt, but that remains doubtful.
The economic losses from anti-Russian sanctions have rebounded severely on French farmers too. Dairy, meat, vegetable and fruit exports to the once lucrative Russian market have been pummeled. Hollande recently vowed to release €500 million in state aid to placate angry farmers. The absurdity is not lost on the French agricultural sector that such state handouts would not be necessary if the Hollande government hadn’t sabotaged Russian markets in the first place by following US hostility towards Moscow, as in the case of the Mistral fiasco.
France’s economic problems, as with the rest of Europe, are not entirely related to the downturn in relations with Russia. But there seems little doubt that the issues intersect and are compounded. And the public knows that.
Hollande – the most unpopular French president since the Second World War – is ramming through draconian labor reforms. The president and his truculent prime minister Manuel Valls claim that the retrenchment of workers’ rights will boost the economy and reduce France’s soaring unemployment rate of 10 per cent nationally and 25 per among French youth.
In opposition to the French government’s deeply unpopular assault on workers’ rights, the country is to observe nationwide strikes this week. The protests have been going on now for several months and seem set to escalate, as Hollande’s administration digs its heels in and refuses to relent.
Among students and farmers joining France’s nationwide strike are workers in the transport sectors of road haulage, rail, shipping and airports. With exports to Russia slashed due to the French government-backing of EU sanctions, the transport sectors are among the hardest hit. The Hollande government’s attempt to force through labor cuts, purportedly to reinvigorate the economy, is seen as it trying to offload responsibility for economic woes on to workers and businesses. If Hollande did not pick a fight with Russia – at Washington’s goading – then the country’s economy wouldn’t be under such duress.
Across Europe, the popular revolt against economic austerity is bound up with the EU’s self-defeating sanctions on Russia. And it is leading to a crisis of authority among EU governments who are held with increasing disdain by their citizens. More enlightened political leaders like Germany’s vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier are obviously aware of the geopolitical connection that citizens are making.
As Europe’s economic crisis deepens, the policy of anti-Russian sanctions is tantamount to the EU cutting off its nose to spite its face. The growing public disaffection is also fueling the electoral rise of anti-EU political parties in Germany, France, Britain, Netherlands, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and other member states.
Mainstream EU parties like the ruling coalition government in Berlin realize that the EU’s trade war with Russia is simply becoming untenable. It is an ideologically driven and dubious antagonism that the EU can ill-afford. That policy speaks to EU citizens of a political leadership that is losing legitimacy from its fundamentally wrongheaded and anti-democratic governance. As well as from slavish pandering to American hegemonic ambitions.
Brussels, in following Washington’s hostility to Moscow, is inflicting further economic pain on the bloc’s 500 million citizens. Something has to give way if Europe is not to implode, or explode, from popular fury. Normalizing relations with Russia is not the whole solution to Europe’s economic and political crises. But such a move would certainly alleviate. And is long overdue.
EU governments are thus facing a stark choice. Are they to continue on the path of destruction at Washington’s reckless behest, or can they find an independent policy of pursuing mutual relations with Russia? Undoing the crass anti-Russian sanctions is taking on an urgency – before such a policy leads to the undoing of the EU itself.
Caracas – Russia’s Foreign Ministry has spoken out against “outside” efforts to destabilise Venezuela, warning against the consequences of imposing “colour scenarios” on the South American nation.
On Monday, Russian news agency Tass and Sputnik International reported that Russia’s Foreign Ministry had released an official statement addressing the current situation in Venezuela.
“The upsurge of tensions in Venezuela is being fed from outside,” asserted the Foreign Ministry statement.
“We are confident that a political solution to Venezuelan problems is to be found by the Venezuelan people who have elected its legitimate authorities… Destructive interference from outside is inadmissible,” it continued.
The South American country has been suffering from a worsening economic crisis for the past two years and is currently locked in a political stand-off between the executive branch and the opposition controlled legislature.
In firm language, the declaration also reminded other global powers that “no-one has the right to impose ‘color scenarios’ on Venezuela, referring to the outside financing of “proxy” organisations aimed at destabilising the national government.
Russia also warned that current tensions in Venezuela risk spilling over into open conflict on the nation’s streets, bringing “serious consequences” for the rest of the region.
Moscow’s remarks come as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) begins to take tentative steps towards opening up negotiations between Venezuela’s two warring political factions: the leftist government of Nicolas Maduro, and the rightwing political coalition, the MUD, which currently controls the National Assembly.
However, escalating rumours of a possible coup against the national government in recent weeks are threatening to dampen hopes of a rapprochement.
The MUD has pledged to remove Maduro through a variety of “constitutional” means since taking hold of the legislature last December.
Nonetheless, Russia said it backed a UNASUR negotiated solution to the crisis and asked both sides to “cool down” their emotions. It also confirmed it would be open to participating in negotiation efforts in Venezuela if requested.
“We are confident that the main challenge facing Venezuela at the moment is to find realistic ways out of the economic crisis, improve the social situation of broad layers of the population… It is obvious that this is possible only in conditions of internal political tranquility,” asserted the foreign ministry declaration.
Although Moscow didn’t name the “outside” influences which it cites as exacerbating tensions in Venezuela, it is possible that the US has caught the Kremlin’s eye.
Just last week, Russia’s Vice-minister for Foreign Affairs, Sergéi Ryabkov, said that his government believed that Washington was intensifying its attempts to directly “interfere” in Latin American affairs to the detriment of the region.
He cited a swing to the right in Argentina’s government, as well as the recent controversial impeachment of Brazil’s left leaning president, Dilma Rousseff, as examples.
Russia has not and will not get into discussions on criteria to lift sanctions, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
The West has introduced several rounds of sanctions against Russia since 2014, accusing Moscow of meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs and fueling the conflict in the southeast of Ukraine, however Russia denies the allegations and has responded to the restrictive measures with a food embargo.
“As for the future of these restrictions, this question should be directed to those who initiated the sanctions spiral. We have not and will not discuss any conditions or criteria for lifting these restrictive measures,” Lavrov told Hungary’s Magyar Nemzet newspaper.
“The European Union has linked this to Russia fulfilling the Minsk agreements,” the minister said. “Such a connection is absurd, because our country, as is well known, is not party to the conflict in Ukraine. Such a stance only encourages Kiev to sabotage the Minsk measures without any consequences.”
Unilateral Sanctions Unable to Force Russia to Sacrifice National Interests
Russia will not give up on pursuing its national interests due to attempts to pressure it through unilateral sanctions, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
“It is clear that attempts to pressure Russia through unilateral sanctions will not force us to abandon our principled line or to sacrifice our national interests,” Lavrov told Hungary’s Magyar Nemzet newspaper.
Russian energy giant Gazprom is no longer interested in participating in the development of Israel’s Leviathan gas field in the Mediterranean Sea, Russian media reported Wednesday, citing an unnamed Gazprom source.
According to the Vedomosti newspaper, the source did not specify why the company had decided to abandon the project. Gazprom is reportedly not considering any other projects in Israel at the moment.
In 2012, the company was in talks with Leviathan’s operating firms on buying a 30-percent stake in the development project. At the time, Total, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, Woodside Petroleum also wanted a part in the project, however Gazprom offered the largest sum.
