A Grain of Salt–Spy Ships, Officials, and Russian Missiles

Bayard & Holmes

~ Piper Bayard

Big Media, Big Politics, and Big Business all profit financially and politically when they keep the public worked up in fear and/or outrage. They are not our friends. Let’s take some of their power back with a few facts.

Outrage

Throughout media, “US officials” report that a Russian spy ship has “appeared” off the East Coast – the first such sighting during the Trump administration.

Facts

  • Russian spy ships have been “appearing” off the US East Coast since the invention of the radio – literally over ninety years.
  • If we want to get technical, Russian spy ships have been “appearing” off of US coasts ever since Russia could sail to the US coast.
  • It is entirely possible that this is the first time journalists have bothered to notice Russian spy ship patrols.
  • According to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles (22.2 km; 13.8 mi) from the mean low water mark of a coastal state.
  • The Russians, Chinese, North Koreans, Iranians, and Emperor Palpatine can legally park their entire navies 14 miles off the US coastline and have a bacchanalia if they want to, and they are breaking no international laws.
  • The Russian spy ship Viktor Leonov was 30 miles off the US coast as of February 15, 2017.
  • There are no allegations that any Russian ships have violated US territorial waters.
  • US ships regularly cruise coastal waters of Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and every other country on the planet that has a coastline.
  • Merriam-Webster defines “official” as “one who holds or is invested with an office.”
  • Merriam-Webster defines “office” as “a position of responsibility or some degree of executive authority.”
  • Well over 800,000 people in the Intelligence Community hold top secret clearances, which would indicate “position[s] of responsibility or some degree of executive authority.”
  • If I had cited to “officials” in my freshman journalism class, I would have flunked and become the department poster child for shoddy journalism. 

 

Bayard & Holmes Opinion

Where the hell have “journalists” been for the past ninety years? This is like watching seven-year-olds discover Knock-Knock Jokes. These same “journalists” couldn’t even find Russia on a map before it hacked the DNC last August.

Actual photo of journalists finally noticing Russian spy ships off of US coast.

 

Outrage

“Russia Deploys Missile, Violating Treaty and Challenging Trump” ~ The New York Times

 

Facts

  • Versions of this headline are being paired throughout media with “news” of the Russian spy ship.
  • Russia did indeed deploy a new intermediate-range missile, which can be considered a violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
  • Russia deployed this missile in December, 2016, before Trump took office.
  • The Obama administration was aware of the Russian missile program in 2014.
  • The Obama administration warned Russia in 2014 that it was violating the treaty.
  • The Obama administration warned Russia again in 2015 that it was violating the treaty.
  • Russia now has two batteries of the new cruise missiles.

 

Bayard & Holmes Opinion

While the arms treaty issues will certainly pose a challenge to the Trump administration, Putin threw down the Arms Gauntlet during the Obama administration. Obama responded with a frown. This recent missile deployment is not about Putin “challenging” Trump like some sort of international cock fight, as the headline implies. It was just time for Putin to test his new toys. He’d have done it no matter who won the election.

Unfortunately for all of us, Trump threw down the Screw-You Gauntlet when he started his administration by publicly telling off all of the top media muckity-mucks. The media has picked up that gauntlet, and the public is nothing but a pawn in the Media War.

 

Bottom Line

Spy ships are old news, and Putin has had his missile agenda for a very long time. Media and politicians also have their agendas. None of these agendas include an informed, educated public.

Take it all with a grain of salt!

Crooked Line in the Sand — Russia and Turkey

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

On Tuesday, November 24, 2015, two Turkish Airforce F-16s shot down a Russian SU-24. How will that incident impact Russia-Turkey relations, Russia-West relations, NATO response, and the fight against ISIS?

 

Russian Sukhoi SU-24 Image by US Dept. of Defense, public domain.

Russian Sukhoi SU-24
Image by US Dept. of Defense, public domain.

 

Not surprisingly, Russia and Turkey disagree on what occurred leading up to Turkey shooting down the SU-24.

Russia claims that its aircraft flew along the Turkish border, making sharp turns along the crooked and sharp-angled Northwestern Syrian border to avoid flying into Turkish air space. According to Russia, its pilot received no warnings prior to being shot down. The Russians claim they were hitting ISIS targets in the area.

Turkey claims that the Russian plane flew a two mile route across a small section of Turkey that borders Syria to the east and west. Turkey claims that it radioed ten warnings to the Russian pilot before shooting down the SU-24. According to Turkey, there are no ISIS terrorists in the area that the Russians were bombing – that ethnic Turks that do not support ISIS, but do oppose Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, inhabit the targeted area.

Russia’s claim that the downed SU-24 never flew across Turkish airspace is highly improbable.

