To truly plumb the depths of ignorance in public discourse and debate, check out the comments section on any article in the mainstream media which is concerned with the “threat” posed by Russia. It will take your breath away, and make you seriously concerned for our future. Go even further and check the Twitter feeds for any number of MP’s and senior figures in the media. You will read views that should terrify any informed citizen.
An alarming number of people in this country – many of them in positions of responsibility – seem grimly determined that we’re going to be in some kind of stand-off with Russia, somewhere not too far down the line. If the Russians aren’t going to make it happen, then these people will. They’ve created a climate of fear and tension, wholly irresponsibly, which plays into Russia’s own paranoia. Many of these people are smart enough to know it.
You’d almost think they actually want a war.
To understand this phenomenon – and it’s not a modern phenomenon, but a shocking reordering of an old one – you need to grasp a couple of things first. One of them is our own history, and that of the United States, and the other is about Russia itself.
We live in a country that, by virtue of being an island, has never, in our lifetimes or that of our parents, grandparents or great grandparents, known the terror and psychological trauma of suffering invasion.
The last time hostile forces landed on the shores of this country was in 1797 in a brief skirmish that lasted two days and in which 33 soldiers from the army of the French Republic, the invading force, died and 1000 were captured.
The United States has never suffered a direct invasion of its home territory; in fact the last time a hostile foreign army was fighting on its shores they were ours, and that ended in 1783 with their independence.
This isn’t to say that neither country understands war on its own doorstep; the Battle of Britain was fought over our skies. The United States suffered direct attack at Pearl Harbour. The Nazis bombed Britain all the way through the Second World War.
Of course, the two nations also had major military engagements within their borders. This island’s many belligerents have fought many a battle against one another throughout history and the US saw a four year civil war break out after the British departed. But those, too, were like the sound of a record player in a faraway room; they are trace memories, not burned into the psyche of either nation and they have not influenced our outlook to the world.
We do not understand countries whose outlook is mostly defensive. We sneer at many of them, in fact, and we do so from the point of view of having once ruled an empire that spanned the globe. Ours might be an island race, but we’re a warlike people and we didn’t wait for the fights to come to us; we went looking for them.
America, too, has a history of joining fights in which they weren’t originally a combatant.
This hasn’t always been a negative; in fact, I deplore those on the left who think America’s influence across the world has always been malignant. It hasn’t. There are times when American intervention has been for the betterment of us all. They really do believe all that stuff about bringing freedom to every shore. It’s not just talk. They really get that “manifest destiny” stuff. They really do think their nation can be that “shining city on the hill.”
It’s a wonderful, and noble, sentiment when looked at properly.
None of this is true of Russia, which has suffered three calamitous invasions in its recent history. The first of these invasions was in 1708 and was launched by the Swedish Empire. Over 10,000 Russian soldiers – and uncounted numbers of civilians – died over the course of the war, which lasted more than a year. The second invasion, in 1812, was launched by the French under Napoleon. Over 200,000 Russian soldiers died in that conflict, and as many as a million civilians. That paled into insignificance next to the losses in the third major invasion, that launched by Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union, as Operation Barbarossa during World War II.
The Eastern Front was the greatest killing ground in world history. Between ten and twelve million Soviet soldiers died and an estimated 15 million civilians were killed; Soviet losses – which most historians put at around 26,000,000 – were the greatest of the war, by any country, by a long, long way. The other great powers in Europe combined, including Germany, don’t come close to it even including civilian dead and the adding of American casualties.
It is accepted, but never acknowledged, that the rationale of the Soviet advances into Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the war were designed to create a “buffer zone” between the Soviet border and those of the West, so that Russian territory would never again be invaded. Russia’s entire posture since the Napoleonic War has been defensive in nature, and when they have extended their borders it has been with the security of the Motherland in mind.
Russia is a country that remembers foreign invasion. Its schoolchildren grew up learning of it and its culture honours the sacrifices of those who died in its defence. Borodino, the field on which the French Army fought before it took Moscow, is a national shrine; since the 1940’s one of its many curiosities are the X shaped metal structures which dot the landscape. They are what military scholars call “Czech hedgehogs”, or tank traps.
The Germans got as far as the Borodino field during the Battle of Moscow.
Fear of the West is ingrained in the Russian psyche, and with good reason.
Those three invasions were launched on its Western flank.
Russia tried to join NATO in 1991, but was rebuffed.
Over the years, various parties have suggested that the idea of Russia’s membership in NATO might be re-activated. A much quoted put-down from the Russian envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, in 2009, where he said “Great powers don’t join coalitions, they create coalitions. Russia considers itself a great power,” is remembered more than these historical efforts are, and it came after Russia had invaded Georgia the year before and was therefore highly unlikely to get such an invite.
