mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Russia Threatens War; What Gives?

It is just like the old times again. “A decision to use destructive force preemptively will be taken if the situation worsens,” Russia’s Chief of Military General Staff Nikolai Makarov said late last week, warning of possible attacks on NATO installations in eastern and central Europe if NATO proceeds with a planned anti-missile shield.

NATO says the shield is intended to protect Europe from Iranian missiles; Russia fears, or says it fears, that the shield is intended to blunt Russian missile capabilities, thus giving NATO what, during the Cold War, was considered the Holy Grail of nuclear supremacy: NATO could launch a first nuclear strike against Russia without having to worry that Russia could retaliate.

The USSR used to make threats like this back in the old days of Stalin and Khrushchev, and when it did, it stopped traffic. The fear of an annihilating nuclear war was very real in those days; we ducked and we covered in school air raid drills — and we knew it was pointless if they really attacked.

Now Russia issues bloodcurdling threats of preemptive strikes against NATO and the stock market doesn’t even flicker. Nobody buys canned goods; no frantic European leaders call Washington. The President of the United States not only doesn’t pick up the hot line to cool off the crisis; he doesn’t even make a speech in reply. The Secretary of State travels as planned to China, and the world press spends the weekend analyzing the grad school plans of a blind Chinese dissident rather than parsing Russia’s intentions and analyzing the latest NATO-Russia crisis.

That is Russia’s biggest frustration right there in a nutshell: it cannot control events in its immediate neighborhood (like the ex-Soviet Baltic states and its old security belt in the Warsaw Pact satellites) — and it cannot get Washington to pay it enough attention.

In the good old days, Khrushchev could dominate the world news cycle by pounding his shoe on the table at the UN; today, threats of invasion and missile strikes are met with a yawn.

This is partly because nobody thinks Russia is stupid enough to follow through on these threats. Russia is seen as too weak and too economically dependent on Europe to bomb its best customers and isolate itself for a generation. And retaliation would come, big time. Even the Soviets backed down from all out war with NATO; the Russians aren’t ready for that either.

Given all that, why do the Russians bother? Why make threats that make you both loathed and despised? Why antagonize people with empty threats?

Internal politics is part of it; looking tough pays off inside Russia even if it doesn’t in the rest of the world. As Putin prepares to step back into the presidency, his political prestige is not what it was, and fanning the flames of Russian nationalism must seem like an appealing idea. That should not be underestimated; holding on to power at home is Putin’s first priority.

That said, the threats reinforce if they do not advance a key theme in Russian foreign policy. The effort to divide Europe from the United States is a policy Moscow has pursued since the days of Stalin and continues to work on today. The big prize is to detach Germany from the Atlantic alliance into a neo-Bismarckian continental alliance with Russia.

This is a long term goal but it is the biggest single prize on Moscow’s wish list. For decades, going back deep into the Cold War, Moscow has worked to get the Germans to think that it is the American presence and American military forces in Europe that threaten peace. During the Cold War, fears among the German public that any NATO-Warsaw Pact war would be fought in and over German territory made those fears very real.

Russia is pushing the same button today: Europe’s peace, it wants Europeans and especially Germans to believe, is endangered by recklessly provocative American military build ups. If Germany wants peace and security, it should stop the US from aggressive behavior and align itself with Russia.

This never worked with West Germany in the Cold War, but the end of that conflict, the unification of Germany and, ironically, the weakness of Russia make it a more attractive diplomatic concept today. Germany under Merkel doesn’t seem tempted; German policy in eastern Europe, Iran and Ukraine runs almost exactly counter to Moscow’s goals.

But there is always the future, Russia reflects. Former SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder hated George W. Bush and went to work for Gazprom after leaving office. Perhaps a change of government in Berlin might someday lead to a change of orientation for Germany? Merkel’s coalition partners, the Free Democrats, are in something like free fall in the polls and may drop out of the Bundestag next time around. The euro crisis is a minefield for the Chancellor, and her popularity could vanish.

Russia is patient and plays a long game.

Features Icon
show comments
  • R McDonnell

    “Now Russia issues bloodcurdling threats of preemptive strikes against NATO…”

    At least Russia’s announcement won it top billing on Drudge for an hour or two.

    No animated-gif siren, though.

  • Kenny

    “Russia is patient and plays a long game.”

    Let’s go over it yet again.

    Russia is not destined to be around to see the end of any ‘long game.’ Why? Demographics.

    Everything Russia does is short term because Putin and the rest of the psychopaths over there know time is not on their side.

  • Corlyss

    What gives?


  • Kris

    “today, threats of invasion and missile strikes are met with a yawn.”

    Oh, those Russians!

    (What, not respectful enough?)

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    If it’s not seen as a real threat, why would Germany dump the US which is the most powerful military, economic, and cultural power, to appease the paper tiger Russia? With the US to export large amounts of Natural Gas in the near future, even the threat of a Russian gas embargo is becoming an empty threat.

    Russia is in relative decline as they have never recovered from the demise of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. Russia is only a rump of the previous Soviet Union having lost: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Their military technology continues to fall further and further behind, and their military is a joke that can’t effectively fight insurgents within their own borders where the logistics should be overwhelming.

    Even their nuclear weapons which were of poor quality even when built, are decades old now and many are likely non-functional. Nuclear weapons decay very quickly, with hard radiation damaging components and materials rapidly, and the Russians are not known for their good maintenance habits. The Russians simply can’t afford to maintain their present stockpile, and will be forced to reduce it even without a new reduction treaty with the US.

    They lost the Cold War, and they are still playing a losing hand and refuse to admit it to themselves. Which is why a General can make threats, and the only place it plays is with the delusional Russians.