Currently, the Leviathan gas field, first drilled in 2011, is one of the largest young gas reserves in the world. According to the US Geological Survey, Leviathan’s volume of undiscovered reserves amounts to some 620 billion cubic meters of natural gas.
A newly posted video showing a glimpse of a Buk missile battery rolling down a highway in eastern Ukraine has sparked a flurry of renewed accusations blaming Russia for the July 17, 2014 shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 killing 298 people. But the “dash-cam video” actually adds little to the MH-17 whodunit mystery because it could also support a narrative blaming the Ukrainian military for the disaster.
The fleeting image of the missile battery and its accompanying vehicles, presumably containing an armed escort, seems to have been taken by a car heading west on H-21 highway in the town of Makiivka, as the convoy passed by heading east, according to the private intelligence firm Stratfor and the “citizen journalism” Web site, Bellingcat.
However, even assuming that this Buk battery was the one that fired the missile that destroyed MH-17, its location in the video is to the west of both the site where Almaz-Antey, the Russian Buk manufacturer, calculated the missile was fired, around the village of Zaroshchenskoye (then under Ukrainian government control), and the 320-square-kilometer zone where the Dutch Safety Board speculated the fateful rocket originated (covering an area of mixed government and rebel control).
In other words, the question would be where the battery stopped before firing one of its missiles, assuming that this Buk system was the one that fired the missile. (The map below shows the location of Makiivka in red, Almaz-Antey’s suspected launch site in yellow, and the general vicinity of the Dutch Safety Board’s 320-square-kilometer launch zone in green.)
Another curious aspect of this and the other eight or so Internet images of Buk missiles collected by Bellingcat and supposedly showing a Buk battery rumbling around Ukraine on or about July 17, 2014, is that they are all headed east toward Russia, yet there have been no images of Buks heading west from Russia into Ukraine, a logical necessity if the Russians gave a Buk system to ethnic Russian rebels or dispatched one of their own Buk military units directly into Ukraine, suspicions that Russia and the rebels have denied.
The absence of a westward-traveling Buk battery fits with the assessment from Western intelligence agencies that the several operational Buk systems in eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, were under the control of the Ukrainian military, a disclosure contained in a Dutch intelligence report released last October and implicitly confirmed by an earlier U.S. “Government Assessment” that listed weapons systems that Russia had given the rebels but didn’t mention a Buk battery.
The Netherlands’ Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD) reported that the only anti-aircraft weapons in eastern Ukraine capable of bringing down MH-17 at 33,000 feet on July 17 belonged to the Ukrainian government. MIVD made that assessment in the context of explaining why commercial aircraft continued to fly over the eastern Ukrainian battle zone in summer 2014.
MIVD said that based on “state secret” information, it was known that Ukraine possessed some older but “powerful anti-aircraft systems” capable of downing a plane at that altitude and “a number of these systems were located in the eastern part of the country,” whereas the MIVD said the ethnic Russian rebels had only MANPADS that could not reach the higher altitudes.
On July 17, the Ukrainian military also was mounting a strong offensive against rebel positions to the north and thus the front lines were shifting rapidly, making it hard to know exactly where the borders of government and rebel control were. To the south, where the Buk missile was believed fired, the battle lines were lightly manned and hazy – because of the concentration of forces to the north – meaning that an armed Buk convoy could probably move somewhat freely.
Also, because of the offensive, the Ukrainian government feared a full-scale Russian invasion to prevent the annihilation of the rebels, explaining why Kiev was dispatching its Buk systems toward the Russian border, to defend against potential Russian air strikes.
Just a day earlier, a Ukrainian fighter flying along the border was shot down by an air-to-air missile (presumably fired by a Russian warplane), according to last October’s Dutch Safety Board report. So, tensions were high on July 17, 2014, when MH-17, flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, broke apart over eastern Ukraine, believed downed by a surface-to-air missile although there have been other suggestions that the plane might have been hit by an air-to-air missile.
At the time, Ukraine also was the epicenter of an “information war” that had followed a U.S.-backed coup on Feb. 22, 2014, which ousted democratically elected President Viktor Yanukovych and replaced the Russian-friendly leader with a fiercely nationalistic and anti-Russian regime in Kiev. The violent coup, in turn, prompted Crimea to vote 96 percent in a hasty referendum to secede from Ukraine and rejoin Russia. Eastern Ukraine and its large ethnic Russian population also revolted against the new authorities.
The U.S. government and much of the Western media, however, denied there had been a coup in Kiev, hailed the new regime as “legitimate,” and deemed Crimea’s secession a “Russian invasion.” The West also denounced the eastern Ukrainian resistance as “Russian aggression.” So, the propaganda war was almost as hot as the military fighting, a factor that has further distorted the pursuit of truth about the MH-17 tragedy.
Immediately after the MH-17 crash, the U.S. government sought to pin the blame on Russia as part of a propaganda drive to convince the European Union to join in imposing economic sanctions on Russia for its “annexation” of Crimea and its support of eastern Ukrainians resisting the Kiev regime.
However, a source briefed by U.S. intelligence analysts told me that the analysts could find no evidence that the Russians had supplied the rebels with a sophisticated Buk system or that the Russians had introduced a Buk battery under their own command. The source said the initial intelligence suggested that an undisciplined Ukrainian military team was responsible.
Yet, on July 20, 2014, just three days after the tragedy, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared on all Sunday morning talk shows and blamed the Russian-backed rebels and implicitly Moscow. He cited some “social media” comments and – on NBC’s “Meet the Press” – added: “We picked up the imagery of this launch. We know the trajectory. We know where it came from. We know the timing. And it was exactly at the time that this aircraft disappeared from the radar.”
Two days later, on July 22, the Obama administration released a “Government Assessment” that tried to bolster Kerry’s accusations, in part, by listing the various weapons systems that U.S. intelligence believed Russia had provided the rebels, but a Buk battery was not among them. At background briefings for selected mainstream media reporters, U.S. intelligence analysts struggled to back up the administration’s case against Russia.
For instance, the analysts suggested to a Los Angeles Times reporter that Ukrainian government soldiers manning the suspected Buk battery may have switched to the rebel side before firing the missile. The Times wrote: “U.S. intelligence agencies have so far been unable to determine the nationalities or identities of the crew that launched the missile. U.S. officials said it was possible the SA-11 [Buk anti-aircraft missile] was launched by a defector from the Ukrainian military who was trained to use similar missile systems.”
However, after that July 22 briefing — as U.S. intelligence analysts continued to pore over satellite imagery, telephonic intercepts and other data to refine their understanding of the tragedy — the U.S. government went curiously silent, refusing to make any updates or adjustments to its initial rush to judgment, a silence that has continued ever since.
Meanwhile, the source who continued receiving briefings from the U.S. intelligence analysts told me that the reason for going quiet was that the more detailed evidence pointed toward a rogue element of the Ukrainian military connected to a hardline Ukrainian oligarch, with the possible motive the shooting down of President Vladimir Putin’s plane returning from a state visit to South America.
In that scenario, a Ukrainian fighter jet in the vicinity (as reported by several eyewitnesses on the ground) was there primarily as a spotter, seeking to identify the target. But Putin’s plane, with similar markings to MH-17, took a more northerly route and landed safely in Moscow.
