The admirable weekly newspaper The Economist had an article in October ten years ago titled «Putin flexes his muscles». The most recent Economist, on 12 August 2017, has an article on its website titled «Russia’s biggest war game in Europe since the cold war alarms NATO» — but in the print edition on my desk the same piece is titled «Mr Putin flexes his muscles». One wonders why the headline was changed, but it is interesting to note that the honorific «Mister» has been added since 2007. Not much else has altered, however, and the harangues of muscle-flexing anti-Putin rhetoric have continued unabated through the years.
The recent theme — and not only in the Economist, but in almost all western journals and other media outlets — is that the dreaded Kremlin, that bastion of sabre-rattling bears, is intending to invade countries along its borders. And as I spent the last week among Scandinavians, first with individual friends, then at a large social gathering in Denmark, this allegation, belief, yea, conviction, attracted more of my attention than usual.
The general feeling among the people with whom I mixed, all of whom I have known for many decades, was indeed one of distrust and even fear of Russia. There were some differing and more objective opinions, but overall the tenor was suspicion that Russia is up to no good. We parted friends, as always, but I was disturbed by some of the expressions of dislike for Russia that were evident. My observation that the US-NATO military alliance had expanded exponentially following the end of the Cold War cut no ice (if one may use that metaphor in these circumstances) and was deemed irrelevant to the current situation.
It is rarely mentioned in the western media that NATO’s vast expansion took place in a time of total peace and hoped-for reconstruction throughout Europe. These were the days of economic dreams, of hope and optimism about a commercially benign Europe that would flourish through mutual cooperation and by expanding ties with nations that sought trade rather than military confrontation. Russia was weak, but obviously had economic potential. The way to prosperity was open and all the signs beckoned to expansion of trade, the furthering of cultural understanding and creation of mutual trust.
Fat chance of that happening for so long as NATO existed. And even less after NATO swelled its military presence ever closer to Russia’s borders.
When I served as a reconnaissance and survey officer in a British army nuclear missile regiment at the height of the Cold War confrontation in the 1960s, the NATO group was comparatively small, and the Belgian and Dutch armies went home for weekends. (Well, that’s what we believed.) Its magazine ‘NATO’s Fifteen (later Sixteen) Nations’ was a turgid ill-written propaganda journal of which I ploughed through two issues and which to my certain knowledge remained ever-unopened amongst the plethora of publications on the table of our Officers’ Mess ante-room, for NATO was a boring farce and none of us believed for a moment that the alliance’s defences would last longer than a few days if the hordes advanced west across the frontier, no matter the kilotonnage of our obsolescent warheads. We well knew that if we were to launch just one of our missiles we would all die a horrible death, along with most of the populations of Europe and America — and the Soviet Union — in a hideous global nuclear catastrophe.
Then came the end of Cold War confrontation, and the end of any justification for the existence of NATO. But instead of being disbanded it expanded. The successor to ‘NATO’s Fifteen/Sixteen Nations’ is a free online and much glossier magazine, produced at vast expense (NATO has plenty of money; witness its new 1.5 billion dollars headquarters palace in Brussels, mocked by President Trump in May), and it celebrates membership of 29 countries, pushing forward to Russia’s borders. The magazine is totally independent, of course, publishing such objective pieces as «NATO-Ukraine Distinctive Partnership turns twenty: lessons to take forward». The US-NATO military alliance now numbers 29 countries, of which 13 joined between March 1999 and last June, thrusting the NATO nuclear threat ever-closer to Russia’s borders.
