By Jonathan Power*
“What idiocy”, exclaims Jack Matlock on Facebook. Matlock is one of my “Facebook Friends” because I judge his knowledge of Russia as second to none, having been under President Ronald Reagan the White House’s senior advisor on the Soviet Union and, later, his ambassador to Moscow.
The object of his ire is based on a Newsday article earlier this month. (The Russian, nation-wide, NTV channel carried the same story in a broadcast on September 23.)
It concerns Russia’s anger following the U.S. military’s claim that it could take down the air defences of the Kaliningrad region. They are the highly sophisticated S-300 and S-400 anti-missile systems. Moreover, it has practiced doing so earlier this year. (Kaliningrad is an internationally recognised enclave of Russia that is sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.)
General Jeff Harrigan, the commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, told reporters, “If we have to go in there to take down the Kaliningrad Air Defense System let there be no doubt we have a plan to go after that. We train to that. We think through these plans all the time and if that would ever come to fruition we’d be ready to execute.” Apparently B-52 strategic bombers carried out a mock missile attack on Kaliningrad in March.
This is thinking without thinking about the unthinkable. Europe’s American air force boss says in effect: “We are back to the Cold War”. Who has allowed him to say all this? There’s no report of a reprimand from on high so we must take it that this is US military policy.
Those who believe President Donald Trump is in President Vladimir Putin’s pocket should think once again. He has been polite, even friendly, in personal encounters with Putin but his anti-Russian actions betray his words. I cannot think of one thing that the U.S. has done to support Russia. Yet Russia allows the U.S. to transport by rail military hardware to U.S. troops in Afghanistan. It sells rocket engines to the U.S. which otherwise would experience a major setback in its space activities. It launches rockets carrying American payloads.
Why should we go back to the Cold War and the attitudes and missteps it bred? Russia has not done much bad, at least in comparison with America’s decision to expand the boundaries of NATO right up to Russia’s border. Matlock was present at the crucial meetings when James Baker, the U.S. Secretary of State, made it clear to Russia’s foreign minister Eduard Shevarnadze and President Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not move its boundaries eastwards.
The announcement by General Harrigan comes on top of the U.S.’s decision to terminate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Intermediate Range Treaty, banning short and medium range nuclear missiles.
You think the Russians shouldn’t be angry? To them these American moves smack of Napoleon and Hitler who also transgressed Russia’s borders.
Matlock says that a rational answer would be: “Play your games if you wish, but you are wasting your time and your assets. You must know very well if you do that you will not survive the consequences. Building up military assets and bragging about it simply gives Russia an incentive to raise the ante”.
On September 21, a Russian corvette and frigate conducted missile training off the coast of Kaliningrad. One day later, Iskander missile combat crews fended off a simulated NATO attack on the region.
Nevertheless, Matlock adds, hopefully rightly, “NATO is not going to attack Russia and Russia is not going to attack any NATO country. But these games are dangerous because accidents can happen and can lead to dangerous escalation.” Not least, they signal that we are back into a Cold War, a Cold War without the justification of confronting atheistic, aggressive, dictatorial, communism and a forgetting of the Soviet Union’s role when it was working together with its Western allies to defeat Nazi Germany, with the USSR carrying the larger part of the burden.
Who are we supposed to be arming against- a country that after the Cold War wanted to be the West’s friend? Yes, it does things that the West doesn’t like and goes against international law – it sent soldiers into eastern and southern Ukraine and seized Crimea and justified it with an unsatisfactory plebiscite. Putin has turned Russia from a democracy into an autocracy, but opposition movements are raising their voices more and more. When their leaders are arrested or treated badly by the police, seemingly with Putin’s support, there are many media outlets which protest and a good number of the demonstrators are then released from jail.
In short, re-starting the Cold War as is being done in Kaliningrad is both historically insensitive and counterproductive in today’s politics. The best way to bring back democracy to Russia is not to provoke the Bear unnecessarily. A second Cold War is the last thing we should want.
*Note: Jonathan Power was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune. Copyright: Jonathan Power. Website www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com.