The World Can Not Afford a War Between the West and Russia

Even Russian experts who have utmost respect for the tremendous military capacity of the US nonetheless point out Russia would be able to retaliate against a nuclear first strike -- and end the world

The European-Russian Forum, Brussels, 26 November 2018

Most of what we find in the Western mass media, and even in specialized daily digests and periodicals devoted to Russian affairs tends to fall into the extremes of Russia-bashing by the vast majority or pro-Russia cheerleading by tiny fringe groups who otherwise are unhappy with US global hegemony.

By way of example, I point to how Vladimir Putin’s roll-out of Russia’s latest and unrivaled strategic weapons systems in his 1 March 2018 speech to a session of the joint houses of the Russian Parliament were received in the West.

Many commentators insisted soon afterwards that the Mach 20 Avangard and other nuclear armed systems presented in Putin’s video clips were a bluff directed at his home audience for the sake of the forthcoming presidential election, not directed at Washington; that Russia is incapable of such breakthroughs on an industrial scale and poses no consequential military threat.  Meanwhile, dissenters from Washington’s unipolar world concept expressed joy at the Russians’ claim to having restored nuclear parity with the United States, validating the Mutually Assured Destruction balance that kept the peace for much of the last half century. On this basis some began clamoring for Putin to adopt a tougher stance in confrontation with the West up to and including clash of arms.

The 12th European-Russia Forum which was just held in the European Parliament, Brussels brought sobering realism to bear on the questions of whether we are headed into war with Russia, whether it can be limited in destructiveness and regional in scope or will quickly escalate to the global level with nuclear exchanges, and appraising what kind of outcomes we may anticipate. Speeches and discussion steered right down the neutral middle on all of these questions, and were unusually illuminating.

Before going into some detail on who said what, I am obliged to direct attention to the sponsors of this event in the European Parliament and to the participants in it.

The European Parliament building is an enormous complex comprising the offices of the 751 MEPs, a vast auditorium for their plenary sessions and a number of lesser auditoriums and conference rooms for functions held jointly with the public under the auspices of one or another political bloc of Members, such as the Forum which just took place. In the given instance, our hosts were a compound bloc called The Greens/European Free Alliance that has existed in Parliament for two decades and accounts for about 8% of the membership of the house.

“The Greens” take in Green parties from several European countries, but not the German Greens, who are a law unto themselves and are notorious cold warriors.  “Our” Greens have a calm, reflective view of international relations and do not automatically take sides in any of the conflicts between Russia and the West. Their main focus is, as we may expect, on ecologically friendly policies, promotion of the Paris Climate Change Agreement and closing of nuclear power plants. They also describe themselves as “progressives” on other social and economic issues and stand for the liberties of citizens.

The European Free Alliance is a nest for diverse champions of Europe’s regions, taking in, among others, Scottish, Welsh, Catalan, Galician nationalists, representing the interests of unrecognized nations within Europe’s great states. It also counts as members MEPs standing for the Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic States including the remarkable founder of the Forum, Tatjana Zdanoka, MEP from Latvia from 2004 to March 2018, when she resigned to join domestic political contests in Riga. Her successor, Miroslavs Mitrofanovs, assumed the presidency of the Forum as well as her seat in parliament.

This was the 12th iteration of the Forum and was in the opinion of its long time participants the very best. The best in terms of structure of the program, focused as it was on the most vital issue of our day: war and peace.  Also the best in terms of the level of participants and their contributions.

In the program of the Forum attached to this report, the reader can find the names and brief mention of current positions of speakers. In a number of cases they should be followed up by a look at their Wikipedia entries, which attest to their hands-on experience dealing with the issues of the Forum at the highest levels within their organizations and governments.

The speakers may be sorted into three categories of which both the EU and Russia had their fair share:  parliamentarians; experts on disarmament and military strategic planning; and activists from civil society.

For the most part, the most valuable speeches came from the expert contingent precisely because they have been insiders to the deliberations that create negotiating positions on the Russian and US-European sides of the ongoing confrontation.  The parliamentarians and activists, though also speakers, were more important as an audience for the experts since they alone have the possibility of mobilizing society and political elites to do something about the dangers exposed by expert testimony.

There was a near consensus of all speakers regarding who is to blame for the deterioration in Russia’s relations with the West ever since the halcyon days following signing of the Paris Charter in November 1990 that formally ended the Cold War. This deterioration has moved with particular speed over the past decade bringing us today to the lowest point in relations since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

We heard from speaker after speaker that the US was and is to blame, starting with NATO expansion to the East in the mid-1990s and running through the US-managed coup d’état in Kiev on 22 February 2014 that installed an aggressively anti-Russian government in Ukraine. That crossed all of Moscow’s red lines and precipitated the re-incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation the following month, leading in turn to the Western response we see to this day: sanctions, nonstop information war and exacerbation of conflicts in Europe and in the Middle East, where Russia and the West have been backing proxies that are in conflict.