The 2008 attack against Georgia is often misrepresented, and is widely misunderstood.
Whilst it is clear that Russia’s attack was not, as they claim, a result of Georgian aggression against a persecuted minority, but was long planned and pre-meditated, the geopolitical rationale is more often than not overlooked. It was not an expansionist move.
Its goals were not territorial. Had Russia intended to it could easily have over-run the whole country and kept its army there indefinitely. It did neither. Although launched as a military offensive, the intent was political, and symbolic.
Russia had been gravely concerned at the eastward creep of the NATO alliance, and in particular US plans to base a ballistic missile shield in Poland, which, if operational, would have made a future nuclear attack on Russia a viable option in war.
(I’ll discuss the technicalities of that in another article.)
The invasion of Georgia was a crude, but effective, means of communicating a clear warning to the West that Russia would no longer accept this, and that future expansions of NATO would be checked. The developing crisis in the Ukraine stems from precisely this outlook.
Russia will simply not allow Ukraine to join Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as NATO nations with whom it has to share a border.
Reading media coverage of “Russia’s intentions” is like peering into a paranoid ward.
The list of countries which Russia is said to be threatening encompasses most of Eastern and Northern Europe. The three NATO states named a moment ago are said to be on heightened alert, despite no evidence that Russia has designs on any of them.
In fact, if there was going to be a conflict, if Russia really wanted one, it would have started already, with the NATO nation which sits on Russia’s exposed southern flank; Turkey.
Relations between these countries should be hovering on the brink of war.
The Turkish air force shot down a Russian air force jet last year; it was engaged in military action in Syria.
This was the first occasion in modern times – since the downing of a U2 spy-plane over the Soviet Union in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis – in which military forces from NATO and Russia have exchanged fire, and the first time that a Russian/Soviet aircraft has been destroyed by NATO since the Korean War. Then, in December, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey was assassinated during a live television interview.
Russia’s response to these incidents has been measured, and calm. Both countries are now involved in a joint peace effort in Syria and their partnership is the closest co-operation between Russia and the West in the region.
Furthermore, both have leveled accusations regarding the intent behind the assassination; an effort to destabilise their joint efforts.
Russia’s role in the Syrian crisis is also misrepresented. To read Western newspapers you would think that the tragedy of Aleppo was a unique act of barbarism. Much of the focus was on how hospitals were being destroyed. Yet the same Western politicians who have so vociferously objected to this – and the same Western media which has written such ignorant, spurious nonsense as that it has “redefined war in the 21st Century”- know full well that the US did not spare civilians when they invaded Iraq and that Israel has frequently targeted civilian infrastructure – including hospitals – in its bombing campaigns against Gaza and in Beirut.
The Nazis did not let the people of Guernica know their bombers were coming in 1937.
The Western powers did not evacuate civilian areas during the fire bombings of German cities during World War II and the United States did not give the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki any warning before the atom bombs were dropped on them.
Those acts and numerous others are the Gold Standard of barbarism in war by aerial bombardment.
Russia’s actions in Syria have been brutal, but the civil war that rages there has been brutal even by the standards of wars in that region and not all the bad guys are on one side. Russia alone of the major powers seems to understand that stability is impossible in that country and in the wider sphere of the Middle East if Assad’s government falls. The opposition to his regime is made up of too many disparate entities and this fragmentation would make any new government dangerously unstable.
The so-called moderate elements are weak. It would be a matter of time before the whole country was in the hands of ISIS or Al Quaeda off-shoots who would soon enough turn their guns on their neighbours and then on civilisation itself.
And if you think the global terrorism index – which started to rise sharply after 2003 (and guess what major global event happened that year?) and has been going up ever since – looks grim right now, you can’t imagine what it will look like if fundamentalists get their hands on Assad’s chemical and biological weapon stockpiles, which unlike those of Saddam have been kept in good, working condition … as the chlorine attacks his regime has launched against rebels proves.
The West seems diabolically complacent in this regard. Russia is not, and that’s hardly a surprise either.
If any country in the world understands what those weapons could do in the hands of a terrorist organisation it’s the one whose rogue scientists gave the Syrians and others the skills to manufacture them in the first place.
Of course, the central conceit, and current obsession, of Western intelligence agencies, politicians and the media is that Russia interfered in the US Presidential election. I’m going to be writing a piece on that election where I’ll talk about part of that allegation, early next week, after Trump’s inauguration, but for now I’ll say this; if Russia wanted him to win you can easily understand the reasons why, and there are a few of them.
First Trump doesn’t like the idea of NATO. He thinks it’s an anachronistic organisation that long ago outlived its purpose. Many Western military analysts agree with that view, and so do lots of academics and political figures. More agree that its eastern expansion has gone too far already. Trump also seems to have some understanding of Russia’s invasions of Georgia and their action in the Ukraine; he seems well aware that there’s a defensive mentality at work.
