Will the War Clouds Pass Us By, Or Will the Storm Break?

Alastair Crooke, Sic Semper Tyrannis blog, 3 March 2018

The compulsive hatred of President Putin in élite western circles has surpassed anything witnessed during the Cold War.  Western states have been hyping political hostility in almost every sphere: In Syria, in Ukraine, across the Middle East, in Eurasia, and now, this hatred has leached into the Security Council, leaving it irretrievably polarised — and paralysed.  This hostility has percolated too, across to all Russia’s allies, contaminating them. It potends – almost inevitably – further sanctions on Russia (and its friends) under the catch-all Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.  But the real question is: Does this collective hysteria portend war?

Ed Curtis reminds us of the almost parabolic escalation of antagonism in recent weeks: 

“This has happened as the Russia-gate claims have fallen to pieces … All across the media spectrum, from the big name corporate stenographers like The New York Times, CNN, National Public Radio, The Washington Post to The Atlantic and Nation magazines and other “leftist” publications such as Mother Jones and Who What Why, the Russia and Putin bashing has become hysterical in tone, joined as it is with an anti-Trump obsession … “Russia Sees Midterm Elections as a Chance to Sow Fresh Discord (NY Times, 2/13), “Russia Strongman [Putin] has pulled off one of the greatest acts of political sabotage in modern history” (The Atlantic, Jan. /Feb. 2018), “Mueller’s Latest Indictment Shows Trump Has Helped Putin Cover Up a Crime” (Mother Jones, 2/16/18), “A Russian Sightseeing Tour For Realists” (whowhatwhy.com, 2/7/18), etc.”

By casting Russia’s interference in the US presidential election as “an attack on American democracy” and thus “an act of war”, the ‘Covert American State’ is saying – implicitly – that just as the act of war at Pearl Harbour brought a retaliatory war upon Japan, so, pari passu, Russia’s effort to subvert America require similar retribution.

Across the Middle East – but especially in Syria – there is ample dry tinder for a conflagration, with incipient or existing conflicts between Turkey and the Kurds; between the Turkish Army and the Syrian Army; between Turkish forces and American forces in Manbij; between Syrian forces and American forces; between American forces and the USAF, and Russian servicemen and Russia’s aerospace forces; between American forces and Iranian forces, and last but not least, between Israel and Syria.

This is one heck of a pile of combustible material.  Plainly any incident amidst such compressed volatility may escalate dangerously.  But this is not the point.  The point is: Does all this Russia hysteria imply that the US is contemplating a war of choice against Russia, or in support of a re-set of the Middle East landscape to Israel’s and Saudi Arabia’s benefit?  Will the US deliberately provoke Russia – by killing Russian servicemen, for example – in order to find pretext for a ‘bloody nose’ military action launched against Russia itself – for responding to the American provocation?

Inadvertent war is a distinct possibility, of course: Both Israel and Saudi Arabia are experiencing domestic leadership crises. Israel may overreach, and America may overreach, too, in its desire to support Israel. Indeed the constant portrayal of the US President as Putin’s puppet is pursued, of course, to taunt Trump into proving the opposite – by authorizing some or other action against Russia – albeit against his better instincts.

 At the Munich Security Conference, PM Netanyahu said:

“For some time I’ve been warning about this development [Iran’s alleged plan to complete a Shi’i crescent] I’ve made clear in word and deed that Israel has red lines it will enforce. Israel will continue to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent military presence in Syria … We will act without hesitation to defend ourselves. And we will act, if necessary, not just against Iran’s proxies that are attacking us, but against Iran itself.” 

And, at the same conference, US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster warned Saturday against increased Iranian efforts to support its proxies in the Middle East, saying the “time is now” to act against Tehran.

But what did McMaster mean by “time is now to act”?  Is he encouraging Israel to attack Hizbullah or Iranian-linked forces in Syria?  This, almost certainly, would lead to a three or four front war for Israel; yet there are good grounds for believing that the Israeli security establishment does not want to risk a three front war.  Possibly, McMaster was thinking more of full-spectrum hybrid, or COIN war, but not conventional war, especially since Israel cannot, any longer (after the shoot down of its F16), be sure of its air dominance, without which, it cannot expect, or hope, to prevail.

As senior Israeli officials complain about the gap between US rhetoric and action, General Josef Votel, the commander of Centcom, stated explicitly, by way of confirmation of the differing view, at a hearing in Congress on 28 February that, “countering Iran is not one of the coalition missions in Syria”. 

So – back to the Russia hysteria.  We do not believe that Syria is a practical locus for a war of choice either for the United States or Russia.  Both are circumscribed by the realities of Syria.  American forces there are not numerous: they are isolated, and dependent on allies – the Kurds – who are a minority in that part of Syria, who are divided, and who are disliked by the Arab population.  And Russian forces mostly consist of no more than 37 aircraft, and small numbers of Russian advisers and Russian supply lines are extended and vulnerable (in the Bosphorous).

No, the US aim in Syria is limited to denying any political success to either Presidents Putin or Assad. It is pure schadenfreude. The American occupation of north-east Syria is primarily about spitting in the face of Iran – i.e. the pursuit of a COIN war against an American, generational enemy.

