Saturday, November 01, 2008

Nobody can afford a real Cold War

Canadian Column

They've dusted off the Cold War sabres, but is the rattling for real


November 1, 2008

MOSCOW -- From the vantage of a Moscow living room this week, it was easy to believe that the world had been magically beamed back to the worst days of 1962.

On Monday, the state-controlled TV stations eagerly showed us a military delegation visiting Cuba in a mission, the first of its kind since Soviet times, to "exchange experience in organizing tactical air defence and in training officers," as the Kremlin put it.

The same day, a fleet of Russian warships, led by the nuclear-powered Peter the Great, reached the coast of Latin America to help the Venezuelan government deploy $4-billion worth of Russian-made fighter jets, helicopters and weapons in America's backyard.

Later in the week, Russia met with Iran as part of a huge arms deal, and fighting flared up again in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Russian-majority Georgian regions that were invaded by 60,000 Russian troops this summer.
Print Edition - Section Front

Section F Front Enlarge Image
More Stories

* 'We butchered birds'
* Malaria effort brings Africa a rare public-health success story
* The quest for 'the reconcilable'
* Bad policies and a lack thereof
* They've dusted off the Cold War sabres, but is the rattling for real?
* Go to the section

The Globe and Mail

The Americans seem to be behaving equally Cold War-ishly. After eight years of increasingly nasty name-calling and provocative acts on Russia's doorstep by the U.S. military, both John McCain and Barack Obama have refused to turn down the heat, speaking of Russia exclusively as a threat to be dealt with strongly. Even Mr. Obama, who otherwise claims to be a negotiator, has hinted strongly that Russia could be punished.

When Moammar Gadhafi showed up here yesterday, for the first time since the eighties, and signed a huge arms deal of his own, it all started to feel a bit too real.

But it isn't real, and we shouldn't forget that.

The real Cold War was not just a set of political gestures; it was a full-scale military reality. The Soviet Union's forces were massively organized to expand outward and wage war in Europe. The West's entire military was oriented eastward, and 100,000 soldiers were prepared to head to Western Europe's borders quickly and lethally.

If there were still actual, credible military tension between Russia and the West, we would be seeing one side or another preparing to face the threat of the other.

But, on both sides, precisely the opposite is happening.

"Look, I am a Cold War veteran," says Alexander Golts, a former Red Army commander who is now one of Russia's best-connected military observers.

In his office beside the Kremlin, he outlines the new map of North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Russian forces. "I spent 16 years with the Soviet military daily. And I remember the exercises ... where Americans trained their troops to cross oceans, and they were capable of moving something like 1,000 tanks, 50,000 troops and so forth. But there have been no such exercises for decades, not on either side."

In fact, he noted, both Russia and the U.S. are rebuilding their armies so they can mainly face threats in the Middle East and the south. The American presence in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, Russian military figures willingly acknowledge, can be only for this purpose - by abandoning German bases, they're actually weakening their ability to attack Russia. "It's absolutely clear that all this rhetoric about a possible military threat from NATO to Russia just has no sense to it," Mr. Golts says.

On the other side, it's the same. At a private gathering of senior NATO-connected officials in England last week, one of the alliance's better-known officials put it to me plainly. "Neither Russia nor NATO wants to spend the money or energy tooling up for a new Cold War. There are actually more common enemies shared by both parties, and even if the politics are hostile, the militaries are moving closer together."

Russia's Defence Minister, in the midst of these aggressive gestures, has been reshaping the nation's military dramatically, changing from a huge, mass-mobilization reserve army that takes in 130,000 troops a year to an elite, fast-moving force designed to counter terrorist threats and failed states.

"At present," Moscow military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer says, "Russia wants to westernize its military and rearm it with the West's help, and to build a military that will be more professional and smaller - not a mass mobilization. And the purpose of a mass mobilization is to fight the West. So we're moving in a direction militarily where we will have to be less opposed to the West, even while politically we are getting more and more opposed to the West."

It is widely believed that neither President Alexander Medvedev nor Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wanted a military incursion into Georgia - neither are seen to be expansion-minded - but political circumstances, both within Russia and provoked by Georgia's hostility, forced them into it. "I think it's fair to say that this was a one-time action, a real exception to the rule," a senior British military commander says.

The only NATO countries that talk about Russia as a serious threat, and propose defences in Europe, are a few of the most recent members: Poland, Estonia, Hungary, all former Soviet conquests.

This talk aggravates most other members, including the U.S. and Canada, which always saw the eastward expansion of the alliance not as a defensive move, but a way to send messages of co-operation to Russia in hopes of perhaps some day bringing Moscow into the fold.

Attempts by Russian generals to keep up anti-Western defences are batted away by the Kremlin as quickly as NATO command bats away requests by Eastern European countries to put bases along the Russian border. A British official admits to me that Britain's army has only one unit capable of crossing major rivers. That sort of equipment, necessary in bulk if European defence is planned, is not even in the cards. Nobody believes it is necessary.

This week's U.S. election is key: We can only hope that all the tough-on-Russia talk was for the swing-state voters, just as the Kremlin's anti-Western posturing is intended for a domestic audience.

It's dangerous talk, because nobody can afford a real Cold War. Mr. Golts says the next president will need to tone down the expansionist rhetoric to avoid turning this phony war into a real one. "If you need adversity, you will have it, and the United States is the best candidate to play this role for us."