NATO’s Welcome Bear

Photo by Bill Smith | CC BY 2.0

The admirable weekly newspaper The Economist had an article in October ten years ago titled “Putin flexes his muscles.”  Then on August 12, 2017 it had a piece 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, although it’s 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 saber-rattling bears, is intending to invade countries along its borders.  And as I recently spent a week among Scandinavians, first with individual friends, then at a large social gathering of former soldiers 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 still good friends, as always, but I was disturbed by some of the expressions of dislike for Russia.  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 in 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.

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 defenses 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.  Just as would happen if there were to be war tomorrow.

Then came the end of Cold War confrontation, and the end of any reason for the existence of NATO.  But instead of being disbanded it expanded and swelled its military presence across Europe and welcomed the (now lost) war in Afghanistan and the chance to reduce Libya to chaos, which it did most effectively.

The new NATO magazine is a free, online, and much jazzier publication, 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, carrying such objective pieces as “NATO-Ukraine Distinctive Partnership turns twenty: lessons to take forward.”  Of the expanded US-NATO military alliance, 13 countries 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 Sea, but usually avoids mentioning that Russia is a Baltic country, while the United States, which regularly flies its electronic warfare aircraft on provocative missions as close to Russian territory as it dares, has no territorial or any other justification for its confrontational antics.  The right-wing nationalist UK Daily Telegraph, though, did 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 network knew very well that the plane was in international airspace and that its passenger was Russia’s defense minister. The message that the US-NATO military alliance was trying to send was one of coat-trailing menace and military confrontation.

So back to Scandinavia, where the prime minister of Denmark is the only European leader with a real sense of humor (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, the draft.  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 believes it would be smart to bring Denmark up to the two percent of national expenditure on defense that is demanded by the increasingly erratic Trump, and who knows what benefits that might bring?  So 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 people 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 humor that results in social improvement and satisfies a bunch of people at whom you’re quietly laughing.

We should nevertheless remember that his defense 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 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) and non-NATO countries Sweden (supposedly neutral) 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’.”

Baloney.  Not only is the biggest threat to European security the upsurge of domestically-based extremist savages who are determined to carry out more attacks, but it is obvious that 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 three weeks, or perhaps (according to a military college analysis that I was sent), 26 days maximum.  And NATO could have done nothing.  But if Russia had invaded Ukraine, as the paper points out in 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 it achieve, politically, economically or in social benefit?  The result would be nothing but trouble and strife.

The Economist is concerned about Russia’s military exercise Zapad to be held in its own sovereign territory in September 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 don’t venture into the realm of classic mythology, because the Trojan Horse was full of Greeks, not Trojans in their own country.

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?  The Baltics and all other countries can relax.  The Bear isn’t going anywhere, except in self-defense.

Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.