Thursday, August 21, 2008

Add a little ice, hit "chop" for 30 seconds and Voila! A Cold War cocktail!

So the world's only self-declared superpower gets itself bogged down in a war of its own making in a country it can never completely control. Having started the whole thing while believing itself to be in a position of unchallengeable power it finds things don't go quite as planned and ends up over-committing its military to the extent that both its military and its civilian population are suffering from war exhaustion.

Then, because the the superpower is tied-up in Mesopotamia, it commandeers the western European military alliance to deal with a problem it failed to resolve because Mesopotamia was a much more interesting place to be and, well, there's that light sweet stuff in the ground which is just going to make staying in power at home so damned easy.

NATO, a military and political entity, having been designed and built to deal with the threat offered by Josef Stalin and his successors has a little problem. The Soviet Union, having collapsed, suddenly falls off the "sworn enemy" list leaving the list, well, empty in NATO's field of view. So the idea of an expeditionary mission, which the alliance was never designed for, is an appealing notion. The original raison d'etre for its existence having faded, this will breathe new life into an alliance which is having difficulty justifying its existence. Off they go.

Arriving on the ground in Afghanistan NATO discovers that the world's last self-declared superpower botched the job, hadn't neutralized anything and had installed a government which existed in lager bunker while the rest of the country erupted in a violent insurgency. And far from NATO demonstrating unity of command and doctrine on this first-ever expeditionary mission each member's forces arrive with a variety of rules of engagement and a general unwillingness to commit to anything really nasty, particularly if those forces happen to have drawn a fairly quiet zone of "occupation" and "reconstruction".

NATO which is no longer posited to stare down the Soviet bear, gets a deal going where the "sworn enemy" is now considered respectable and everyone gets all chummy. Former Soviet Bloc states are joining NATO faster than Brussels can get the paperwork done and in 2002 NATO invites Russia to set up office in a cooperative agreement. We end up with the NATO-Russia Council. Former Cold Warriors everywhere breathed easy and Condoleeza Rice is once again proved to have been dead wrong on just about everything Russian.

Except that two things are standing out:

1. The self-declared superpower, arrogantly claiming some moral superiority, having already started an aggressive war against a country which represented almost no military threat, is in no position to object should another country try the same thing; and,

2. NATO, which is an expeditionary mission in its own right, finds itself on an extra-expeditionary mission as a superpower surrogate

So, when Georgia decides to pick a fight with Russia over disputed territory, Russia does what it always used to do under its former moniker and gives Georgia a good thumping. The world's last self-declared superpower makes all kinds of noise about it and issues a few threats, none of which are likely to be acted upon. NATO issues ultimatums and starts dragging a sabre across the cobblestones while quoting the Helsinki Final Act and the NATO-Russia Founding Act and the Rome Declaration. Further NATO issues a warning to the effect that
NATO cannot continue with business as usual in its relations with Russia and called on Moscow to demonstrate – both in word and deed – its continued commitment to the principles upon which NATO and Russia agreed to base their relationship.
In short, if you don't withdraw from Georgia we'll boot you out of your palatial downtown Brussels offices. The Russians shrugged this off in a way only the Russians can (OK, they were copying the Bush administration if that makes you feel better) and they announced a troop withdrawal - which amounted to nothing at all. This results in a lot of noise best described by The Editors
Now, lots of people are on TV declaring the importance of having firm principles on this issue, and how their positions are the firmest of all, but all these people are running for office, or have other justifications for wishing to sound bold and confident and knowledgeable, and being vague and noodley does not create this impression. OTOH, vague noodliness has definite strategic advantages, as it is very hard to pin one down and force one to abide by previous commitments (commitments one may have lived to regret) when one has taken no identifiable position and made no commitments. For fans of the graven tablet form: THOU SHALT NOT WRITE CHECKS THOU DOST NOT WANT CASHED. Or, for fans of the concrete example - think very seriously about making formal NATO promises to countries who can’t protect themselves and like to pick fights with Russia.
Again, two things stand out here. Georgia might have wanted to contain itself for a little while longer rather then poke the bear with a short stick. And NATO can certainly take some of the blame for the Russian response to Georgia's claim in the disputed Caucasus areas. The belief that the dissolution of the Soviet Union meant that the states other than Russia which made up that federation were now free to go rushing into the arms of NATO is highly erroneous.
Nato's pledge at the Bucharest summit in April that membership of the Atlantic Alliance for both Georgia and Ukraine was not a matter of "if" but "when", although in deference to Russian objections, no timetable for entry was granted. This provoked Vladimir Putin, then still Russia's president, to promise more support for Georgia's breakaway regions.