Though I was unable to determine whether the source’s analysts represented a dissenting or consensus opinion inside the U.S. intelligence community, some of the now public evidence could fit with that narrative, including why the suspected Buk system was pushing eastward as close to or even into “rebel” territory on July 17.
If Putin was the target, the attackers would need to spread immediate confusion about who was responsible to avoid massive retaliation by Moscow. A perfect cover story would be that Putin’s plane was shot down accidentally by his ethnic Russian allies or even his own troops, the ultimate case of being hoisted on his own petard.
Such a risky operation also would prepare disinformation for release after the attack to create more of a smokescreen and to gain control of the narrative, including planting material on the Internet to be disseminated by friendly or credulous media outlets.
The Ukrainian government has denied having a fighter jet in the air at the time of the MH-17 shoot-down and has denied that any of its Buk or other anti-aircraft systems were involved.
Yet, whatever the truth, U.S. intelligence clearly knows a great deal more than it has been willing to share with the public or even with the Dutch-led investigations. Last October, more than a year after the shoot-down, the Dutch Safety Board was unable to say who was responsible and could only approximate the location of the missile firing inside a 320-square-kilometer area, whereas Kerry had claimed three days after the crash that the U.S. government knew the launch point.
Earlier this year, Fred Westerbeke, the chief prosecutor of the Dutch-led Joint Investigative Team [JIT], provided a partial update to the Dutch family members of MH-17 victims, explaining that he hoped to have a more precise fix on the firing site by the second half of 2016, i.e., possibly more than two years after the tragedy.
Westerbeke’s letter acknowledged that the investigators lacked “primary raw radar images” which could have revealed a missile or a military aircraft in the vicinity of MH-17. That apparently was because Ukrainian authorities had shut down their primary radar facilities supposedly for maintenance, leaving only secondary radar which would show commercial aircraft but not military planes or rockets.
Russian officials have said their radar data suggest that a Ukrainian warplane might have fired on MH-17 with an air-to-air missile, a possibility that is difficult to rule out without examining primary radar which has so far not been available. Primary radar data also might have picked up a ground-fired missile, Westerbeke wrote.
“Raw primary radar data could provide information on the rocket trajectory,” Westerbeke wrote. “The JIT does not have that information yet. JIT has questioned a member of the Ukrainian air traffic control and a Ukrainian radar specialist. They explained why no primary radar images were saved in Ukraine.” Westerbeke said investigators are also asking Russia about its data.
Westerbeke added that the JIT had “no video or film of the launch or the trajectory of the rocket.” Nor, he said, do the investigators have satellite photos of the rocket launch.
“The clouds on the part of the day of the downing of MH17 prevented usable pictures of the launch site from being available,” he wrote. “There are pictures from just before and just after July 17th and they are an asset in the investigation.”
Though Westerbeke provided no details, the Russian military released a number of satellite images purporting to show Ukrainian government Buk missile systems north of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk before the attack, including two batteries that purportedly were shifted 50 kilometers south of Donetsk on July 17, the day of the crash, and then removed by July 18.
Russian Lt. Gen. Andrey Kartopolov called on the Ukrainian government to explain the movements of its Buk systems and why Kiev’s Kupol-M19S18 radars, which coordinate the flight of Buk missiles, showed increased activity leading up to the July 17 shoot-down.
Part of the reason that the MH-17 mystery has remained unsolved is that the U.S. government insists that its satellite surveillance, which includes infrared detection of heat sources as well as highly precise photographic imagery, remains a “state secret” that cannot be made public.
However, in similar past incidents, the U.S. government has declassified sensitive information. For instance, after a Soviet pilot accidentally shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 over Russian territory in 1983, the Reagan administration revealed the U.S. capability to intercept Soviet ground-to-air military communications in order to make the Soviets look even worse by selectively editing the intercepts to present the destruction of the civilian aircraft as willful.
In that case, too, the U.S. government let its propaganda needs overwhelm any commitment to the truth, as Alvin A. Snyder, who in 1983 was director of the U.S. Information Agency’s television and film division, wrote in his 1995 book, Warriors of Disinformation.
After KAL-007 was shot down, “the Reagan administration’s spin machine began cranking up,” Snyder wrote. “The objective, quite simply, was to heap as much abuse on the Soviet Union as possible. … The American media swallowed the U.S. government line without reservation.”
On Sept. 6, 1983, the Reagan administration went so far as to present a doctored transcript of the intercepts to the United Nations Security Council. “The perception we wanted to convey was that the Soviet Union had cold-bloodedly carried out a barbaric act,” Snyder wrote.
Only a decade later, when Snyder saw the complete transcripts — including the portions that the Reagan administration had excised — would he fully realize how many of the central elements of the U.S. presentation were lies.
Snyder concluded, “The moral of the story is that all governments, including our own, lie when it suits their purposes. The key is to lie first.” [For more details on the KAL-007 deception and the history of U.S. trickery, see Consortiumnews.com’s “A Dodgy Dossier on Syrian War.”]
In the MH-17 case, the Obama administration let Kerry present the rush to judgment fingering the Russians and the rebels but then kept all the evidence secret even though the U.S. government’s satellite capabilities are well-known. By refusing to declassify any information for the MH-17 investigation, Washington has succeeded in maintaining the widespread impression that Moscow was responsible for the tragedy without having to prove it.
The source who was briefed by U.S. intelligence analysts told me that the Obama administration considered “coming clean” about the MH-17 case in March, when Thomas Schansman, the Dutch father of the only American victim, was pleading for the U.S. government’s cooperation, but administration officials ultimately decided to keep quiet because to do otherwise would have “reversed the narrative.”
In the meantime, outfits such as Bellingcat have been free to reinforce the impression of Russian guilt, even as some of those claims have proved false. For instance, Bellingcat directed a news crew from Australia’s “60 Minutes” to a location outside Luhansk (near the Russian border) that the group had identified as the site for the “getaway video” showing a Buk battery with one missile missing.
The “60 Minutes” crew went to the spot and pretended to be at the place shown in the video, but none of the landmarks matched up, which became obvious when screen grabs of the video were placed next to the scene of the Australian crew’s stand-upper. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Fake Evidence Blaming Russia for MH-17.”]
Yet, reflecting the deep-seated mainstream media bias on the MH-17 case, the Australian program reacted angrily to my pointing out the obvious discrepancies. In a follow-up, the show denounced me but could only cite a utility pole in its footage that looked similar to a utility pole in the video.
While it’s true that utility poles tend to look alike, in this case none of the surroundings did, including the placement of the foliage and a house shown in the video that isn’t present in the Australian program’s shot. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “A Reckless Stand-upper on MH-17.”]
But the impact of the nearly two years of one-sided coverage of the MH-17 case in the mainstream Western media has been considerable. In the last few days, a lawyer for the families of Australian victims announced the filing of a lawsuit against Russia and Putin in the European court for human rights seeking compensation of $10 million per passenger. Many of the West’s news articles on the lawsuit assume Russia’s guilt.
In other words, whatever the truth about the MH-17 shoot-down, the tragedy has proven to be worth its weight in propaganda gold against Russia and Putin, even as the U.S. government hides the actual proof that might show exactly who was responsible.
