The current face off between Russia and US on the selection of the next UN Secretary-General is one of the more innocuous battles being fought between the world powers. There are other confrontations, cordoned-off from the public eye, that are far more treacherous. The old rivals are clashing in multiple sites: in Syria, Ukraine and over the Black Sea, apart from locking horns in multilateral forums.
For the first time since the Cuban missile crisis, the N-word is being dropped, frivolously, by the two states that own 90 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads. There is a race for expanding nuclear capabilities by both Russia and the US in the Baltic states area, which experts warn could lead to disastrous consequences.
Normalisation of deep confrontation
On 4 August, America’s National Security Administration gave the nod for what could be a $1 trillion project of modernizing Washington’s nuclear stockpile, evoking a strong reaction from Moscow. Sergey Ryabkov, the deputy head of the Russian foreign ministry said that the upgraded American warheads which would be less powerful than the existing ones in their arsenal. This would lower the threshold for using nuclear weapons, he added.
The Nato summit of Warsaw on 8 and 9 July had the dominant theme of war in its agenda, pursuant to which it was decided to strengthen Nato’s “eastern flank” that lies in an arc covering former Soviet states right up till the Black Sea. It was decided that four additional multinational battalions would be deployed, one each in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, with Sweden and Canada joining in to provide boots on the ground. The US will send 1,000 additional troops to Poland. This is in addition to the nearly 60,000 soldiers from Nato and allied countries participating in military maneuvers in the Baltic states.
“Nato summit couple of days ago (8 and 9 July) fixed a new situation which is not the final one but will last for a certain time, maybe a couple of years. This is imitation of the Cold War, quasi-confrontation, the Cold War-style,” Fyodor A Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs magazine told a group of international journalists.
“And what makes me sure that we are back to the situation of more-or-less deep confrontation is that Russia-Nato are now discussing security measures — practical security measures,” Lukyanov added.
The bloc engaged in massive war games — the biggest since the Cold War — in Poland in June called Anaconda-2016 (AN-16) involving 31,000 troops from 24 nations, almost half of whom were Americans. Alongside AN-16, BALTOPS-16, a naval exercise that simulated “high-end maritime warfighting” was held in the waters near Kaliningrad — a highly militarized Russian enclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. In 2013, Russia had moved Iskander-M launchers, ballistic missile systems capable of carrying nuclear warheads, to Kaliningrad. This, it said, was done in response to US’ plan to move anti-missile defence systems in Europe. This provoked strong reactions from Moscow, which flew couple of its own fighter jets over the Baltic sea leading to a series of near accidents.
In May this year, the US switched on its $800 million anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system called Aegis Ashore in Romania citing threats from Iran. This has angered Kremlin considerably — it has called this action a “direct threat”. The US has further promised to break ground with stationing an ABM in Poland in 2018.
Russian president Vladimir Putin said that though the US missile system is referred to as “anti-missile defence system”, the system is just as offensive as they are defensive.
“How do we know what’s inside those launchers? All one needs to do is reprogram (the system), which is an absolutely inconspicuous task,” Putin stated at a meeting in June.
Russia, on its part, has planned the deployment of new RS-28 hypersonic intercontinental ballistic missiles, scheduled for between 2018-20 that can carry more than 10 nuclear warheads. Also, Kremlin has flown its fighter jets within feet of the Nato US military stationed in the Baltic Sea.
“We are talking ‘feet’, not ‘yards’ or ‘miles’,” a former US strike group commander told the CNN.
Last month, Putin said that there was a need to increase transparency and adopt confidence-building measures to decrease risk, particularly in the Baltic area. This doesn’t, however, indicate any reconciliatory mood of either Russia or the Nato bloc.
“It’s just the opposite. It is the stabilization or the normalization of confrontation,” Lukyanov said.
Expanding sphere of influence
There have been some near accidents in the Baltic Sea that could have had disastrous consequences. In January, a Russian jet fighter came within 20 feet of a US reconnaissance aircraft flying over the Black Sea. In April this year, a Russian jet came within 30 feet of a US destroyer that was engaged in military exercises over the Baltic Sea, making it one of the riskiest encounters between Russia and the US. According to the US European Command (Eucom), there were a series of such incidents when Nato was engaged in military drills near Kaliningrad. In June, a Russian Su-24 jet flew within 500 metres of a US missile destroyer sailing in the Black Sea near Crimea.
An unintentional or unprofessional action by a single pilot in this staring-down contest could significantly escalate tensions between the two nuclear-armed powers.
“We don’t want war,” the impassioned Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said.
“We don’t want to be involved in the militarization of the world. It is dangerous, what is going on just in front of our borders. Of course, that would bring our reactions. We will have to reflect on the steps (taken by Nato) but that is not our choice. Those who are surrounding Russia now with military bases, missile defence systems — we are doing it only to protect ourselves,” she added.