Trump is not an intellectual leader, and although a wholly ignorant lout one would never want to see within miles of the Oval Office far less inhabiting it, he has an intuitive understanding of Russia’s relationship with the West which is untainted by years of exposure to the kind of sentiments which are all too prevalent in Washington, London and elsewhere. He has spoken of finding common ground with them on issues again, instead of doing things the way the hawks in the DOD and the intelligence community might otherwise wish.
That opens up new possibilities for Putin, and the potential to de-escalate the situation on his Western borders. It’s not a great shock that he wants that.
Because the alternative was Hillary Clinton, who’s stated policies were about as rabid, and as dangerous, when it came to Russia and relations with them that your nightmares could conjure up. She spoke about “enforcing” no fly zones in Syria; about toughening up our responses to what were perceived to be aggressive moves in Eastern Europe. She had plans to settle the Ukraine situation early, one suspects by going to Kiev and handing them an offer to join NATO on a plate.
She had discussed with her aides the possibility of using fracking to give the US full energy self-sufficiency which she then intended to exploit, by importing gas and oil to Europe and elsewhere in an attempt to further destabilise the Russian economy.
Hillary Clinton’s election was so eagerly anticipated by the Ukrainian government that they actually tried to do what the US has accused Russia of doing; they attempted to directly influence the presidential election – in her favour – by disclosing information about Trump to the media, having its top diplomats publicly question his fitness for office and they gave the Clinton campaign help in uncovering Trump’s business dealings abroad … including in Russia.
Once again, an allegation being made about Russia, insinuating that it’s involved in actions which are uniquely mendacious or evil doesn’t stand up to real scrutiny. If Russia did try to help Trump – and no-one realistically believes they didn’t – then they did nothing elements in the Ukraine and elsewhere weren’t actively doing for his political rival.
Perhaps these people have chosen to forget – although I’m certain Trump hasn’t – that in January of last year the British Parliament debated whether or not to ban him from the country entirely, whilst he fought for the Republican nomination and there was barely a day which went by during the campaign itself that someone from one of the senior parties wasn’t on the TV or in the papers calling him out. They would never have done so without the support and approval of their party leadership – not even the serial rebels on the Labour benches.
Russia has also been criticised for its investment in cyberwarfare.
This is especially delicious when you consider much of the invective has been flowing from Washington, at a time when no-one can be unaware of the allegations made by Edward Snowden about the US’s own capabilities in this area – including their penetration of national infrastructure databases in foreign countries, including allies like Japan – and their global reach in monitoring and intercepting communications, all of it clandestine, much of it illegal.
US cyber-attacks on foreign national infrastructure are already commonplace; Snowden highlighted numerous examples, and pinpointed the moment cyberwarfare became a trend; it was America’s own multi-agency attack on Iran’s nuclear program in 2007.
He has stated his clear belief that the US is so focussed on its cyberwar making capabilities that it has left glaring, dangerous, holes in its own cyber defence grid.
“When the lights go out at a power plant sometime in the future, we’re going to know that that’s a consequence of deprioritizing defence for the sake of an advantage in terms of offense,” he said last year.
In other words, if those pesky Russian hackers really are getting into US systems as easily as some say, it’s not because they’re especially good or determined, it’s because the US’s focus on using cyberwarfare against others has left the door wide open … and Russia’s defensive posture is built, as so many others is, on getting your licks in before the enemy does.
We are definitely living in dangerous times, when the possibility of some kind of conflict with Russia is no longer remote or unthinkable.
It is perhaps the great curiosity of the election of Donald Trump that this might be the one area in geopolitical advances where there might actually be some tangible benefits, because he appears determined not to go down this road.
Whether it’s because he does possess an innate understanding of what drives Putin on, or whether he lucked out on this area of policy where he can actually do some good, or if he really is what some of the crazier minds out there say – the Moscow Candidate – remains to be seen. It may even be that Putin reveals himself to be the lunatic so many seem determined to paint him as.
Only time will tell, but those voices calling for action against Russia are only convincing me of their own hysteria and paranoia, not to mention their sheer ignorance of the bigger picture and the social, political, economic and military developments that got us here.
The world would benefit from an extended period of silence from these folks; alas, we’re not going to get it.
Our one hope, until we see where Trump and Putin might take us, is that they don’t drive us down an even more dangerous path in the meantime.
The Russians are not our friends anymore.
That’s partly our fault.
It’s only when we realise it that we stand any chance of stopping them becoming our enemies.
I know one thing for sure; their leaders don’t want war.
Their country has seen enough of that already.
The pictures in this article were taken from the Russian government’s own website, under their fair use with attribution guidelines.
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