The SU-24 lacks the maneuverability required to fly the route that the Russians are claiming that it flew. Also, the Russian claim that they were attacking ISIS targets in the area is most likely at least partially false. ISIS members would be scarce in that area. The Turks seem to be telling the truth about those elements of the shoot down.

However, the Turks could not have radioed ten warnings in the few seconds that would have elapsed while the SU-24 was crossing over Turkish airspace. It’s possible that they could have been broadcasting warnings as the SU-24 flew the long leg of its route that paralleled Turkish airspace. In any case, Turkey had previously warned Russia to keep their warplanes out of Turkish airspace in response to earlier incursions by Russian planes. (For one example, see Russia Upskirts Turkey.)

So why did Russia allow their pilot to fly over Turkish air space?

Given the highly regimented air combat control structure employed by the Russians, it’s not likely that the pilot acted on his own initiative. Russian avionics equipment is not cutting edge, but it is certainly adequate to prevent an accidental flyover on the particular route taken by the SU-24. My guess is that Russia had decided that their pilots should limit their incursions into Turkish air space, but that they approved the flight path that led to their plane being shot down. It seems that Russia miscalculated Turkey’s resolve concerning its incursions.

So how will this incident affect the famed “international coalition to combat ISIS”?

Since the famed coalition is more a product of rhetoric and wishful thinking than of substance, it’s not likely to matter much. Russia is in Syria to prop up the hapless Bashar Assad. Russia’s opposition to ISIS is secondary to that goal. The West opposes both ISIS and Assad. Non-ISIS rebels are receiving Western aid, and both Turkey and its Western allies are opposed to Russian airstrikes targeting non-ISIS rebels. None of this will be greatly impacted by Turkey’s shoot down of the Russian SU-24.

On the diplomatic front, Putin claimed that Turkey “backstabbed” them by shooting down the plane.

Given that no real cooperation between Turkey and Russia has occurred in Syria, and given that the Syrian regime previously shot down a Turkish F-4 on the Syrian Turkish border, it’s more accurate to describe Turkey’s actions as a “counter slash.”

Russia canceled some official meetings between Russian and Turkish ministers and has asked Russians to halt any tourist travel in Turkey. Russia is also claiming that it is scaling back plans for gas exports through a new Russian gas line across Turkey. This seems unlikely since the alternative is for Russia to continue to rely on gas lines crossing Ukraine to reach European markets. With the current low prices of crude, Russia cannot afford to scale back on energy exports. Their fragile economy needs the revenue generated by oil and gas exports.

In military terms, Russia has reacted by deploying better air defense missiles in Syria.

This, when combined with the uncertainty that Putin relies upon so heavily in his foreign policy tactics, may present a new threat to Western and Jordanian aircraft flying in Syrian airspace hunting ISIS targets.

Putin likely does not want to further escalate the situation in Syria by attacking Western or Jordanian aircraft, but he might feel justified in shooting down Turkish aircraft that fly into Syrian air space. The possibility that Russia might mistake a French or American aircraft for a Turkish aircraft cannot be ignored. In recognition of that, the West might, without much fanfare, inform Russian commanders in Syria of Western flight plans when attacking ISIS targets.

As for Russian relations with Western nations, the impact will be minimal.

The US views Erdogan as unreliable on his best day. If Erdogan has “backstabbed” anyone, it has been his NATO partners. Nobody in the US military community will forget that on the eve of the 2003 US-coalition invasion of Iraq, Erdogan withdrew his permission for US troops to invade Iraq via Turkey. More recently, Turkey has been inconsistent in dealing with the Kurds in their fight against ISIS. Erdogan claims to want to fight ISIS, but he has spent far more effort fighting Kurds both in Turkey and in Syria.

Turkey is a NATO partner, but thanks to Erdogan, it is the least trusted and least liked member. NATO will not ignore direct military aggression by Russia against Turkey, but given Erdogan’s long, ugly record of ignoring the interests of his “allies,” NATO partners are not going to allow Erdogan to control their agenda in Syria.

As for the war on ISIS and statements by US cabinet members and DOD spokesmen that “this further complicates our efforts against ISIS” – that’s more PR effort than reality.

The Obama administration’s opponents have been critical of Obama’s minimalist approach to combating ISIS. The White House now has one more excuse for not escalating efforts against the Islamic extremists.

Given the economic trouble at home and the expensive conflict in Ukraine, Putin does not want to escalate a conflict with Turkey. Given the growing discontent and political violence in Turkey, along with troubled relations with his NATO allies, Erdogan does not want to escalate a conflict with Russia. NATO does not want Turkey or Russia to escalate a conflict. Neither Erdogan nor Putin have demonstrated skill in foreign policy or diplomacy, but both have strong reasons to avoid a serious engagement with each other.

