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Provocation, Bluster and Blowback

Washington’s provocative antics involving Russia and China are going too far.  The immaturity of the pinpricks — Obama visiting Estonia,  and Ukraine’s out-of-his-depth president Poroshenko being summoned to the NATO summit carnival : “Yah, Boo, Moscow!” — is pathetic, but there are more serious developments such as the US “moving tanks and 600 troops to Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for joint maneuvers in October.”  Not that these war games are any threat,  and Moscow will laugh at them,  but Washington is deliberately boosting anti-Russia sentiment in a region that should devote its time to getting on with social and economic development — which is vigorously supported by Russia.

As even the devotedly anti-Putin Economist noted, “Russia is Lithuania’s largest trading partner, accounting for 25% of its total trade;  the figure for Estonia and Latvia is around 10%. Agriculture and food-processing are especially dependent on Russian business, as are ports, transport and logistics. Most of all, the Baltic states depend on Russian energy, particularly gas. If Russia turned off the taps . . .  it would take several years to find and route sufficient alternative gas supplies to the region.”

But Russia doesn’t want to turn off its gas taps to the Baltic states — or to anyone  — because, quite simply, it makes good money from supplying gas and oil.  It couldn’t get that money if it was at war with the states who now pay it for its products, so it doesn’t want to go to war with these countries — or with anyone — for that would incur severe economic penalties.  It couldn’t be more obvious. But the people who are spoiling for a fight don’t see it that way.

That’s just the bear-baiting side of the Pentagon capers, and Washington is finding it equally satisfying to do a bit of dragon-taunting on the other side of the world, which is just as stupid and dangerous.

* *  *

On August 19 a United States P-8 Poseidon intelligence gathering aircraft was flying an electronic surveillance mission 135 miles (217 km) east of China’s Hainan Island when it was buzzed by a Chinese fighter plane.  The Boeing P-8 was well within China’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends, as do all EEZs, up to 200 nautical miles (230 miles; 370 km),  and there was no reason for its being there other than to spy on China.  The Chinese sent up a J-11 fighter to have a look at the US spy-plane and its pilot had a ball.  He flew within nose-tweaking distance of the P-8 and performed some skillful tricks, among other things doing a barrel roll only a few feet above it, which aerobatic dexterity the White House called a “deeply concerning provocation.”  So let’s think about provocation.

The Chinese fighter was 135 miles from China’s south coast.  The US spy plane was 7,500 miles from America’s west coast.  (Even Hawaii is 6,000 miles from Hainan.)  But if the Chinese sent a spy plane to fly within 135 miles of the US coast and it was detected picking up transmissions from, say, the secret Point Mugu weapons testing base (here) 50 miles north of Los Angeles, do we imagine that this might be described by Washington as a “deeply concerning provocation”?   Of course it would — and rightly.

So why is it not a provocation when an American electronic intelligence (ELINT) spy plane targets China’s signals intelligence facility at Lingshui on the south coast of Hainan?   The only reason the US sends aircraft equipped with sophisticated electronic warfare devices to fly so close to China is because it wants to spy on China. And this time China objected and sent up a fighter jock with orders to enjoy himself and scare the hell out of the P-3 crew, which he appears to have done most successfully.

There was a smidgen of mild criticism in some media about a US spy plane flying so close to China but this was airily dismissed by the Pentagon which announced sniffily that “military activities may be conducted within the Exclusive Economic Zone of another nation as an exercise of the freedoms of navigation and overflight.”  So can we take it that if ever the offshore sky of the United States is multi-dotted with Chinese and Russian ELINT aircraft flying along its coasts and penetrating a hundred miles inside its EEZ, then there will be no complaints?   In a pig’s valise, buddy.

In Part V of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defining countries’ responsibilities concerning Exclusive Economic Zones there is not a single mention of the word ‘military’.  And ‘overflight’ appears but once, in that there should be “freedom of overflight” — with the caveat that “the high seas shall be reserved for peaceful purposes.”  Which in the US book of bent rules includes inshore spy flights. And the delicious irony — the absolute hooting joke — is that the US Senate refuses to ratify UNCLOS.  But maybe the Senate hasn’t told the Pentagon what’s going on.  (And perhaps that’s reciprocated.)

The Pentagon’s spokesman, Rear Admiral Kirby, said the Chinese pilot’s frolics in buzzing the P-8 were “unprofessional” which I’m willing to bet got a big laugh from that pilot’s US Navy counterparts,  because every one of them, without exception, would just love a chance to do a barrel roll fifty feet from a lumbering Poseidon-like airplane whose pilots are regarded with genial condescension by every fighter jock worthy of the name.

Admiral Kirby doesn’t wear aviator’s wings but has a ‘Master of Science degree in International Relations from Troy State University’ and about seven rows of medal ribbons  and I’m sure the fighter jocks just love him,  but he went on to declare that China’s reaction to US spying was “certainly not in keeping with the kind of military-to-military relations that we’d like to have with China,” which is almost as hilarious as his remark about being the Chinese pilot being unprofessional because Washington is having the navy “reposture” to have 60 per cent of its combat ships in the Pacific, which will “include six aircraft carriers, a majority of our cruisers, destroyers, combat ships and submarines.”

All these combat ships have peaceful intent, of course, stretching out 7,000 miles from the US west coast.  It’s exactly the sort of “military-to-military relations” that the US seeks in Europe, too, where its new Cold War confrontation with Russia is going very nicely, thank you.