Despite the Cold War's demise, Russia regards the successor states of the old Soviet Union as its sphere of influence. This intervention is about sending a message from Moscow to Washington to "keep your nose out" of an area that the Kremlin has always seen as being inside its domain.

The European NATO allies always knew this and, if the Bush administration had a Secretary of State with the ability to critically analyze anything, the US should have known it too. Further, the "no timetable for entry" was followed up with a tacit timetable which suggested Georgia would be invited to join NATO in 2009 with full membership two years later. Russia, on 11 April this year, made its position clear.

"Russia will take steps aimed at ensuring its interests along its borders," the agencies quoted General Yuri Baluyevsky as saying. "These will not only be military steps, but also steps of a different nature," he said, without giving details.
Then Russia announced that it would give the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia its full support, including recognition and diplomatic missions. That was enough to eventually provoke Georgia to go wandering through both regions thumbing its nose at the Russian peacekeeping mission.

Mission accomplished. At least as far as Russia is concerned. Georgia, despite the fact that it really doesn't qualify under Article 10 of the NATO Charter as prospective member since it lies on the Asian side of the Caucasus mountains, would not be allowed to ascend to NATO membership until its territorial disputes were settled, a condition imposed by Germany and France against the objections of Bush and Canada's Harper. Being in a hot little war would seal the deal in favour of the Russians.

Enter the club-footed Bush administration with an offer to Poland and the Czech Republic to install US missile defense systems. Peachy! A can of bear spray would have been more effective. Using the excuse that the missile defense system is intended to intercept missiles from "rogue states" (which don't have effective missiles), Russia read it the only way it could be read: Those things are there to neutralize us! And the Russian response: Want to give those things a try?

That would be a bad idea for Poland and the US since it does not and never has worked.

As Philip Coyle - formerly a senior official at the Pentagon with responsibility for missile defence - points out, there are endless means by which another state could fool the system. For every real missile it launched, it could dispatch a host of dummies with the same radar and infra-red signatures. Even balloons or bits of metal foil would render anything resembling the current system inoperable. You can reduce a missile's susceptibility to laser penetration by 90% by painting it white. This sophisticated avoidance technology, available from your local hardware shop, makes another multibillion component of the programme obsolete. Or you could simply forget about ballistic missiles and attack using cruise missiles, against which the system is useless.

Missile defence is so expensive and the measures required to evade it so cheap that if the US government were serious about making the system work it would bankrupt the country, just as the arms race helped to bring the Soviet Union down. By spending a couple of billion dollars on decoy technologies, Russia would commit the US to trillions of dollars of countermeasures. The cost ratios are such that even Iran could outspend the US.

Russia is surely aware of this but isn't about to pass on an opportunity to remind everyone, everywhere that Soviet and subsequently Russian nuclear weapons doctrine has always been founded on the premise of pre-emptively striking anyone, anywhere who represents a significant threat. The Russian definition of "significant threat" is anyone, anywhere who reduces Russian military strength.

The thing is, they haven't offered to do that to anybody in several decades.

So, given the chain of events, this shouldn't be a surprize.

Russia has halted all military cooperation with NATO, the Western alliance said Thursday, in the latest sign of East-West tension over the invasion of Georgia.

Alliance spokeswoman Carmen Romero said NATO had received notification through military channels that Russia’s Defense Ministry had taken a decision “to halt international military cooperation events between Russia and NATO countries until further instructions.”

And as much as Bush, taking a much needed vacation at his Crawford, Texas ranch, doesn't view this as significant, he might want to listen less to the donkey he hired as a national security adviser and actually read the long list of things which have just been halted.

Just watching this you'd think the Cold War isn't over anymore. Sing it boys:

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