(Research by Assistant Editor Chelsea Gilmour.)
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
Baiting Russia is not good policy
Last week I attended a foreign policy conference in Washington that featured a number of prominent academics and former government officials who have been highly critical of the way the Bush and Obama Administrations have interacted with the rest of the world. Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago was on a panel and was asked what, in his opinion, has been the most notable foreign policy success and the most significant failure in the past twenty-five years. The success was hard to identify and there was some suggestion that it might be the balancing of relationships in strategically vital Northeast Asia, which “we have not yet screwed up.” If I had been on the panel I would have suggested the Iran nuclear agreement as a plus.
As for the leading foreign policy failure there was an easy answer, “Iraq” which was on everyone in the room’s lips, but Mearsheimer urged one not to be so hasty. In reality the Iraq disaster has killed hundreds of thousands, has cost trillions of dollars and has unleashed serious problems for the Mideast region in general while allowing the rise of ISIS, but in “realistic foreign policy terms” it has not been a catastrophic event for the United States, which had hardly been seriously injured by it apart from financially and in terms of reputation.
Mearsheimer went on to say that, in his opinion, there is a far greater disaster lurking and that is the total mismanagement of the relationship with Russia ever since the downfall of communism. He cited the drive by Washington democracy promoters to push Ukraine into the western economic and political sphere as a major miscalculation as they failed to realize or did not care that what takes place in Kiev was to Moscow a vital interest. To that observation I would add the legacy of the spoliation of Russia’s natural resources carried out by Western carpetbaggers working with local grifters turned oligarchs under Boris Yeltsin, the expansion of NATO to Russia’s doorstep initiated by Bill Clinton, and the interference in Russia’s internal affairs by the U.S. government, to include the Magnitsky Act. There have also been unnecessary slights and insults delivered along the way, to include sanctions on Russian officials and refusal to attend the Sochi Olympics, to cite only two examples.
It should also be noted that much of the negative interaction between Washington and Moscow is driven by the consensus among the western media and the inside the beltway crowd that Russia is again or perhaps is still the enemy du jour. Ironically, the increasingly negative perception of Russia is rarely justified as a reaction in defense of any identifiable serious U.S. interests, not even in the fevered minds of Senator John McCain and his supporting neocon claque. But even though the consequences of U.S. hostility towards Russia can be deadly serious, the Obama Administration is already treating Georgia and Ukraine as if they were de facto members of NATO. Hillary Clinton, who has called Vladimir Putin another Adolf Hitler, has pledged to bring about their admittance into the alliance, which would not in any way make Americans more secure, quite the contrary, as Moscow would surely be forced to react.
A number of speakers observed that while Russia is no longer a superpower in a bipolar system it is nevertheless a major international player, evident most recently in its successful intervention in Syria. Moscow has both nuclear and advanced conventional arsenals that would be able to inflict severe or even fatal damage on the United States if animosity should somehow turn to armed conflict. Given that reality, if the United States has but a single foreign policy imperative it would be to maintain a solid working relationship with Russia but somehow the hubris inspired recalibration of the U.S. role in the world post the Cold War never quite figured that out, opting instead to see Washington as the “decider” anywhere and everywhere in the world, able to use the “greatest military ever seen” to do its thinking for it. This blindness eventually led to a de facto policy of regime change in the Middle East and a turn away from détente with the Russians.
The comments of John Mearsheimer and other speakers became particularly relevant when I returned home and flipped on my computer to discover two news items. First, NATO, with Washington’s blessing, has admitted Montenegro into the alliance. I must confess that I had not thought about Montenegro very much since reading how Jay Gatsby showed narrator Nick Carraway his World War I medal from that country in chapter 4 of The Great Gatsby. But perhaps in a “Lafayette We Are Here” moment to return the favor bestowed on Gatsby, the inclusion of Montenegro now means that under Article 5 of the NATO treaty the United States is obligated to go to war to defend Montenegran territorial integrity, something that few Americans would find comprehensible. Russia, which is directly threatened by the NATO alliance even though NATO claims that that is not the case, protested to no avail.
And the second article was far, far worse. It was in The New York Times, so it must be true: “The United States Justice Department has opened an investigation into state-sponsored doping by dozens of Russia’s top athletes… The United States attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York is scrutinizing Russian government officials, athletes, coaches, antidoping authorities and anyone who might have benefited unfairly from a doping regimen… Prosecutors are believed to be pursuing conspiracy and fraud charges.”
Yes folks, the United States government, which has long claimed jurisdiction over any and all groups and individuals worldwide who might even implausibly be linked to terrorism is now extending its writ to athletes who take performance enhancing drugs anywhere in the world. Particularly if those athletes are Russians. Having read the article with disbelief I slapped myself in the face a couple of times just to make sure that I wasn’t imagining the whole thing but after the post-concussive vertigo abated there it was still sitting there looking back at me in black and white with a banner headline and a color photo, Justice Department Opens Investigation Into Russian Doping Scandal.
Being somewhat of a skeptic, I looked at the byline, expecting to see Judith Miller of weapons of mass destruction fame, but no it was Rebecca Ruiz. Could it be a nom de plume? I thought I might be on to something so I reread the piece more slowly second time around. How does Washington justify going after the Russkies? The article noted “In their inquiry, United States prosecutors are expected to scrutinize anyone who might have facilitated unclean competition in the United States or used the United States banking system to conduct a doping program.” The article added that some Russian athletes allegedly have run in the Boston Marathon, though they did not win, place or show. If they popped an amphetamine before using their Visa card to dine at Chuck e Cheese when sojourning in Bean Town they are toast, as the expression goes. Likewise for the handful of Russian athletes who have apparently participated in international bobsled and skeleton championships in Lake Placid, N.Y.
And of course there is a Vladimir Putin angle. The Russian sports minister, who has been implicated in the scandal, was appointed by Putin in 2008, so it’s all about Russia and Putin which makes it fair game. FBI investigators and U.S. courts are now prepared to go after Russians living in Russia for alleged crimes that may or may not have occurred in the United States based on the flimsiest of grounds to establish jurisdiction. Since much of the world’s financial dealings transit through American banks in some way or another the whole world becomes vulnerable to unpleasant encounters with the U.S. criminal justice system. If the accused choose to offer no defense to the frivolous prosecutions they will be found guilty in absentia and fined billions of dollars before having their assets seized, as happened recently to the Iranians, who had nothing to do with 9/11 but are nevertheless being hounded to prove themselves innocent.
My point is that the Russians are not exactly failing to notice what is going on. No one but Victoria Nuland and the Kagans actually want a war but Moscow is being backed into a corner with more and more influential Russian voices raised against détente with a Washington that seems to be intent on humiliating Russians at every turn as part of a new project for regime change. Many Russian military leaders have quite plausibly come to believe that the continuous NATO expansion and the stationing of more army units right along the border means that the United States wants war.