In a curiously parallel incident in the Baltic Sea, exactly a month before the Hainan fandango, another US electronic warfare airplane (they are all over the place) was spying against Russia which sent up a fighter to drive it away from its coast.  A US official said “the spy plane crew felt so concerned about the radar tracking that it wanted to get out of the area as quickly as possible” and the pilot requested overflight of Swedish territory. This was refused by the Swedish air traffic controller — but the US pilot paid no attention to the order to refrain from entering foreign airspace and flew over the Swedish island of Gotland, which has an airbase at Visby on the west coast and a radar station at Furillen on the other side.

This blatant violation of Sweden’s sovereignty didn’t attract condemnation because Sweden has lurched far away from the courageous neutrality it once embraced.  It is now a member of NATO’s ‘Partnership for Peace’,  a specifically anti-Russian alliance that involves “virtually every field of NATO activity, including defense-related work, defense reform, defense policy and planning, civil-military relations, education and training, military-to-military cooperation and exercises.”  The departing semi-psychotic secretary-general of NATO (the military ‘Supreme Commander’, who calls the shots, literally, is always a US general), Anders Fogh-of-War Rasmussen, declared earlier this year that  Sweden is “one of NATO’s most active and effective partners, and we now have a real opportunity to make our partnership even stronger,” while in Ukraine he blustered that NATO is “planning more joint exercises, more cooperation, and long-term assistance to modernize the Ukrainian armed forces and the Ukrainian security sector.”

So we all know exactly where we stand — and Russia realizes that there isn’t a hope of  rapprochement with the US and NATO, given their attitude of rigid confrontation.  Their bear baiting will gather momentum, because the Second Cold War is upon us, and US-led NATO is spoiling for heat.  But the sick joke about all this is that NATO couldn’t fight its way out of a paper bag.

September’s NATO conference in Britain was an absurd jamboree of posturing provocation.  Getting to the end of its withdrawal from Afghanistan after over a decade of war, having been defeated by a few thousand raggy-baggie guerrillas, the dithering assembly couldn’t make its mind up whether to do anything about the catastrophe in the Middle East that has resulted from the 2003 war on Iraq by its two most vocal and belligerent members, America and Britain.  All that president Obama (38% national approval rating) and prime minister Cameron (35%) could say — in a newspaper piece written by their public relations’ hacks — was “if terrorists think we will weaken in the face of their threats they could not be more wrong.”  Of course they didn’t say they would be doing anything about the terrorists, because they can’t. They are all adrift — so Russia is a more attractive target for bluster and pointless needling.

Afghanistan is way down the list of NATO’s public relations’ priorities (and had hardly a mention at the shindig), and when an American soldier was killed in Afghanistan during the NATO mutual admiration meeting, on the day when a major PR operation had Obama and Cameron visit a school for a photo-op with children, there was not one single report about the soldier’s death on radio or television.

It would have looked really bad, while NATO was celebrating its expensive existence, for it to be shown that its soldiers were still being killed in that chaotic country (twelve Afghan soldiers were killed the same day;  but nobody gives a damn about them, except their grieving families), but what did that US soldier die for?  And for what righteous cause in the name of freedom is the US-NATO circus proposing to hazard the lives of its soldiers in the future?

Three days before that soldier died for nothing,  much publicity had been given to NATO’s plans for “a rapid response force of several thousand troops to protect eastern European members against possible Russian aggression. The force, to be made up of troops provided by member states on a rotating basis, would be able to be deployed within 48 hours.”  And I roared with laughter, as, no doubt, did Mr Putin.  A tiny bunch of multinational fist-wagging warriors isn’t going to deter Russia because there isn’t going to be any “Russian aggression”.

There hasn’t been any Russian aggression against anyone.  Moscow rationally supported a peaceful plebiscite in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea that resulted in its entirely legal, democratic and popular accession to Russia without loss of a single life.  Moscow now supports the Russian-speaking, Russian-cultured population of some parts of eastern Ukraine, many thousands of whom have had to flee persecution at the hands, feet and guns of the Kiev government’s soldiers.  But US-NATO supports the Ukraine regime, solely because it is anti-Russian,  and has picked a fight that it can’t win.

Britain’s David Cameron declares about Putin and Ukraine that “we cannot allow him to take the whole country.”  But he and Obama refuse to see that Putin doesn’t want Ukraine.  Who on earth would want it?  The EU certainly doesn’t, because it’s a corrupt and chaotic economic disaster.  If Russia did invade and occupy the place it would have a vast, expensive and unsolvable internal security problem on its hands, and it doesn’t need that.  All Russia wants is justice for the Russian-cultured people of the eastern regions.  And it will get it.

The present posture of baiting and bluster on the part of the US and NATO is dangerous and potentially disastrous.  It is made worse by statements such as that by the assistant to Ukraine’s President Poroshenko who Facebooked that “at the NATO summit agreements were reached on the provision of military advisers and supplies of modern armaments from the United States, France, Italy, Poland and Norway.” These countries later denied that they had agreed to such involvement — but statements like that aren’t made without basis.  Watch for the Entry of the Advisors.

The pointless and contrived US-NATO confrontation with Russia is much more serious than the irritating incidents in which US intelligence airplanes trail their coats near sensitive installations of foreign nations. It involves a few incompetent politicians (who are strikingly unpopular in their own countries) making threats against a proud nation that has had almost enough of their arrogance.  Provoking Russia may be intended to play well with their domestic audiences, but there is a limit to Russian patience, and to that of the Chinese, too, who are equally proud of their place in the world, and justifiably so.  There might well be blowback.  And if that comes we’re all going to suffer.

Brian Cloughley’s website is www.beecluff.com

A version of this essay was published by the Asia Times Online on September 8.