  • thibaud

    “But there is always the future, Russia reflects. Former SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder hated George W. Bush and went to work for Gazprom after leaving office. Perhaps a change of government in Berlin might someday lead to a change of orientation for Germany? ”

    This is an uncharacteristically (for WRM) crude assessment of Russian calculations. Russian strategists and policymakers today, like the Soviets, are realists who carefully weigh the “correlation of forces.” They don’t particularly care about personalities, any more than a grandmaster chess player cares about the shape of his opponent’s nose.

    The important facts here are that

    1) the German and Russian economies have become closely intertwined since 1995, and this integration is going to accelerate now for reasons that have nothing to do with Merkel or Putin; and

    2) the US and Europe are becoming less and less relevant to each other, as the non-German Europeans turn inward and the US turns its focus and military-diploomatic resources toward East Asia. The complete withdrawal of the continental NATO allies from Afghanistan merely ratifies what everyone knows: for all practical purposes, NATO is a dead letter. Russia doesn’t present a serious threat to NATO, and the US doesn’t really care about the European theater anymore.

    At the same time that the US and Europe have drifted apart, Germany is very keen to find a new partner given the failure of the eurozone and the increasing unreliability of France as co-leader of the EU. Another source of pressure here is the fact that Germany’s renunciation of nuclear power makes it is even more reliant on natural gas, ie Gazprom, ie the Kremlin, for its energy supply than it was before the Japanese tsunami.

    Then there’s the magnet of the high-growth Russian market, which is probably the most important market overall for Germany today.

    Put all of these together – US withdrawal, EU implosion, Russian natural gas and huge revenue and profit growth for German firms in Russia – and you can see why it is inevitable that Germany and Russia will seek closer ties in coming years.

    There will be snags, of course, and Russian leaders will no doubt continue to pull stunts of one kind or another, but German-Russian integration will continue to deepen no matter who holds power in Berlin or Moscow.

  • Matt

    “Given all that, why do the Russians bother? Why make threats that make you both loathed and despised? Why antagonize people with empty threats?”

    How do you know the threats are empty? How would you know if they are real or not?

    Do you assume because they were empty in the past that they will always be empty?

    Think about an old forest that has only experienced small fires for 100 years. The thought of a major fire has become unthinkable. Yet, quietly the forest has become susceptible to that very kind of fire.

    Society works the same way as a forest. I will spare you the math. Historically, American society becomes susceptible to a major crisis about the time most people from the last crisis have died – like now. Notice that we have a financial crisis that doesn’t seem to go away.

    Historian Niall Ferguson has identified the 20th century signs of war: Empires in decline, economic volatility and ethnic conflict (Think Middle East). Today, we have all three, and the age of upheaval has started, says Niall.

    We are now waiting for the Middle East to blow up when Israel attacks Iran. Thankfully, Russian and Chinese leaders have laid out for us what they plan to do – nuclear retaliation. You don’t even have to guess. They told just told us. America is going to be nuked.

    Do you want to know why America is subject to military defeat? Everybody thinks a nuclear attack is impossible.

  • R.G. Livingston

    When Professor Mead gets to speculating about Germany in his final paragraph, he goes astray. Schroeder did not “hate” Bush. He backed Bush’s attack in Afghanistan, sending Bundeswehr troops there to join the NATO force. He did not back Bush’s attack on Iraq, to be sure, thinking it a misguided war, a view shared by Obama and many, many Americans and Europeans at the time and since.
    For over sixty years, first West Germany’s and since 1990 united Germany’s orientation has been toward promoting and reinforcing the integration of Europe. Merkel has intensified that policy since the Eurocrisis began. There is no party, not even the Linke, that is anti-European Union. Since the EU, with its common market, so well serves Germany’s economy, there is no prospect at all of a “change of orientation.” The result of the United States’s “strategic pivot” to Asia and the withdrawals of large numbers of American troops from Germany, which have now begun, will be to reinforce that country’s focus on Europe. There are no anti-EU parties in Germany as there are in France, Netherlands, Finland, Austria, and other European countries. And there certainly are none — nor likely to be any –who would favor an alignment with
    If the Free Democrats do not make it into the Bundestag in the 2013 national elections, Merkel and her CDU can easily form another Grand Coalition with the Social Democratic Party ( as they did from 2005-2009). The Chancellor remains very popular, with no plausible rival to be seen. She has continued to act cautiously but highly effectively during the eurocrisis, demonstrating a fine sense of timing and plenty of courage. That her popularity could suddenly “vanish” is a particularly ill-founded piece of speculation by Professor Mead.

  • The Saint

    Do not forget Russian aggression on Georgia – Russia still occupies northern territories of Georgia and still runs perfect propaganda machine about that fact.

    Is Russia able to attack a NATO installations? It’s a rhetorical question – just look have they have assassinated two presidents of big NATO nation, Poland, along with extermination of the all NATO generals in Poland in one so-called “plane crash”.

    It is impossible for the birch to cut the heavy plane wing, yet Russians insist – against laws of physics – that it happened.

    They destroyed the wreckage, cutting it with saws and breaking the windows. The wreck is still hold on Russian soil. They did not even returned any of the black boxes. Recently they have…. washed the wreck! More info about “friendly” Russia activity in Central Europe here: freepl dot info

    This is how Russia and they dis-informative propaganda works. And do not forget that Russia was always weak economically and that did not prevent them from starting wars.

  • alexander

    And now will count up,war beginnings Russia within last 65 years and how many wars of the beginnings usa
    And who the first has applied a nuclear bomb

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service