Russia’s generals base their perception on what they have very clearly and unambiguously observed. When Russia acts defensively, as it did in Georgia and Ukraine, it is accused of aggressive action, is sanctioned and punished. When the Western powers probe Russian borders with their warships and surveillance aircraft they claim that it is likewise aggression when Moscow scrambles a plane to monitor the activity. Washington in its own warped view is always behaving defensively from the purest of motives and Moscow is always in the wrong. But picture for a moment a reverse scenario to include a Russian missile cruiser lounging just outside the territorial limits off Boston or New York to imagine what the U.S. reaction might be.
Washington’s misguided policy towards Russia under both Republican and Democratic presidents indeed has the potential to become the greatest international catastrophe of all time, as Professor Mearsheimer observed. U.S. provocations and the regular promotion of a false narrative that Russia is both threatening and seeking to recreate the Soviet Union together suggest to that country’s leaders that Washington is an implacable foe. The bellicose posturing inadvertently strengthens the hands of hard line nationalists in Russia while weakening those who seek a formula for accommodation with the West. To be sure, Russia is no innocent in the international one upmanship game but it has been more sinned against than sinned. And the nearly constant animosity directed against Russia by the Obama Administration should be seen as madness as the stakes in the game, a possible nuclear war, are, or should be, unthinkable.
US President Barack Obama tried to show Russia in a bad light when he said that Moscow is not doing enough to reduce its stockpile of nuclear weapons, but Russia has many reasons for not accepting Washington’s initiative, Svobodnaya Pressa asserted.
“The US president mentioned Russia, but preferred not to name other members of the official nuclear club, including China, the United Kingdom and France,” the media outlet noted, pointing out that several other nations are believed to have nuclear weapons, including India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.
Another major reason for Russia to keep its nukes intact involves Washington. The US has not ratified the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which bans all nuclear weapons in all environments. Moscow ratified the deal in 2000, but CTBT will only enter force when all signatories ratify it.
In addition, Moscow, according to the Svobodnaya Pressa, has to consider the funds that the US allocates for defense purposes – nearly $600 billion a year. Washington’s “gargantuan” military budget, as analyst Finian Cunningham described it, exceeds those of other big spenders, including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, the UK, Germany, Japan and India.
But this is not the whole picture – alliances and affiliations also matter.”Three of these countries [France, the UK and Germany] are NATO members, while Japan has been a longtime US ally. This means that the gap [in military spending] between the US and Russia is even wider,” the media outlet explained.
Last week, Obama told Japan’s public broadcaster NHK that “we can go further” in reducing the stockpiles of Russian and US nuclear weapons “but so far Russia has not shown its self interest in doing more.”
Russian lawmaker Vyacheslav Tetekin pointed out that the US foreign policy is “disingenuous.”
“Any disarmament initiatives launched by US hawks, who are pretending to be ‘doves of peace,’ serve merely as an instrument designed to weaken their opponents. The Pentagon is making every effort to deploy its missile defense system, upgrading its nuclear weapons. Meanwhile they are offering Moscow to stop,” he said.
Earlier this month, the US-made Aegis Ashore base became operational in Romania. The site is part of a larger initiative aimed at creating a missile shield to cover the US and Europe from Iranian ballistic missiles. Russian officials have called the system a threat to the country, as well as global security.In this context, Moscow has no other option than to keep its nukes. Defense analyst Mikhail Alexandrov noted that Russia’s “nuclear weapons guarantee the country’s national security.”
The Beltway military punditry floats one of its most inflammatory ideas yet, in calls for a preemptive strike against Moscow along with calls to bolster America’s missile defense system.
On Friday, a DC-based think tank issued a report calling for additional funding to advance US missile defense technology to combat what they view as a rising nuclear missile threat from Russia.
Earlier this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin scoffed at Western assertions that Russia poses the preeminent threat to the US and NATO, labeling the idea of an attack against the military alliance “the type of thing that only crazy people think, and only when they are dreaming.”
Faced with the need to keep the budget spigot open, a Cold War-inspired Beltway commentariat continues to ratchet up “protective measures” against Moscow’s “aggression,” by installing a missile defense system in Romania and constructing another similar missile defense system in Poland. NATO is now considering deploying permanent troops on the border between Poland and Russia, while undertaking a series of costly and polluting military exercises, steps from Russian lands.
The latest war-drum-beating report is provided by the Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments, whose scholars Bryan Clark and Mark Gunzinger not only call for spending more money on lasers, railguns, and hypervelocity projectiles, but also posit fail-safe artificial intelligence systems capable of shooting down incoming missiles, again from Russia.
The two note that while existing missile defense systems like the Navy’s Aegis have an automatic mode, the system lacks the kind of sophistication required to counter large incoming salvos. The paper proposed a plan modeled after a pet project of deputy Defense secretary and, coincidentally, a former vice-president of the Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments, Bob Work, who has led efforts to combine artificial intelligence with unmanned missile defense.
In addition to calling for widely expanding appropriations to upgrade the US missile defense system against a hypothetical Russian attack threat, the think tank analysts suggest preemptive strikes against Russia, China, or any other nation, in the event diplomatic relations deteriorate.
The two spell out their enhanced rules of engagement in text that clearly violates international law, detailing a “blinding campaign” of coordinated strikes against hostile headquarters, satellites and radar, using cyberattacks, jamming, and long-range bombing, in anticipation of an attack.
“The proposition that nuclear weapons can be retained in perpetuity and never used — accidentally or by decision — defies credibility”
This unanimous statement was published by the Canberra Commission in 1996. Among the commission members were internationally known former ministers of defense and of foreign affairs and generals.
The nuclear-weapon states do not intend to abolish their nuclear weapons. They promised to do so when they signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970. Furthermore, the International Court in The Hague concluded in its advisory opinion more than 20 years ago that these states were obliged to negotiate and bring to a conclusion such negotiations on complete nuclear disarmament. The nuclear-weapon states disregard this obligation. On the contrary, they invest enormous sums in the modernization of these weapons of global destruction.
It is difficult today to raise a strong opinion in the nuclear-weapon states for nuclear disarmament. One reason is that the public sees the risk of a nuclear war between these states as so unlikely that it can be disregarded.
It is then important to remind ourselves that we were for decades, during the Cold War, threatened by extinction by nuclear war. We were not aware at that time how close we were. In this article I will summarize some of the best-known critical situations. Recently published evidence shows that the danger was considerably greater than we knew at the time.
The risk today of a nuclear omnicide—killing all or almost all humans—is probably smaller than during the Cold War, but the risk is even today real and it may be rising. That is the reason I wish us to remind ourselves again: as long as nuclear weapons exist we are in danger of extermination. Nuclear weapons must be abolished before they abolish us.
Stanislav Petrov: The man who saved the world
1983 was probably the most dangerous year for mankind ever in history. We were twice close to a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the USA. But we did not know that.
The situation between the USA and the Soviet Union was very dangerous. In his notorious speech in March 1983, President Reagan spoke of the “Axis of Evil” states in a way that seriously upset the Soviet leaders. The speech ended the period of mutual cooperation, which had prevailed since the Cuba crisis.
In the Soviet Union many political and military leaders were convinced that the USA would launch a nuclear attack. Peter Handberg, a Swedish journalist, has reported of meetings with men who at that time watched over sites where the intercontinental missiles were stored. These men strongly believed that an American attack was imminent and they expected a launch order.
