Ukraine Buildup Is a Feint. But Russian Missiles Are Going Up Off the American Coast
"If accepted in their present form, these treaties would represent a total capitulation by the United States"
The release a couple of days ago on the RF Ministry of Foreign Affairs website of its draft treaties to totally revise the European security architecture has been picked up by our leading mainstream media. The New York Times lost no time posting an article by its most experienced journalists covering Russia, Andrew Kramer and Steven Erlanger: “Russia Lays Out Demands for a Sweeping New Security Deal With NATO.” For its part, The Financial Times brought together its key experts Max Seddon in Moscow, Henry Foy in Brussels and Aime Williams in Washington to concoct “Russia publishes “red line” security demands for NATO and US.”
Both flagships of the English language print media correctly identified the main new feature of the Russian initiative, encapsulated by the word “demands.” However, they did not explore the “what if” question, how and why these “demands” are being presented de facto if not by name as an “ultimatum, as I consider them to be.
The newspaper articles themselves are weak tea. They summarize the points set out in the Russian draft treaties. But they are incapable of providing an interpretation of what the Russian initiative means for the immediate future of us all.
Normally they would be hand-fed such analysis by the U.S. State Department and Pentagon. However, this time Washington has declined to comment, saying it is now studying the Russian treaties and will have its answer in a week or so. In the meantime, America’s reliable lapdog Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, saw no need for reflection and flatly rejected the Russian demands as unacceptable. The “front line” NATO member states in the Baltics also reflexively vetoed any talks with the Russians on these matters.
However, even the FT and NYT understand what Mr. Stoltenberg’s opinion or Estonia’s opinion is worth and held back on giving their own thumbs up or down. They both analyze the draft treaties primarily in connection with the current massing of Russian troops at the border of Ukraine. They assume that if the Russians receive no satisfaction on their demands they will use this to justify an invasion. We are told that in such an eventuality a new Cold War will set in on the Old Continent, as if that will be the end of all the fuss.
In part, the problem with these media is that their journalist and editorial teams are tone deaf as regards things Russian. They are insensitive to nuance and incapable of seeing what is new here in content and still more in the presentation of the Russian texts. In part, the weakness is attributable to the common problem of journalists: their time horizon goes back to what happened last week. They lack perspective.
In what I present below, I will attempt to address these shortcomings. I will not invoke historical time, which would possibly take us back seventy years to the start of the first Cold War or even thirty years to the end of that Cold War, but will restrict my commentary to the time surrounding the last such Russian call for treaties to regulate the security environment on the European continent, 2008 – 2009 under then President Dmitry Medvedev. That is within the time horizon of political science.
I will pay particular attention to the tone of this Russian démarche and will try to explain why the Russians have drawn their “red lines” in the sand precisely now. All of this will lead to a conclusion that it is not only President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kiev who should be concerned about the condition of local bomb shelters, but also all of us in Brussels, Warsaw, Bucharest, etc. on this side of the Atlantic, and in Washington, D.C., New York and other major centers on the American continent. We are staring down what might be called Cuban Missile Crisis Redux.
We commentators each have our own starting dates for the narratives we offer to the reading public. In my case, I choose to begin with President Putin’s speech to the Munich Security Conference in February 2007. That speech in itself was very unusual, as Putin explained from his first moments at the lectern:
“This conference’s structure allows me to avoid excessive politeness and the need to speak in roundabout, pleasant but empty diplomatic terms. This conference’s format will allow me to say what I really think about international security problems. And if my comments seem unduly polemical, pointed or inexact to our colleagues, then I would ask you not to get angry with me. After all, this is only a conference. And I hope that after the first two or three minutes of my speech [the Conference host] will not turn on the red light over there.”
This led him to deliver the following bold assertion:
“I am convinced that we have reached that decisive moment when we must seriously think about the architecture of global security. And we must proceed by searching for a reasonable balance between the interests of all participants in the international dialogue.”
In a word, the concerns and the proposed process of solution through renewal of the architecture of security that we see today in Russia’s latest draft treaties go straight back to 2007 when Vladimir Putin came out publicly on the subject in what might be described as the lion’s den of the world security establishment.