This situation has been building up since the US withdrawal in 2002 from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABT) — a treaty between the US and the Soviet Union signed in 1972 on the limiting ABM systems that deliver nuclear weapons — resulting in enhanced mistrust on both sides.
“Fifteen years ago we were not the ones to withdraw from ABT and we are not building military bases across the world…to be regarded as a threat for the US, Great Britain,” Zakharova said.
But the situation also dramatically worsened after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and ensuing proxy confrontation between the parties in eastern Ukraine.
The unraveling of events over the Black Sea peninsula in the near future hinges greatly on the US election results. Donald Trump has said that he is inclined to work with Russia (whether one can take his words at face value or not is another matter altogether) whereas Hillary Clinton has toed the familiar Putin-needs-to be-put-in-place line. As in the case of Brexit, anti-Russia rhetoric has become a rallying point on which the effectiveness of the presidential candidates is being judged.
“Everything happens in international forums are hostages of the American electoral campaigns,” Zakharova said.
Much also depends on what happens with the EU post-Brexit — impact of relations between the various European states and Russia remains to be seen if in fact the continent does break up.
“Misperceptions on both sides and tensions are very high. Each side sees the other as a threat. There is an urgent need to manage tensions,” said a senior western diplomat based in Moscow on the condition of anonymity.
The US cites the insecurity of Nato allies as raison d’etre for bolstering military capabilities in the borders of Russia — for upholding Article 5 of the Washington Treaty which states that an attack against any Nato member state will be considered an attack against all. After the March 2014 events in Crimea, the former Soviet territories of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, fear a similar fate, state western powers.
The sites in Romania and Poland were in ideal positions to defend Nato allies against missiles coming from outside Europe. The United States and Nato were open about the systems capabilities, the US said in the final 2016 session of the UN’s conference on disarmament (CD) in Geneva on 2 August.
Russia, on the other hand, has always been a security-centric state having seen three invasions over the centuries.
In the last several years, global strategic stability had faced a lack of confidence by certain states. Certain blocs were developing global anti-missile defence systems and high-precision weapons able to reach targets in any part of the world, Russia told the same CD gathering of 2 August. Kremlin is adamant to show its strength in the face of growing consolidation in military capabilities of the Nato states in the Baltic Sea area and Black Sea peninsula.
Referring to a talk by Nato secretary-general (SG) Jens Stoltenberg at a conference in Munich in 2013, Konstantin Kosachev, a top Russian senator said, “(He said) Territorial defence of Nato starts beyond Nato’s borders.” “I asked the SG: Just imagine for a second that this formula was used by my country that the ‘territorial defence of Russia starts beyond Russia’s borders’ — what will happen? It will be a scandal,” Kosachev said, recalling the conversation.
“De-escalation is urgently needed. The situation is not comparable to the Cold War. Cold War was cold,” the western diplomat said.
The situation has worsened also by media of both countries whipping up nationalistic passions among their populations, portraying each other as ‘the real devil’.
In the event of a war, Russia would be unable to fight the US at a conventional-warfare level because both the US and Nato have far bigger defence budgets.
“Russia will play at the nuclear level,” the diplomat said.
The Nato-Russia Council resumed ambassador-level dialogue for the first time in April this year after the Ukrainian crisis had shut down the process, thus fueling misperceptions further.
“This mechanism was established precisely to communicate with each other during crisis period. We see no sense in blocking (it) during the crisis period,” Zakharova said.
The first two sessions of the council meetings were spent on haggling over the agenda and the US “lecturing on Russia’s behavior”, according to Moscow. An agenda has finally been arrived upon.
“It took a couple of months to establish such an agenda. We have put our proposals on the Baltic Sea for rebuilding trust and they have to answer. We will take a look at their measures and steps forward,” Zakharova said.
“The most important difference between this quasi-Cold War and the real Cold War is that 30-40 years ago… the Soviet- US conflict was the core of the international system,” said Lukyanov. But now for a huge majority of the population in China, India, South Africa, for instance, the Ukrainian crisis is a “peripheral conflict”, he added.
Putin, at a meeting with the heads of international news agencies in June this year, said that “the world is being pulled into a completely new dimension, while [Washington] pretends that nothing’s happening”.
But precisely the fact that majority of the global population is unconcerned about the situation is what makes this arms race so dangerous. According to the Arms Control Association, “the US and Russia each deploy more than 1,500 strategic warheads on several hundred bombers and missiles, and are modernising their nuclear delivery systems”. The attempt at carving out spheres of influence in the European continent is turning out to be a risky game. A war between these two world powers would concern us all.