There is little wonder that Russia was and continues to be concerned about expansion of NATO and its increasingly aggressive presence in the Baltic region. The western media complains about Russian military flights over the Baltic, but usually avoids mentioning that Russia is a Baltic country, while the United States, which flies its provocative electronic warfare aircraft on regular missions as close to Russian territory as it dares, has no territorial or any other justification for its confrontational antics. One report, though, went so far as to admit that on 21 June 2017 «a Nato military plane approached the plane of Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. A Nato fighter jet tried to approach Mr Shoigu's plane but a Russian escort plane intervened to defend it… The escort plane, a Sukhoi SU-27, demonstrated it was armed by rocking its wings, after which the Nato plane flew off… Nato insisted the crew's actions were ‘routine’ to identify the plane».
What garbage. The massive US electronic intercept apparatus knew very well that the Russian plane was in international airspace and that its main passenger was the defence minister. What message was the US-NATO military alliance trying to send, other than threat and military confrontation?
So back to Scandinavia, where the prime minister of Denmark is the only European leader with a real sense of humour (although Angela does occasionally have a laugh; I hope she wins the next election), and who at the moment is considering reintroduction of national conscription. He isn’t going to do this because he thinks it might be amusing or because he fears Russia, but because he wants to do the best for his young people, as he and his advisers and generals (and all of us) know perfectly well that a few thousand semi-trained conscripts would be but innocent cannon-fodder in wartime.
No: he knows that it would be smart to bring Denmark up to the two percent of national expenditure on defence that is so important to Trump’s moronic conception of NATO. That percentage isn’t mandatory, of course; but it would show willing to the erratic nutcase Trump who demands it, and who knows what benefits that might bring? So Denmark’s Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen will win on three counts, while not appearing to be a card-carrying warmonger like the NATO fanatics. He’ll take a few thousand young empty-heads off the streets and inject some discipline and further education at little expense while basking in the sunshine of being a NATO two percenter and showing the ingenuous Russia-fearers in his nation that he is standing up to the Great Bear. It’s good to have a sense of humour that results in social improvement and satisfies a bunch of people you’re laughing at.
We should remember, of course, that his defence minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen was reported as saying that «We need to make it clear in Denmark that we are all under one type of threat or another. And we need to act. We can confirm that the Russians are right now installing new missiles in Kalingrad that can reach Copenhagen». Well, a bit of national conscription of young people will make him happy and give him a lot more to do in his office and make him look busy — and perhaps his «need to act» will make the missile battery crews in Kalingrad tremble in their boots.
Denmark’s fellow NATO members Norway and Iceland (which doesn’t have an army, navy or air force or even a large police force) and non-NATO countries Sweden and Finland decided in 2015 to «step-up military cooperation in the face of increased Russian aggression, which they described as the ‘biggest challenge to European security’».
Russia wants trade, general economic cooperation, cultural exchanges, close association with the European Union — and peaceful development. If Moscow wanted territorial expansion it could have invaded and totally conquered Ukraine right up to its western border in 22 days, or perhaps (according to a US military college analysis which I was sent) 26 days maximum. And NATO could have done nothing. But if Russia had invaded Ukraine, as the paper points out in some detail, it would have had to cope with a massive domestic resistance movement.
What would be the point of that?
Similarly, why on earth would Russia want to invade any of the Baltic States? It could overcome the lot of them in a matter of days — but what would be the point? The result would be nothing but trouble and strife.
The Economist is concerned about Russia’s military exercise Zapad being held in its own sovereign territory and quotes General Ben Hodges, the commander of American forces in Europe as saying that «People are worried this is a Trojan horse. They [the Russians] say, ‘We’re just doing an exercise,’ and then all of a sudden they’ve moved all these people and capabilities somewhere… Look, we’ll be ready; we’ll be prepared. But we’re not going to be up on the parapets waiting for something to happen».
Stand up on the parapet, General, bear your bemedalled breast, and wait for nothing, for nothing is going to happen. And bear in mind that the Trojan Horse was full of Greeks, not Trojans.
The comment by the Economist that «All NATO can do is remain vigilant and hope Mr Putin sends his troops back to barracks when Zapad is over» is the only really stupid thing I’ve read in that publication in over fifty years. Where do you think the troops are going to go?