With Senator John McCain and other champions of American global hegemony staring at him in disbelief from the front rows, in that speech Vladimir Putin set out in detail Russia’s rejection of the US-led unipolar world as a source of international tensions, recourse to military solutions, an arms race and nuclear proliferation. US hegemony was undemocratic and unworkable, he said.
The speech was also notable for Putin’s mention of the shabby treatment his country had received at American hands following the breakup of the USSR in the 1990s straight through into the new millennium. The key issue was expansion of NATO to the East, taking in former Warsaw Pact countries and, finally, former USSR republics, the Baltic States.
“It turns out that NATO has put its frontline forces on our borders, and we continue to strictly fulfill the treaty obligations and do not react to these actions at all. I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernization of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances our western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? Where are those declarations today? No one even remembers them.”
Putin’s 2007 speech was cast in the manner of complaint. It came from a country that was still only partially recovered from the economic devastation it suffered in the 1990s during a badly managed transition from the Soviet command economy to a market economy. More to the point, his was a country with greatly diminished military capability compared to the Soviet superpower from which it emerged independent. To a certain degree, the disbelief amidst the American and allied contingent in Munich arose from the very audacity of still puny Russia to challenge the powers that be.
In the weeks and months following Putin’s Munich speech, the United States recovered from its shock at his public denunciation and swiftly moved into counterattack, launching an Information War on Russia that is with us today. From the closing days of the Bush Administration, through the entire Obama Administration save when the New START arms control agreement was being negotiated and signed within the brief period called “the reset,” the United States used every means fair and foul to discredit Russia before the global community in the hope of isolating the country and relegating it to pariah status. Trade sanctions against Russia were first imposed by the United States in 2012 under the Magnitsky Act. The United States greatly expanded its sanctions policy on Russia following the annexation of the Crimea in March 2014. Thanks to the MH17 air catastrophe of that summer, a “false flag” event of the first magnitude, all of Europe was brought on board. The sanctions policy was renewed yet again by the EU just this past Friday.
Looking back at 2008, when Vladimir Putin passed the presidency to his stand-in, Dmitry Medvedev, we see that revising Europe’s security architecture was one of the key policy objectives of the Medvedev presidency. He spoke about it in a speech he delivered in Berlin in June 2008. Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel was among the first to cold-shoulder the proposal, saying that Europe’s security arrangements had already taken concrete form.
In November 2009 he finally published on his website a draft treaty on European security. At the same time, Foreign Minister Lavrov officially submitted the document to the Ministerial Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) then meeting in Athens.
My book of essays entitled Stepping Out of Line, published in 2013, has a couple of chapters devoted to Medvedev’s initiative, which I concluded was hampered by a poor concept further weakened by poor execution. (“Medvedev’s Draft Treaty on European Security: Dead on Arrival” and “Russia’s Draft Treaty on European Security: Sergei Lavrov to the Rescue”
The draft agreement was first of all a non-aggression pact among and between all interested states in the Atlantic-Eurasian space. It would establish a framework of deliberative meetings in which all Member States would hear cases of threats of use of force or actual use of force against any Member State. However, nonaggression was merely window dressing, describing something which everyone could understand and say “amen” to. The second stated objective was to ensure the collective security of its members under the principle that no state or group of states could promote its security at the expense of other Member States.
What was missing from the draft treaty on European security was precisely the definition of what constituted enhancing one’s security at the expense of another. To Europeans the treaty could only serve the purpose of Russian grandstanding, establishing a major new forum for it to air any grievances it might have over NATO expansion, the missile defense system and other US sponsored measures enhancing Western security at the direct expense of Russian state security.
The emptiness of the draft treaty was a failure of Medvedev and his immediate assistants who drew it up. In February 2010, at the regular Munich Security Conference, Sergei Lavrov made a valiant effort to save the Medvedev initiative by proposing that the existing OSCE be re-engineered as the vehicle for ensuring collective security. Russia was saying that NATO must give up its predominance in Europe and cede place to a reinvigorated OSCE. Very little of Lavrov’s speech was reported in Western media.
