Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Winter is Coming

The Russians are up to something:

At the Kremlin’s Ministry of Emergency Situations, the Cold War is back.

The country recently held its biggest civil defense drills since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., with what officials said were 40 million people rehearsing a response to chemical and nuclear threats.

Videos of emergency workers deployed in hazmat suits or checking the ventilation in bomb shelters were prominently aired on television when the four days of drills were held across the country. Students tried on gas masks and placed dummies on stretchers in school auditoriums.

It should go without saying that America has no interest in nuking Russia. Unless the Russians are getting worried about Chinese intentions but are too afraid to openly discuss that motivation, the Russians are whipping up Russian fear of the West out of nothing. But why?

Perhaps this is just to scare the West into being more cooperative on Ukraine, Syria, and sanctions.

Perhaps it is just to rally the Russian people around Putin as the economy falters under the weight of--in descending order of effect--corruption, low oil prices, and Western sanctions over Ukraine.

But perhaps it is to prepare the Russian people for war with America or the danger of war arising from some small war that Russia hopes to isolate from American involvement.

I don't think that such a war would be expansive as this worst case scenario that I drew up, in case Russian rhetoric is telegraphing a dangerous decision for war made in secret.

But it could mean--in ascending order of danger of a war erupting with America over the action--a major effort to slaughter people in Syria to kill Assad's way to victory. We've tolerated several hundred thousand dead without effectively responding. (Why would a few more tens of thousands by Russia change that attitude?)

Or it could mean a major effort to defeat Ukraine's military and seize control of the entire Donbas region to convince Ukraine to give up the fight and concede control of their lost territories in Crimea and the east to Russia. (Heck, getting a peace deal that confirms Russia's conquests thus far seems to be our policy, anyway. What's a little more ground lost to Russia?)

Or it could mean a Russian effort to seize Narva, Estonia, with Russian "volunteers" and hold it with a couple of brigades of "volunteer" soldiers that look remarkably like Russian army units, daring NATO to take the city back.And if NATO does not meet the challenge, breaking NATO's credibility.

That would likely be a bridge too far for Putin's ambitions, that NATO could not let slide. But does Putin know that? Does he have anybody but yes-men around him eager to tell him that the West will bend to his iron will no matter what the provocation?

I know I've used this term a lot recently, but yes, my pucker factor is at elevated levels.

And yet our National Inquirer Election rolls on even as rumors of war overseas barely breach our level of awareness except when some photogenic dead or wounded child victim of war captures our attention for the amount of time it takes to post it on Facebook.

UPDATE: Putin has a weak hand to play:

Russia is an enormously weak country that Putin is working desperately to make appear far more powerful than it is. He is doing extremely well at creating that illusion. There is a saying that perception is reality. That saying is rubbish. If it were true, reality would never have caught up with the perceptions surrounding the subprime crisis. Germany would have won the Battle of Britain, and – for that matter – the Soviet Union would still exist. Perception can buy time and time can, sometimes, change reality. But sometimes all that perception puts off is the inevitable, and in my view that is the case with Russia.

And chest beating does bolster Putin at home. Do read it all.

If you've read this blog you surely know that I agree with that point. America alone is far more powerful than Russia, and adding even our relatively weak NATO allies adds to the imbalance.

But Russia does have superiority over weaker neighbors. And nukes to deter counter-attacks after Russia exploits the time they have to beat on a weaker neighbor before America can deploy significant combat power to roll back the Russian gains.

And all that talk of Russia standing up to the West could push Putin to war with a superior West if his supporters believe that the West is a threat and believe that Putin has rebuilt Russia enough to defeat that threat.

After painting such a threat and picture of a revived Russia, how could Putin refuse to defeat that threat without losing the backing of the people?

Like Japan in 1941 (or Iraq in 1980, for that matter or Argentina in 1982), Russia could start a war believing they have no choice, while telling themselves that early gains can be locked in before their enemy can work up the nerve and resources to fight back.

And while the reality of our power superiority would in the end lead us to victory over the perception that Russia is shaping, we'd have to fight a war to make reality defeat perception. That is hardly ideal.

(And yes, this is the exact same update to the previous post.)

UPDATE: The dangers of playing with fear.  (And yes, this is the exact same update to the previous post.)