In Moscow, the leaders of the Communist party prepared for a counter attack. The head of the KGB, the foreign intelligence agency, General Ileg Kalunin, had ordered his agents in the world to watch for any sign of a large attack on the Mother Country.
A previous head of the KGB, Jurij Andropov, was now leader of the country. He was severely ill and was treated with chronic dialysis. He was the man ultimately responsible for giving the order to fire the nuclear missiles.
The nuclear arms race was intense. The USA and the Soviet Union were both arming the “European Theater” with medium-distance nuclear missiles. President Reagan’s “Star Wars” program was a source of much anxiety on the Russian side. The belief was that the USA was trying to obtain a first strike capacity. In Russia, a Doomsday machine was planned—a system that would automatically launch all strategic nuclear weapons if contact with the military and political leaders of the country was completely disabled.
The increased risk of war was felt particularly strongly by those in Russia who were ordered to prepare for an immediate response in case of a nuclear attack. The command centre situated in the military city Serpukov-15 was the hub for the vigilance, evaluating reports from satellites in space and radar stations at the borders. Colonel Stanislav Petrov was ordered to take the watch on the evening of September 25, instead of a colleague who had called in sick.
Late in the evening, the alarm sounded. A missile had apparently been fired from the American west coast. Soon two were detected; finally four. The computer warned that the probability of an attack was at the highest level.
Petrov should now, according to the instructions, immediately report that an American attack had been discovered. Against orders, he decided to wait. He knew that if he reported a nuclear attack a global war would be likely. The USA, the Soviet Union, and most of mankind would be exterminated. Petrov waited for more information.
He found it very unlikely that the USA had launched only a few missiles. Petrov was well informed about the computer system and he knew that it was not perfect.
After a long wait the “missiles” disappeared from the screens. The explanation came at last: There was a glitch in the computer system.
Petrov had himself been involved in developing the system. Maybe this special knowledge saved us? Or unusual self-confidence and courage in an unusual individual?
This fateful event became known when a superior officer, who had criticized omissions in Petrov’s records of the evening, told the story on his deathbed. Petrov has received rather little recognition in Russia.
What happened that critical night—and Petrov’s part in the story—is played out in a recent movie by the Danish producer Peter Anthony: “The man who saved the world.”
“Able Archer”: A NATO exercise which could have become the last
Just like the “Petrov incident,” the “Able Archer” crisis was known only to a few military and political leaders in Russia and the USA until decades later. Only in 2013 could the Nuclear Information Service get access to the classified US file. Important documents from Russia and Great Britain are still not available. Why do our leaders feel they need to “protect” us against the truth of the greatest dangers mankind has faced?
“Able Archer” was a NATO exercise carried out in the beginning of November 1983. The purpose was so simulate a Soviet invasion stopped by a nuclear attack. About 40,000 soldiers participated and large troop movements took place.
Similar exercises had been carried out in previous years. The development could be monitored by Soviet intelligence through radio eavesdropping. What was new was that the tension between Soviet and the USA was stronger than before. In the background was the Soviet operation RYAN, an acronym for an attack with nuclear missiles. RYAN had become the strategic plan of the Soviet KGB two years earlier, on how to respond to an expected American nuclear attack. The combination of Soviet paranoia and the rhetoric of President Ronald Reagan did place the world in great danger.
Soviet leaders thought that this exercise could be a parallel to Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa, the military maneuver that suddenly was turned into a full-scale attack on the Soviet Union.
The Soviet leaders placed bomb planes on highest alert, with pilots in place in the cockpits. Submarines carrying nuclear missiles were placed in protected positions under the Arctic ice. Missiles of the SS-20 type were readied.
NATO concluded the exercises after a few days, with an order to launch nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. No missiles were fired, however, and the participants went back home.
After the exercise the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher learnt from the intelligence service how the NATO command had been ignorant of the serious misunderstanding in Russia of the intention of this exercise. She conferred with President Ronald Reagan. It is likely that this information, together with his viewing of the film “The Day After,” caused the conversion of the President which was expressed in his State of the Union message in 1984: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Reagan continued this process up to the famous meeting in Reykjavik in 1986, when he and President Gorbachev for a brief moment agreed to abolish all nuclear weapons before the end of the century.
An interesting and most worrying rendition of how the exercises were perceived in Russia is given in the documentary movie “1983: Brink of the Apocalypse.” The story is based on documents that became available in 2013 and on interviews with some of those who were active on both sides in the situation. Two spies were important in convincing the leaders of KGB that no attack was underway. One was a Russian spy in NATO headquarters who insisted to the KGB that this was an exercise and not a preparation for an attack. The other, a Russian spy in London, gave the same picture.
We can conclude that a lack of insight in the USA and in NATO into the perceptions in the Soviet Union put the world in mortal danger. Did two spies save the world?
A reflection of the danger associated with this NATO exercise plays out in the recent German TV production “Deutschland.”
The Cuba crisis: More dangerous than we knew
Soviet nuclear weapons were placed in Cuba. Fidel Castro and Russia’s generals intended to use them if the USA attacked. A Russian submarine that came under attack carried a nuclear weapon. A nuclear attack on the US was closer than we knew.
The development of this crisis has been described in several American books. “Thirteen Days” by Robert Kennedy is the best known and has also been made into a movie. As the story is so well known I will not repeat it here.
In the reports, we can experience how badly prepared the political and military leadership were for such a situation, and how little these two groups understood each other. The generals saw no alternatives other than doing nothing or destroying Cuba with a full-scale nuclear attack. Robert Kennedy wrote that he even feared a military coup!
The US side had little information about plans and evaluations in Moscow. There was no direct communication between Kennedy and Khrushchev. The final Russian answer to President Kennedy’s proposal was sent from the Russian Embassy to Kennedy by a bicycle messenger! (The “Hot line” was installed after—and because of—the Cuban Missile Crisis).
We know less about what went on in Moscow, but Khrushchev’s memoirs give some information. It seems that the Russian generals were greatly worried about the image and prestige of Russia. “If we give in to the US in this situation how could our allies trust us in the future. How could the Chinese have any respect for us?”
The world knew at the time that the crisis was very dangerous and that a nuclear war was a real possibility. Decades later we know more. Thus, Cuban President Fidel Castro, at a meeting many years later with US Secretary of Defense McNamara, said that if the USA had attacked Cuba, Castro would have demanded that Russian nuclear missiles be launched against the USA.
An American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba during the crisis. Only much later were we informed that another U-2 plane in the Arctic had entered over Soviet territory, misled by the influence of the Northern Light! US fighter planes were sent to protect the U-2 plane. These planes were equipped with nuclear weapons for this mission. Why? Was it possible for the lone pilot to launch these weapons?
We have also belatedly learned that four Russian submarines carrying nuclear torpedoes were navigating close to Cuba. The commanders were instructed to use their nuclear weapons if bombs seriously damaged their vessel. At least one of the submarines was hit by charges that were intended as warnings, but the commander did not know this. The captain believed his submarine was damaged and he wanted to launch his nuclear torpedo. His deputy, Captain Vasilij Alexandrovich Arkhipov, persuaded him to wait for an order from Moscow. No connection was established but the submarine escaped. Arkhipov’s role has been highlighted in a movie which, like the film about Petrov, is called “The man who saved the world.”