The fact that it was quietly buried by all the receiving parties may be attributed to the very weak position of Russia itself at the time. The victorious Russian campaign against Georgia in 2008 was seen by defense professionals in the West very differently from what the general public understood. For professionals, the Russian military showed it had not made much progress from the poorly equipped and led forces that the USSR deployed in Afghanistan or that the Russian Federation deployed in Chechnya in the 1990s. The fact is that Medvedev’s posture was that of a supplicant, dealing from a weak hand. Do note, however, that the Russian concerns were precisely the same as those evoked by the Kremlin today as it promotes its new draft treaties.
Until the past few days, we heard no more of Russian draft treaties to alter the security architecture of Europe. Instead over the intervening years there have been repeated instances of Russian public complaints over US and NATO activities that it considers menacing. One such loud complaint came in January 2016 with release of a documentary film entitled World Order. This was a devastating critique of US global hegemony justified in the name of “democracy promotion” and “human rights” ever since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992.
Following on the points made in Vladimir Putin’s Munich speech of 2007, World Order illustrates through graphic footage and the testimony of independent world authorities the tragic consequences, the spread of chaos and misery, resulting from U.S.-engineered “regime change” and “color revolutions,” of which the violent overthrow of the Yanukovich regime in Ukraine in February 2014 was only the latest example.
The title of the film followed on Putin’s address to the 70th anniversary gathering of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015 which had as its central message that world order rests on international law, which in turn has as its foundation the UN Charter. By flouting the Charter and waging war without the sanction of the UN Security Council, starting with the NATO attack on Serbia in 1999 and continuing with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 up to its illegal bombings in Syria today, the United States and its NATO allies had shaken the foundations of international law.
The foreign interviewees in World Order comprised an impressive and diverse selection of leaders in various domains, including American film director Oliver Stone; Thomas Graham, former National Security Council director for Russia under George W. Bush; former IMF Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn; former Pakistan President Perwez Musharraf; former French Foreign Minister Dominique Villepin; former Israeli President Shimon Peres; WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange; and deputy leader of the Die Linke party in the German Bundestag Sahra Wagenknecht.
Strauss-Kahn, Musharraf and others charged that the U.S. plots against and destroys foreign leaders who dare to oppose America’s total control over global flows of money, goods and people. Wagenknecht addressed the question of Germany’s subservience to American Diktats and its de facto circumscribed sovereignty. The statements supported Putin’s long-standing argument, reiterated in the film, that the Western European allies of the US are nothing more than vassals.
The clear message of the film was that US led “democracy promotion” and its spread of “universal values” will not be tolerated and that Russia has set down certain redlines, such as against NATO expansion into Ukraine or Georgia, over which it will fight to the death using all its resources.
However, strong and pointed as this documentary film was in setting out the views of the Kremlin on the global and European security, it was just a complaint, nothing more. I mention it in detail above to demonstrate the continuity of Russian concerns that this week have come to a head with the release of the draft treaties for consideration of NATO and the USA.
What is new today in the Russian démarche over European security? Both content and presentation are new.
In contrast to Dmitry Medvedev’s treaties of 2008-2009, the latest Russian draft texts are all content that is methodically and exhaustively set out. It refers directly to the activities of the United States and NATO over the past several years that Russia considers most threatening to its security and thus most objectionable.
It is clear that the master treaty is with the United States and that the treaty with NATO is a subsidiary treaty. This reflects the insistent view from the Kremlin that the NATO verbiage of its being a consensus driven alliance is rubbish and that the reality is American domination and direction of NATO. This view sweeps aside any objection from any of the NATO Member States, as for example the immediate objections that came from the Baltic States and Poland, that their agreement to the proposed changes is needed, not to mention the need to consult with other interested parties, namely Ukraine. The Kremlin clearly intends to isolate Washington in the negotiating process for these treaties, before pussy footing with the other NATO members.