And at the same time, at the macro, geo-strategic level, America has precisely been trying to ‘disarm’ Russia’s nuclear defences, and seize the advantage, by withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, and by deliberately surrounding Russia on its borders with anti-ballistic missiles (the ABM treaty provided for only one site on its territory – for each party – that would be protected from missile attack).  The US strategy effectively left Russia naked, in the nuclear sense. And that clearly was the intent. “With the build-up of the global US ABM missile system, the New START Treaty (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) is devaluated, and the strategic balance [was] broken”, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in his State of the Nation Address yesterday. 

But then, as ‘the quartet of generals’ (effectively, General Petraeus is a part of the WH trinity of generals), having usurped America’s foreign policy out from the prerogative of the President and into their control, so US defence policy has metamorphosed beyond ‘Cold War’, to something far more aggressive – and dangerous: a precursor to ‘hot war’.

From the original Strategic Statement, casting Russia and China as ‘rivals and competitors’, the subsequent Defense Posture Statement elevated the latter from mere rivals, to ‘revisionist powers’, which is to say, dubbed them as seditionists committed to overturning the global order by military force (the definition of revisionist power).  The Statement placed great power competition above terrorism, as the primordial threat facing America, and implied that this ‘revisionist’ threat to the American-led global order needed to be met.  American generals complained that their erstwhile, unchallenged global dominance of the skies, and of terrain, was being eroded by Russia acting as ‘arsonist’ [of stability] whilst presenting itself as the “fire-fighter” [in Syria].  America’s air dominance must be reasserted, General Votel implied.

But in a startling upending of the strategic balance and missile encirclement, that America has been seeking to impose on Russia, President Putin announced yesterday that:

“Those who for the past 15 years have been fueling the arms race, seeking advantages over Russia, imposing restrictions and sanctions, which are illegal from the standpoint of international law, in order to hinder our country’s development, particularly in the defence field, must hear this: all that you have been trying to prevent by this policy has happened. Attempts to restrain Russia have failed.” 

The Russian President announced a series of new weapons (including new nuclear-powered missiles invulnerable to any missile defence, hypersonic weapons, and underwater drones, inter alia), that remarkably return the situation to the status quo ante – one of mutually assured destruction (MAD), were NATO to contemplate attacking Russia.

President Putin said that he had repeatedly warned Washington not to deploy ABM missiles around Russia – “Nobody listened to us: [But] Listen now!”, he said:

“Our nuclear doctrine says Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons only in response to a nuclear attack or an attack with other weapons of mass destruction against her or her allies, or a conventional attack against us that threatens the very existence of the state.”

“It is my duty to state this: Any use of nuclear weapons against Russia or its allies, be it small-scale, medium-scale or any other scale, will be treated as a nuclear attack on our country. The response will be instant – and with all the relevant consequences” (emphasis added). 

President Putin underlined that he was not threatening America, nor did Russia have revanchist ambitions.  It was rather Russia simply using the only language that Washington understands.

Putin’s speech, accompanied by visuals of the new Russian weaponry, explains at least something of what has been going on in DC: America’s recent seizure by a madness for spending. The Pentagon must have got (some) wind of Russia’s advances – hence the huge increase in the budget for Defence planned for this year, and another 9% next year, and an unbudgeted commitment to fund a new nuclear submarine fleet, a replacement for the Minuteman missile system, and the development of new nuclear (tactical) weapons (costs unspecified). 

The expense will be prodigious for the US government. But Russia already has stolen the lead, and did this with government debt, as a percentage of nominal GDP, standing at only 12.6%, whereas America debt’s already is at 105% of GDP (before the weapons upgrade has begun).   President Reagan is credited with busting the USSR economically by forcing it into an arms race, but now it is the US that is vulnerable to its mountain of debt – should the US try to reverse Putin’s Spring ‘surprise’, and (if it can), restore its global conventional and nuclear primacy.

So, America has a choice: either to re-set the relationship with Russia (i.e. pursue détente), or, risk running a US borrowing requirement that busts the credibility of the dollar.  The US, culturally, is accustomed to acting militarily ‘where, when and how’ it decides so to do.  It will probably be culturally unable to abstain from this well-practiced habit.  Therefore, a weak dollar and rising debt servicing costs seems inevitable: thus, the rôles seem set for a reversal from the Reagan era. Then it was Russia that overreached, trying to catch up with the US. Now, it may be the vice versa.

The hysteric anti-Russian rhetoric will continue – so deeply embedded is it as an ‘article of faith’ – but it seems likely that America will need to reconsider before further provoking Russia in Syria. If America is now unwilling to ‘bloody Russia’s nose’ over some escalation in Syria, then its isolated and vulnerable military outposts in eastern Syria will loose much of their point, or begin to take casualties, or both.

The question now must be how Russia’s exercise in speaking ‘truth to power’ will play on America’s policy towards North Korea. The US ‘generals’ will not like President Putin’s message, but there is probably little that they can do about it. But North Korea is different. Just as Britain, at its moment of weakness, in the wake of WW2, wanted the world to know that it remained strong (though the signs of its weakened state were evident to all), it sought to demonstrate its continued power through the disastrous Suez Campaign.  Let us hope North Korea does not become America’s ‘Suez moment’.

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