What would have been the consequence had the nuclear torpedo hit the US aircraft carrier that led the US operation?
Quite recently, reports have surfaced from the US base on Okinawa, Japan. During the Cuba crisis the order came to prepare for a nuclear attack against the Soviet Union. There was considerable confusion at the nuclear command at the base. An increase in the alarm level from DefCon-2 to DefCon-1 was expected but never came.
A bizarre event, which could have been come from a novel by John le Carré, was called “Penkovsky’s sighs.” Oleg Penkovsky was a double agent who had given important information to the CIA—the US Central Intelligence Agency—about the Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba. He had been instructed to send a coded message—three deep exhalations repeated twice—to his contact were he informed that the Soviets intended to attack. This sighing message was sent during the Cuba crisis to the CIA. The CIA contact, however, realized that Penkovsky had been captured and tortured and the code had been extricated.
Other serious close calls
In November 1979, a recorded scenario describing a Russian nuclear attack had been entered into the US warning system NORAD. The scenario was perceived as a real full-scale Soviet attack. Nuclear missiles and bombers were readied. After six minutes the mistake became obvious. After this incident new security routines were introduced.
Despite these changed routines, less that one year later the mistake was repeated—this time more persistent and dangerous. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the US national security adviser, was called at three o´clock in the morning by a general on duty. He was informed that 220 Soviet missiles were on their way towards the USA. A moment later a new call came, saying that 2,200 missiles had been launched. Brzezinski was about to call President Jimmy Carter when the general called for a third time reporting that the alarm had been cancelled.
The mistake was caused by a malfunctioning computer chip. Several similar false alarms have been reported, although they did not reach the national command.
We have no reports from the Soviet Union similar to these computer malfunctions. Maybe the Russians have less trust in their computers, just as Colonel Petrov showed? However, there are many reports on serious accidents in the manufacture and handling of nuclear weapons. I have received reliable information from senior military officers in the Soviet Union regarding heavy use of alcohol and drugs among the personnel that monitor the warning and control systems, just as in the USA.
The story of the “Norwegian weather rocket” in 1995 is often presented as a particularly dangerous incident. Russians satellites warned of a missile on its way from Norway towards Russia. President Yeltsin was called in the middle of the night; the “nuclear war laptop” was opened; and the president discussed the situation with his staff. The “missile” turned out not to be directed towards Russia.
I see this incident as an indication that when the relations between the nuclear powers are good, then the risk of a misunderstanding is very small. The Russians were not likely to expect an attack at that time.
Close calls have occurred not only between the two superpowers. India and Pakistan are in a chronic but active conflict regarding Kashmir. At least twice this engagement has threatened to expand into a nuclear war, namely at the Kargil conflict in 1999 and after an attack on the Indian Parliament by Pakistani terrorists in 2001. Both times, Pakistan readied nuclear weapons for delivery. Pakistan has a doctrine of first use: If Indian military forces transgress over the border to Pakistan, that country intends to use nuclear weapons. Pakistan does not have a system with a “permissive link”, where a code must be transmitted from the highest authority in order to make a launch of nuclear weapons possible. Military commanders in Pakistan have the technical ability to use nuclear weapons without the approval of the political leaders in the country. India, with much stronger conventional forces, uses the permissive link and has declared a “no first use” principle.
The available extensive reports from both these incidents show that the communication between the political and the military leaders was highly inadequate. Misunderstandings on very important matters occurred to an alarming degree. During both conflicts between India and Pakistan, intervention by US leaders was important in preventing escalation and a nuclear war.
We know little about close calls in the other nuclear-weapon states. The UK prepared its nuclear weapons for use during the Cuba conflict. There were important misunderstandings between military and political leaders during that incident. Today all British nuclear weapons are based on submarines. The missiles can, as a rule, be launched only after a delay of many hours. Mistakes will thus be much less likely.
France, on the contrary, claims that it has parts of its nuclear arsenal ready for immediate action, on order from the President. There are no reports of close calls. There is no reason to label the collision between a British and French nuclear-armed submarine in 2009 as a close call.
China has a “no first use” doctrine and probably does not have weapons on hair-trigger alert, which decreases the risk of dangerous mistakes.
Why was there no nuclear war?
Eric Schlosser, author of the book “Command and Control,” told this story: “An elderly physicist, who had taken part in the development of the nuclear weapons, told me: ‘If anyone had said in 1945, after the bombing of Nagasaki, that no other city in the world would be attacked with atomic weapons, no one would have believed him. We expected more nuclear wars.’”
Yes, how come there was no more nuclear war?
In the nuclear-weapon states they say that deterrence was the reason. MAD—“Mutual Assured Destruction”—saved us. Even if I attack first, the other side will have sufficient weapons left to cause “unacceptable” damage to my country. So I won’t do it.
Deterrence was important. In addition, the “nuclear winter” concept was documented in the mid-1980s. The global climate consequences of a major nuclear war would be so severe that the “winner” would starve to death. An attack would be suicidal. Maybe this insight contributed to the decrease in nuclear arsenals that started after 1985?
MAD cannot explain why nuclear weapons were not used in wars against countries that did not have them. In the Korean war, General MacArthur wanted to use nuclear weapons against the Chinese forces that came in on the North Korean side but he was stopped by President Truman. During the Vietnam war many voices in the USA demanded that nukes should be used. In the two wars against Iraq the US administration threatened to use nuclear weapons if Iraq used chemical weapons. Many Soviet military leaders wanted to use atomic bombs in Afghanistan.
What held them back? Most important were moral and humanitarian reasons. This was called the “Nuclear Threshold.” If the USA had used nuclear weapons against North Vietnam the results would have been so terrible that the US would have been a pariah country for decades. The domestic opinion in the US would not have accepted the bombing. Furthermore, the radioactive fallout in neighbouring countries, some of them allies to the US, would have been unacceptable.
Are moral and humanitarian reasons a sufficient explanation why nukes were never used? I do not know, but find no other.
Civil society organisations have been important in establishing a high nuclear threshold. International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War has been particularly important in this regard. IPPNW has persistently pointed at the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and warned that a global nuclear war could end human civilisation and, maybe, exterminate mankind. The opinion by the International Court in The Hague, that the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons was generally prohibited, is also important.
The nuclear-weapon states do not intend to use nuclear weapons except as deterrence against attack. Deterrence, however, works only if the enemy believes that, in the end, I am prepared to use nuclear weapons. Both NATO and Russia have doctrines that nukes can be used even if the other side has not done so. In a conflict of great importance, a side that is much weaker and maybe is in danger of being overrun is likely to threaten to use its atomic weapons. If you threaten to use them you may in the end be forced to follow through on your threat.
The close calls I have described in this article mean that mankind could have been exterminated by mistake. Only decades after the events have we been allowed to learn about these threats. It is likely that equally dangerous close calls have occurred.
So why did these mistakes not lead to a nuclear war, when during the Cold War the tension was so high and the superpowers seemed to have expected a nuclear war to break out?
Let me tell of a close call I have experienced in my personal life. I was driving on a highway, in the middle of the day, when I felt that the urge to fall asleep, which sometimes befalls me, was about to overpower my vigilance. There was no place to stop for a rest. After a minute I fell asleep. The car veered against the partition in the middle of the road and its side was torn up. My wife and I were unharmed.