In the spirit of the Ten Commandments, almost all of the content is in negatives, in prohibitions.
With respect to the proposed treaty with the United States, we find the following:
“[The Parties] shall not implement security measures adopted by each Party individually or in the framework of an international organization, military alliance or coalition that could undermine core security interests of the other Party.
“The Parties shall not use the territories of other States with a view to preparing or carrying out an armed attack against the other Party or other actions affecting core security interests of the other Party.
“The United States of America shall undertake to prevent further eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and deny accession to the Alliance to the States of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
“The United States of America shall not establish military bases in the territory of the States of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that are not members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, use their infrastructure for any military activities or develop bilateral military cooperation with them.
“The Parties shall refrain from flying heavy bombers equipped for nuclear or non-nuclear armaments or deploying surface warships of any type, including in the framework of international organizations, military alliances or coalitions, in the areas outside national airspace and national territorial waters respectively, from where they can attack targets in the territory of the other Party.
“The Parties shall undertake not to deploy ground-launched intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles outside their national territories, as well as in the areas of their national territories, from which such weapons can attack targets in the national territory of the other Party.
“The Parties shall refrain from deploying nuclear weapons outside their national territories and return such weapons already deployed outside their national territories at the time of the entry into force of the Treaty to their national territories. The Parties shall eliminate all existing infrastructure for deployment of nuclear weapons outside their national territories.”
As regards the draft treaty with NATO, I call particular attention to the following provisions:
“The Parties shall exercise restraint in military planning and conducting exercises to reduce risks of eventual dangerous situations in accordance with their obligations under international law, including those set out in intergovernmental agreements on the prevention of incidents at sea outside territorial waters and in the airspace above, as well as in intergovernmental agreements on the prevention of dangerous military activities.
“In order to address issues and settle problems, the Parties shall use the mechanisms of urgent bilateral or multilateral consultations, including the NATO-Russia Council.
“The Parties reaffirm that they do not consider each other as adversaries.
“The Parties shall maintain dialogue and interaction on improving mechanisms to prevent incidents on and over the high seas (primarily in the Baltics and the Black Sea region).
“The Russian Federation and all the Parties that were member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as of 27 May 1997, respectively, shall not deploy military forces and weaponry on the territory of any of the other States in Europe in addition to the forces stationed on that territory as of 27 May 1997. ….
“The Parties shall not deploy land-based intermediate and short-range missiles in areas allowing them to reach the territory of the other Parties.
“All member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization commit themselves to refrain from any further enlargement of NATO, including the accession of Ukraine as well as other States.
“The Parties that are member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization shall not conduct any military activity on the territory of Ukraine as well as other States in Eastern Europe, in the South Caucasus and in Central Asia.”
The draft treaties do not create a new security architecture so much as they dismantle existing architecture added since the mid-1990s by the United States and its allies through NATO expansion to the east, military exercises close to Russian borders and air space, “temporary” stationing of personnel and equipment in forward positions approaching Russian borders.
If accepted in their present form, these treaties would represent a total capitulation by the United States over everything four successive administrations have tried to achieve to contain Russia and put it in a small cage at the periphery of Europe.
The demands are so stunning in scope that we must ask why Russia is taking the seemingly enormous risk of advancing them, and doing so publicly. Moreover, why now?
I have two explanations to advance: the first is the unshakable confidence that Vladimir Putin and his colleagues have in their present tactical advantage over the United States in the European theater of operations and strategic advantage over the United States on American home territory if push comes to shove.
Three years ago Putin used his annual State of the Union address to show off the newest weapons systems that Russia had successfully tested and was now putting into serial production, most particularly the hypersonic missiles that can evade all known ABM systems. He said then that for the first time in its modern history Russia had moved ahead of the United States in developing and deploying strategic weapons systems. While the States might develop the same with time, the Russians would move still further ahead.
