I can’t help but take some pleasure in seeing the mainstream media, however belatedly, explain that the NSA defector Edward Snowden is a very useful tool for Vladimir Putin and his intelligence services in what I term their Special War against the West. I’ve been pointing this out, since it’s obvious to anybody actually acquainted with the ways of Russian intelligence, in considerable detail for a long time, so I welcome anybody who joins Team Reality, no matter how long it takes them to get there.
Putin is growing less subtle by the day, and in his latest rant about the FIFA scandal, which seems likely to expose some dirty Kremlin deals, he put in a good word about his boys Edward Snowden and Julian Assange (what exactly is the relationship between the Russians and Wikileaks? well, I told you that too). For a former KGB counterintelligence officer, this is pretty much showing your hand.
But a Russian hand in a lot of nefarious things has been visible, at least in outline, in many stories over the years that never got the media attention that they deserved. I called Cold War 2.0 after the Russian theft of Crimea, and it seems tough to deny that we’re in one now. And if we’re lucky it will stay cold. It may not. This recent tweet caused a firestorm:
I’m not sure why this caused a ruckus, since the reality, visible to anyone with eyes to see, is that Russian aggression over the last year and more has created a very unstable environment in Eastern Europe. Not to mention that the Russian military was simulating nuclear attacks on NATO countries as far back as 2009, back when ties between Moscow and the West remained far from chilly, indeed positively reset-y. The post-Cold War order has been destroyed by Russian acts in Ukraine, and we’re headed towards some sort of new system — whether through renewed Cold War or actual war remains to be seen.
I am increasingly pessimistic that a wider war can be averted, not least because Putin has been winning off his gambling, despite holding an intrinsically weak hand, and gamblers tend to keep playing when they’re winning. Top NATO officials are now signalling just how dangerous the situation is in Eastern Europe. Yesterday Jens Stoltenberg, the Alliance secretary general, denounced “Russia’s recent use of nuclear rhetoric, exercises and operations are deeply troubling,” adding the obvious, that “Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling is unjustified, destabilizing and dangerous.”
Mincing no words, a top NATO general announced that Russia could take over the Baltic states in just two days. Petr Pavel, the former head of the Czech armed forces and the incoming boss of the Alliance’s Military Committee, ruffled some feathers with his blunt statement, which accords with military reality. Lacking strategic depth, the Baltic states indeed could be overwhelmed by Russia in just a couple days: in other words, before they could be saved by NATO. General Pavel explained that NATO actions to counter Kremlin aggression have been “embarrassingly ineffective” — which, again, is a truth that we are unaccustomed to top Western officials saying in public.
Pavel added comments about weaknesses in NATO intelligence, which track with alarming words from his boss, General Phil Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, about “critical” intelligence gaps regarding Russia, in particular the fact that, due to said espionage shortfalls, NATO cannot predict Kremlin moves with much certainty. The possibility of a Russian surprise attack on a NATO country, therefore, is worryingly real and not something we may see in time to deter it. Here again, Snowden’s defection to Russia after stealing over a million classified U.S. documents should be on the table in discussing why we’re in the dark on such important matters.
Of course, moving thousands of troops is a difficult thing to hide completely in this day and age, and yesterday Reuters broke the story that large numbers of Russian troops, armed with tanks and artillery, have been sighted near the Ukraine border, more or less opposite the strategic city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. Worse, Russians have been seen removing unit insignias from their vehicles and uniforms, in emulation of last year’s “little green men” episodes in Crimea and Southeast Ukraine. Putin is either readying to launch a renewed offensive in Ukraine or he wants the world to think he’s about to. Deception, what Russians call maskirovka, is a well-honed art there, so it’s possible this is yet another saber-rattle. But we don’t know yet. Though I suspect we’ll find out soon enough.
Fully a year ago, I explained how, with a modest amount of conventional deterrence, the West could prevent further Russian aggression. Despite pleadings of Alliance members for just such a bona fide deterrent force, nothing substantial has been done, and NATO has been content to have some showy exercises and photo-ops: the “embarrassingly ineffective” measures castigated by General Pavel. For want of a few brigades of NATO troops in Eastern Europe, we may get Russian aggression that could change the world, and not for the better. I hate to say it, but … I told you so.