A Perverse Thought: Finding A Silver Lining In Moscow’s Latest Nuclear Sabre-Rattling

Overcompensating a tad?

Overcompensating a tad?

At times, there is something of the predictably petulant teenager in Russia’s strategic responses. NATO lets it be known that it is considering pre-positioning US armour in the Baltic States (as I’ve said, this is “heavy metal diplomacy” aimed at reassuring the Balts and warning off the Russians more than because there is any serious expectation of war). And in knee-jerk response, Putin announces that

“More than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles able to overcome even the most technically advanced anti-missile defence systems will be added to the make-up of the nuclear arsenal this year.”

Perversely and paradoxically I find something faintly reassuring about this. Bizarre? Let me explain.

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US prepositioning in the Baltics: heavy metal politics and hostages to fortune

US tanks headed for the Baltic? Consider them armoured diplomats

US tanks headed for the Baltic? Consider them armoured diplomats

There is much about the present Russo-Western confrontation that is symbolic, even when it comes to the tanks rumbling around the Baltic plans or the Russian aircraft screaming past and sometimes into NATO airspace. Essentially, it is a combination of the macho posture of alpha male animals, trying to overawe their rival by any means short of the murderous, and the stately diplomatic dance of hint, demarche and denunciation, in heavy metal form.

Consider, for example, the likely deployment of heavy equipment in the Baltic states, a pre-deployment of enough kit for a full brigade. More than anything else, this is a piece of theatre intended to reassure the Balts that they would not be left high and dry if the big, bad Russians ever invaded, and warn Moscow that Washington is indeed serious about its obligations to its NATO allies.

In military terms, after all, it is harder to see this as serious. Why? All this hardware is pretty pointless without (a) the 5,000 or soldiers to go with it and (b) without the time to take the tanks and other pieces of kit out of storage and get them ready for action — even at the most basic level, they need fuel, ammunition and other consumables. Presumably if — and I don’t believe this would ever happen — the Russians ever were to invade the Baltic states, they would do so through a surprise blitzkrieg, as one of their massive military “exercises” on the borders suddenly reveals itself to be an intervention force. I can’t see Moscow feeling the need to give NATO fair warning and notice!

The sad truth is that the Baltic states are pretty much impossible to defend in purely military terms. The borders are open, the terrain is pretty flat, the settlements small. That in no way minimizes the determination of the Balts, and the Russians would have to expect subsequent bitter guerrilla warfare as patriots fight back from the woods or in the cities, but Moscow’s ability to take the region in the first instant is hard to question.

The corollary? It is that, in purely military terms, Washington is prepositioning a cache of modern weapons for the Russians to capture.

Of course, the point is that this is not what anyone expects to happen: if — again, let’s stress that if — Russia chose to step up its aggression against the Baltic states, it is almost certain to be through indirect, covert or deniable means, not a storm of armour and airpower. The calculation in Washington is that at least by pretending to make a serious military commitment to the Baltic states (and one which makes it certain and obvious that any Russian offensive will bring it into face-to-face contact with US soldiers), it deters Moscow from any such moves. And so we have another demonstration of the many ways in which if not war but military force can be the instrument for politics by other means.

First thoughts on Nemtsov’s posthumous “Putin. War.” report on Russian operations in Ukraine

Ilya Yashin, presenting the report

Ilya Yashin, presenting the report

Putin. War., the report on the Ukrainian adventure that Boris Nemtsov was working on when he was murdered, has been released, completed by Ilya Yashin and other allies and cohorts. It’s an interesting document, even if it essentially fleshes out what we already knew rather than saying anything truly novel (the section on the MH17 shoot-down, adding to the chorus of voices blaming the rebels, largely draws on existing, available studies, for example). That’s not in any way to undermine the genuine bravery of those people involved in the project, including not just Yashin but a range of opposition-minded figures from Oleg Kashin to Ekaterina Vinokurova. But I think it does put paid to the suggestion that Nemtsov was assassinated to prevent the report from coming out, especially as now it will probably get more coverage than it would otherwise.

Anyway, here are a few first thoughts on the report: (more…)

Moscow Correspondence (3): ‘Donbas: 365 days of the ATO’

On one of my last days in this trip to Moscow, I went to the VDNKh (no one seems to call it by its new, post-Soviet title of VVTs, even the posters read VDNKh). It was a cold, wet day and most of the people around were workers sprucing the place up for the later spring and summer, but my objective was the Ukraine pavilion which, with a certain vicious irony, is now the home of ‘Donbas: 365 Days of the ATO‘ [Anti-Terrorism Operation — what Kiev calls its military campaign against the rebels]. Past some of the toughest security checks I encountered this trip, I found an exhibition which took the undoubted horrors of the campaign (and let’s be honest, Kiev pulled few punches, and the often-indiscriminate shelling of civilian targets has helped harden rebel sentiment in the region) but often turned it into a haunted house-style horror show in the name of propaganda. We’re talking replicas of bombed out strobed with red lighting, pictures of dolls in rubble, the works. In many ways, I suppose, this is a metaphor for much of the worst kind of Russian propaganda: taking a basis of truth, but then turning into a macabre spectacle of one-sided caricature. An interesting experience, and worth the time spent schlepping there through the rain, but an unsettling one for both the intended and unintended reasons.

Moscow Correspondence (2): Taste and Hear the Patriotism

As the 70th anniversary Victory Day celebrations near (counted down on the video display board on Kutuzovsky Bridge), themes of victory, the Great Patriotic War and the St George’s ribbon proliferate. Here is just a small sample, from concerts to ice creams.

Moscow Correspondence (1): Russian Railways on the Patriotic Bandwagon

While I’m here in Moscow for a couple of weeks teaching a course for MGIMO-University, I’ll take the opportunity to post some random observations. The first is that the “70 years since the end of the Great Patriotic Bandwagon” is as predictably a Big Thing as one would expect but also, and I suspect not least thanks to the current national (or at least Kremlin) mood become a competition of sorts. Equally predictably, Russian Railways (RZhD) boss Vladimir Yakunin, everyone’s favourite KGB veteran/Putin chum/Orthodox Chekist booster, is not going to let such an opportunity pass by and RZhD “we are proud and remember” billboards greet you at the airport and dominate several city landmarks, including a massive video one that provides a veritable multi-stage history of the railways and WW2…

At Sheremetevo airport

At Sheremetevo airport

The massive video display board at the corner of Novy Arbat and Nikitsky

The massive video display board at the corner of Novy Arbat and Nikitsky

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