We were reminded that the arms limitation agreements reached during the Cold  War have been abrogated (ABM Treaty in 2002) and are being abrogated today (INF Treaty) at the initiative of one side only, the United States, and that there is every possibility that the NEW START agreement reached under the Obama administration will be allowed to lapse in 2021. All of this contributes to global insecurity and rips up the procedures for verification and building trust between the nuclear superpowers that took decades to achieve.

However, when turning from the frightful level of current East-West relations to appraisal of the risks of war, the positions of the speakers were more nuanced.  The same may be said of their estimations of the relative strength of Russia and NATO going into any generalized conflict if it comes to that. Moreover, there was some noteworthy disagreement over whether the prospective new arms races in several different dimensions could themselves be a cause of war and whether regional conflicts such as around Kosovo, around Syria and Ukraine could touch off general conflagrations.

One of the most persuasive and best prepared expert speakers was Pavel Zolotarev, deputy director of the Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies, Professor of the Academy of Military Sciences, member of the Foreign and Security Policy Council and…a Major General in the reserves. I summarize below his overview of current realities and risk factors:

Today we see reinstatement by the USA of the same lines of Containment that it pursued against the Soviet Union in the original Cold War:

Nuclear confrontation. The United States retains the right of first use.  Russian doctrine is no first use unless the existence of the country comes under threat from a conventional attack. In the Cold War, NATO needed its tactical nuclear potential to withstand conventional Soviet ground attack. Today the shoe is on the other foot and Russia needs this back-up because of superior NATO strength.

If the USA leaves the INF and puts missiles in Europe, that reduces the warning time to as little as 3 minutes. It forces Russia to rely on computer programmed responses, the “dead hand” solution.

The question of war in Europe depends on one factor only: whether the United States and Russia can agree on post-Soviet space. Ukraine is the case in point. We cannot be sure that the United States can restrain Poroshenko. If Poroshenko continues, Russia may move out from the cover of volunteers to regular forces in a regional war. Further on the process may be unforeseeable, leading to a nuclear war.

But even if we solve the problem with Ukraine, we are still in a transition process, meaning it is a dangerous time with unpredictable events.

Several of the Russian military experts left no doubt about their respect for the U.S. military and its spending at ten times the level of their own country.  As Vladimir Kozin, from the Center for Military and Political Studies at the prestigious international affairs school MGIMO in Moscow noted: the US budget for its new nuclear triad and other weapons systems is vast and no other country has this potential.

With greater specificity, Alexei Podberezkin, director of the same Center in MGIMO, described the way the United States has already covered nearly all of Russian territory with navy-based 3500 km range cruise missiles having high accuracy delivery. He believes that if the US leaves the INF Treaty, there will be mass production of a wide class of missiles in this range upsetting the strategic balance. He identifies the tactical U.S. objective as destruction of the “Putin regime,” while its strategic objective is to destroy Russia.

Nonetheless, the various Russian presentations left little doubt that the country’s asymmetrical defensive nuclear capability and its measures to ensure a riposte even in the circumstances of a first American nuclear strike mean the doomsday scenario will be realized.

All the Russian military experts agreed on the need to reestablish dialogue with the United States over arms control. This is so even if they appear not to consider weapons systems as such likely to be the cause of a great war, whereas political conflict will be.

Among the Western experts, Angela Kane, former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, held out little hope that the wished for security talks with the United States will be resumed during Donald Trump’s tenure. If Trump ever wished for such talks, his hands have been tied by domestic political enemies. And since his elevation to National Security Advisor, John Bolton has actively encouraged the President to take the country out of international treaties over arms limitation and much else.

In closing, I call attention to two speakers from the activist contingent who imparted messages intended to give purpose to the gathering in the days and months ahead.

Guiletto Chiesa is a well-known Italian politician and widely published journalist who has participated in the Forum from its inception. He was pleased that this year’s participants have all caught up with his long-existing sense of alarm over the direction of global affairs and imminent risk of war. Said Chiesa:

This is not Cold War II. It is a preparation for a big destructive war. We must beat the drums – a war is coming.

However, Chiesa’s mood was given a lift by the coming European elections in May 2019 which may well see voter rejection of the war parties who now run the show in the Parliament. The best example is the remarkable coalition government of “extreme” right and left in Italy that no one could have predicted, so that the way is open for new initiatives.

The other parting message I will quote is from Ray McGovern, the former CIA analyst and reporter of daily intelligence to American presidents who has become an antiwar campaigner of national prominence. Ray has repeatedly “put his body on the line” in demonstrations in Europe and in Washington, D.C. against US bases, against installing torturers at the head of the Agency.  Said Ray:  this is the Noah moment.  What we need now is not more weather forecasters telling us about the coming rain, but more builders of arks.

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