But if there had been no banister? The traffic on the opposing side of the road was heavy and there were lorries.
The nuclear close calls did not lead to a war. Those who study accidents say that often there must be two and often three mistakes or failures occurring simultaneously.
There have been a sufficient number of dangerous situations between the USA and Russia that could have happened at almost the same time. Shortly before the Able Archer exercise, a Korean passenger plane was shot down by Soviet airplanes. But what if Soviet fighters had, by mistake, been attacked and shot down over Europe? What if any of the American airplanes carrying nuclear weapons had mistaken the order in the exercise for a real order to bomb Soviet targets? In the Soviet Union bombers were on high alert, with pilots in the cockpit, waiting for a US attack.
What if the fighters sent to protect the U-2 plane that had strayed into Soviet territory in Siberia during the Cuba crisis had used the nuclear missile they were carrying?
Eric Schlosser tells in his book about a great number of mistakes and accidents in the handling of nuclear weapons in the USA. Bombs have fallen from airplanes or crashed with the carrier. These accidents would not cause a nuclear war, but a nuclear explosion during a tense international crisis when something else also went wrong, such as the “Petrov Incident” mentioned earlier, could have led to very dangerous mistakes. Terrorist attacks with nuclear weapons simultaneous with a large cyber attack might start the final war, if the political situation is strained.
Dr. Alan Philips guessed in a study from the year 2003 that the risk of a nuclear war occurring during the Cold War was 40%. Maybe so. Or maybe 20%. Or 75%. But most definitely not zero—not close to zero.
Today the danger of a nuclear war between Russia and the USA is much lower that during the Cold War. However, mistakes can happen. Dr. Bruce Blair, who has been in the chain of command for nuclear weapons, insists that unauthorized firing of nuclear missiles is possible. The protection is not perfect. In general, the system for control and for launching is built to function with great redundancy, whatever happens to the lines of command or to the command centers. The controls against launches by mistake, equipment failure, interception by hackers, technical malfunction, or human madness, seem to have a lower priority. At least in the US, but there is no reason to believe the situation in Russia to be more secure.
The tension between Russia and the USA is increasing. Threats of use of nuclear weapons have, unbelievably, been heard.
But we have been lucky so far.
As I said in the beginning of this paper, quoting the Canberra Commission: “The proposition that nuclear weapons can be retained in perpetuity and never used — accidentally or by decision — defies credibility. The only complete defence is the elimination of nuclear weapons and assurance that they will never be produced again.”
The most important source for this review is the Chatham House Report from 2014 “Too close for comfort.”
“Only Donald Trump (among the Presidential candidates) has said anything meaningful and critical of U.S. foreign policy.” No, that is not Reince Priebus, chair of the RNC, speaking up in favor of the presumptive Republican nominee. It is Stephen F. Cohen, Emeritus Professor of Russian History at Princeton and NYU, a contributing editor for The Nation, that most liberal of political journals.
Cohen tells us here that: “Trump’s questions are fundamental and urgent, but instead of engaging them, his opponents (including President Obama) and the media dismiss the issues he raises about foreign policy as ignorant and dangerous. Some even charge that his statements are like ‘Christmas in the Kremlin’ and that he is ‘the Kremlin’s Candidate’ — thereby, further shutting off the debate we so urgently need.” (Cohen’s comment about the lack of a meaningful critique of U.S. foreign policy also covers the statements of Sen. Bernie Sanders.)
On the April 6 broadcast, Cohen said: “Let me just rattle off the five questions he [Trump] has asked. [First] why must the United States lead the world everywhere on the globe and play the role of the world’s policeman, now for example, he says, in Ukraine? It’s a question. It’s worth a discussion.
“Secondly, [Trump] said, NATO was founded 67 years ago to deter the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union ended 25 years ago. What is NATO’s mission? Is it obsolete? Is it fighting terrorism? No, to the last question, it’s not. Should we discuss NATO’s mission?
“Thirdly, [Trump] asks, why does the United States always pursue regime changes? Iraq, Libya, Ukraine, and now it wants a regime change in Syria, Damascus. When the result is, to use Donald Trump’s favorite word, the result is always “disaster.” But it’s a reasonable question.
“Fourthly, why do we treat Russia and Putin as an enemy when he should be a partner?
“Fifth, Trump asks, about nuclear weapons – and this is interesting. You remember he was asked, would he rule out using nuclear weapons – an existential question. He thought for a while and then he said, ‘No, I take nothing off the table.’ And everybody said he wants to use nuclear weapons! In fact, it is the official American nuclear doctrine policy that we do not take first use off the table. We do not have a no first use of nuclear weapons doctrine. So all Trump did was state in his own way what has been official American nuclear policy for, I guess, 40 or 50 years. …
“It seems to me that these five questions, which are not being discussed by the other presidential candidates, are essential.”
Batchelor then turned the discussion to the question of NATO. Cohen replied: “When we say NATO, what are we talking about? We are not talking only about the weapons and soldiers on land and sea. We’re talking about a vast political bureaucracy with hundreds of thousands of employees and appointees, that is located in Brussels. It’s a political empire. It’s an institution. It’s almost on a par with our Department of Defense, though it gets its money from the Department of Defense, mainly, as Trump points out …
“But it has many propaganda organs. If you look at the bylines of people who write op-ed pieces in many American papers, they are listed as working for the public relations department of NATO or they formerly did so. No, I would say along with the Kremlin and Washington, NATO is probably the third largest propagator of information, in this information war, in the world.
“But look, here’s the reality. And Trump came to this late. When they were discussing expanding NATO in the 1990s in the Clinton administration, it was George Kennan, who was then the most venerable American diplomat scholar on relations with Russia, who said: Don’t do it; it will be a disaster; it will lead to a new Cold War.
“Since George spoke his words – and I knew him well when I taught at Princeton where he lived – we have taken in virtually all of the countries between Berlin and Russia. NATO now has 28 membership states. But if you sit in the Kremlin and you see NATO coming at you over 20 years, country by country like PAC-man, gobbling up countries that used to be your allies, who appears to be the aggressor?
“So – the expansion of NATO has been a catastrophe. And that has been, in some ways, apart from fighting the war in Afghanistan – from which I believe it has now withdrawn, it is now solely American (I may be wrong about that) – and in addition taking on the American project of missile defense, expanding toward Russia has been NATO’s only mission since the end of the Soviet Union.
“So people can ask themselves, if they ask calmly and apart from the information war, … do we have less security risks, less conflict, today after this expansion to Russia’s borders, bearing in mind that the Ukrainian crisis is a direct result of trying to bring Ukraine into NATO as was the Georgian war, the proxy war with Russia in 2008. Are we, as [President] Reagan would say, are we better off today? We are not! So easily at a minimum, we have to rethink what it is NATO is doing.”
So get thee to the website for the American Committee on East West Accord and listen to the weekly Batchelor-Cohen podcasts. They are an ideal antidote to the avalanche of Russia-bashing and Putin-demonizing that we must endure. While you are at it, check out the other leading members of ACEWA, a superb and badly needed organization – and make a contribution.
John V. Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.