Moreover, Putin claimed that whereas in its past the United States had considered the oceans to be its natural defense against military conquest from abroad, the latest Russian missiles, small enough to be carried in containers on merchant ships, on frigates or on submarines turned the adjacent oceans into the country’s weak point. The Russians could station their weapons just outside the 200 mile economic zone and still reach key military targets on US territory within several minutes. That is to say that Russia could now do what Khrushchev was denied the right to do in 1962 by stationing Soviet missiles in Cuba.
During his roll-out speech, Putin hoped that the United States and its Western partners would take notice, would do the arithmetic and alter their threatening behavior. Instead, Western media tended to treat the Russian weaponry as a bluff, or as something beyond the Russians’ ability to produce in sufficient quantities and with speed to pose a threat before the USA possessed the same.
One year ago [this March-April], the Russian president again called attention to the deployment of the new weapons systems and urged the United States to react appropriately. Of course, once again Washington did nothing. Instead the US administration continued to raise the threat level of China and to dismiss Russia as nothing more than spoilers running a country on its way down.
Finally, we may conclude that Vladimir Vladimirovich and his team have decided to act, and to act now on the strength of the strategic superiority they believe they enjoy. Given the very cautious way that Putin has always conducted government affairs over the past twenty years, anyone who thinks the Kremlin is bluffing or miscalculating had better think again.
Now there is also a second, supportive factor to explain the Russians’ decision to publicize what is essentially an ultimatum to the USA. That factor is China. It is not for nothing that Putin and Xi had a widely publicized video conference call this week during which the Chinese President gave his full backing to Russian demands for resolution of the security crisis in Europe and said explicitly that the Chinese–Russian relationship is higher than an alliance.
Now what could be higher than an alliance? Surely this hints at a mutual defense pact, meaning that each side will come to the aid of the other as needed.
We may assume that there is something in writing between the Russians and the Chinese to give Putin the confidence that he has China at his back as he ventures into diplomatic and possibly military confrontation with the United States and its NATO allies.
And yet, what would the value of such a scrap of paper be? Where would you seek redress if the Chinese failed to delivery and NATO marched to Moscow? No, the value of the video conference with XI lies elsewhere. Like their amassing 100,000 troops at the Ukrainian border, the Russians are using the Chinese backing to scare the hell out of Washington, which might well assume that the Chinese will coordinate their own military actions against Taiwan, against the US naval forces in the South China Sea and beyond to present the United States with an unwinnable two-front war while serving their own, Chinese, interests.
Should the political situation in Washington prevent such lucid thinking, I believe that the Russians will fall back on their own quite independent ability to put a pistol to the head of the American establishment, through the stationing of its missile forces just offshore, which has not yet been done.
How this plays out will depend on the nature of the US response to Russia’s next move, which might, in the circumstances of Washington stonewalling, be that invasion of Ukraine that has been so much talked about in the past few weeks. It would be foolhardy at this point to sketch all possible scenarios. But we are surely at the moment when the “the worm turns.”
In conclusion, I call the reader’s attention to one further detail on presentation: who has been the messenger on the Kremlin’s behalf.
For the past several years, people around Vladimir Putin have joked with respect to foreign powers, “if they won’t deal with Lavrov, then they will have to deal with Shoigu” Judging by the last two weeks, I would insert another personality into this equation: Sergei Alekseevich Ryabkov, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Ryabkov has been around for a good long time, but till now we did not hear much from him. He graduated from the prestigious MGIMO, the higher school that traditionally educated fast-track candidates of the Soviet-Russian diplomatic corps. He served several years at the Russian embassy in the Washington and is fluent in English. In the new millennium he has had responsibilities relating to non-proliferation and managing relations with Europe. His present title is Deputy Minister.
As relations with the United States and the EU have heated up in recent weeks over the buildup of Russian forces at the border with Ukraine, Ryabkov has been speaking to the press and has done so in an undiplomatic, in-your-face fashion. When one reporter asked him a week ago about how some of Russia’s “partners in the West” would react to something, he snapped back: “We have no partners in the West, only enemies. I stopped using the word “partner” some time ago.”
The Kremlin’s showcasing of the bulldog Ryabkov is part of the change in tone, the new assertiveness of Putin and his team to which I refer above.