World affairs are often best seen through the lens of someone playing poker. The aphorism about the middle-east really applies world-wide: What ever appears to be happening is not what is happening. Therefore, analyzing much of what we see as nations maneuver on the world stage is more an exercise in calculating the probabilities than one of drawing rock-solid conclusions.
Even in what might be a clear case such as when one nation invades another militarily, there will be plenty about which to speculate. Turning back to truths you can count on, there is no doubt that much of war is a matter of deception.
All of this is a lead-in to the story of Russia’s military exercises planned to start at any time now. These are not minor exercises either, as they involve elements from the whole range of Russia’s forces. And Mr. Putin is not a man to be taken lightly. So what have we got here? Sabre-rattling? Routine practice? A warning to the west? Or preparations for war?
“Over the past several months, Western defense ministries and militaries have expressed anxiety over the large-scale Russian military exercise known as ‘Zapad,’ or ‘West,’ slated to begin in mid-September and to engage virtually every element of Russian forces. In late July, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of US Army Europe, warned that NATO allies fear ‘Zapad 17’ could be a Russian ‘Trojan horse.'”
That Russia has named this exercise “West” should not be considered accidental. Nor should it be ignored. Perhaps the only name for these military maneuvers that would have been more provocative would have been “America.” In other words, we get the message.
CNN points out that these exercises that are carried out by Russia every four years have sometimes been preludes to invasions, ratcheting up the level of concern even higher.
“That is not an unwarranted concern. Twice over the past decade — Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014 — the Kremlin has used the cover of an exercise as preliminary to an invasion. The ‘Zapad’ maneuvers, held about every four years, are particularly threatening in that they frequently simulate the use of nuclear weapons.”
Keeping score thus far, we have major Russian exercises that are imminent, that are military maneuvers named “West,” that have been preludes to invasions in the past, and that involve nuclear weapons.
If that isn’t enough to get our attention, clearly we have far too many people watching daytime TV, or who are absorbed with the millionaire entertainers masquerading as athletes who are making jackasses out of themselves in the NFL. In other words, start paying attention to something that’s important.
“From the Baltic to the Black Sea, Russia poses a proximate and growing threat not just to NATO-member states but also to the unfortunate few — like Georgia and Ukraine — caught in the no-man’s-land. And while the Kremlin-led army today is not the 4 million horde of the Cold War, it is not the rust-bucket military of the 1990s either. Flush with increased oil and gas revenues for much of the past decade, Russian forces have significantly improved, mixing modern means such as unmanned aerial vehicles and cyberattacks with traditional ‘Red Army’ strengths such as political and electronic warfare, armor and massed firepower.”
And there is one more point that should not be missed. It involves geography.
“But the biggest advantage Putin’s forces have is that they’re there — as the Zapad exercise will demonstrate — and we’re not. Russia can concentrate a lot of power pretty much anywhere along that Baltic-to-Black-Sea line when they perceive weakness or opportunity. Judo-practicing Putin can yank NATO’s chain at will, putting pressure on West-leaning allies. as in the Baltics, or tilting domestic political scales that appear wobbly, as in Hungary and Bulgaria.”
That is an excellent description of what Mr. Putin can do even if he’s not interested in starting World War III: He “can yank NATO’s chain at will.” He can have a splendid time getting NATO to chase shadows, or deployments that look ominous, but really come to nothing. How do we know the difference? We probably don’t. Hence the cat and mouse game is on.
This also gives Mr. Putin an excellent opportunity to test NATO’s responses, which basically means US responses.
We’ve conducted some exercises of our own, but they’ve been on a much smaller scale. “This summer’s heavily publicized NATO exercises are, in fact, a conglomeration of small and separate maneuvers — the ‘Summer Shield’ exercise in Latvia, for example, counted around 1,100 troops from a dozen or so countries. Estimates are that ‘Zapad 2017’ will involve 70,000 or more Russians.”
Still, for all its modernization and expansion, Russia is not the USA and cannot project power to the extent of the US military. The fact that we are largely absent from that region compared to Russia which lives in the same neighborhood would create logistical challenges if there were a real conflict to break loose between NATO and Russia.
Clearly, Russian conventional military capabilities are no match for America’s, especially when other NATO members are added to the forces, however minor their contributions might be.
What has not been mentioned yet, except in passing, is the nuclear option. Let’s hope all retain the understanding that the use of such weapons is far to terrible to contemplate.
Assuming that’s the case, what we might be looking at are some borders getting shifted around, and not in the way the US and its allies would approve. And that just might be what this is all about. After all, Mr. Putin doesn’t have to work to anyone’s schedule other than his own.