Most likely, the status quo will continue in Syria. The fight against ISIS will remain in low gear, and since Russia has few friends, economic convenience will prevent a long term freeze of Turkey-Russia relations.

Russia Peeks Up Turkey’s Skirts

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

On Saturday, October 3, a Russian fighter flown from Syria entered Turkish airspace without Turkey’s permission.

 

Russian SU-27 Flanker aircraft. Image by UK Royal Air Force, wikimedia commons.

Russian SU-27 Flanker aircraft.
Image by UK Royal Air Force, wikimedia commons.

 

Turkey responded by summoning the Russian Ambassador to Turkey to receive a formal complaint from the Turkish government. The US, the UK, and NATO officials reiterated that they will stand by Turkey against any aggression. Naturally, Russia will pretend that the incursion was accidental.

Given the equipment used by Russian fighters, it is unlikely that the incursion was accidental or unknown to the Russian pilot. Given the command and control procedures enforced by the Russian Air Force, it is highly unlikely that the Russian pilot acted without the prior approval of bosses in Moscow.

So why would Russia look to annoy Turkey? It wouldn’t.

The incursion was not meant to insult or annoy the Turkish government. It was almost certainly an intelligence operation. Other Russian aircraft and ships in the area likely were listening to the Turkish reaction. The Russian GRU (military intelligence) will carefully analyze data collected, such as radar and radio signals from Turkey, along with a timeline of the mission. Apparently, the Kremlin felt that the information gained would be worth the minor diplomatic fallout.

Let’s see if Moscow risks the same trick with Israel. I doubt it will. Israel, given its small area, cannot afford to be so patient with aircraft incursions.

Russia Advances In Syria — What Does It Mean?

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

Stories and concerns are circulating about an escalated Russian military presence in Syria.

Many of the stories focus on the fact that Russia has sent four Sukhoi SU-30SM fighter jets and eight military helicopters to Syria. We know that Russia has also sent antiaircraft batteries. Less noticed, but possibly more important, is the fact that Russia has ramped up construction at an air base near Latakia, Syria. The construction upsurge appears to indicate facilities for a significantly larger military presence than Russia currently has in Syria.

 

Russian Sukhoi SU-30SM fighter. Image by Aktug Ates, wikimedia commons.

Russian Sukhoi SU-30SM fighter.
Image by Aktug Ates, wikimedia commons.

 

So what does this Russian buildup in Syria mean? The US just posed that same question to Russia.

US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter spoke with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu on Friday, September 18. This was the first official conversation between their two institutions since February 2014, when the US broke off military discussions with Russia due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The purpose of this recent conversation was to discuss “de-escalating” any possible meetings between Russian and US forces in Syria.

While Russia’s presence in Syria might seem sudden and new, Russia has, in fact, been in Syria for over half a century.

Since the 18th century reign of Catherine the Great, Russia has sought military alliances in the Mediterranean. After over two centuries of effort, Russia’s presence in Syria is the only real, lasting diplomatic success that Russia has ever achieved in the Mediterranean. Small though Syria is, the Assad regime has always been a “Russia project.”

Current Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s dictator father, Hafez al-Assad, became president of Syria in 1971. The Soviets trained Hafez al-Assad both as a pilot and as a president. The Assad One-Party-Many-Secret-Police style of government is a copy of the Soviet model. It is the same model that Putin is doing his best to reinstate in Russia today.

 

Dictator Bashar and wife Asmaa al-Assad in Moscow, March 26, 2008. Image by Ammar Abd Rabbo, wikimedia commons.

Dictator Bashar and wife Asmaa al-Assad
in Moscow, March 26, 2008.
Image by Ammar Abd Rabbo, wikimedia commons.

 

The US and Europe are backing Assad’s enemies in Syria while they struggle to oust the Assad regime.

Russia does not want Assad ousted. The real impacts of Russia’s buildup in Syria will depend on how far Putin is willing to go in backing Assad. However, the recent Russian upgrade still leaves Assad and Russia at a tremendous tactical disadvantage against US and European forces in the area.

Because of this disadvantage, it is unlikely that the Russians will attempt to directly engage with any US or European aircraft that are flying missions in Syria.

The Russians are explaining their buildup in Syria as their attempt to help their ally Assad fight off ISIS.

Since ISIS is also the enemy of the West, then in theory, the West has nothing to worry about from Russian forces in Syria. The equation becomes much more complicated if and when Russian forces engage with Western-backed rebels, which are rebels who oppose both Assad and ISIS. Russia has offered no explanation as to how their forces will differentiate between Syrian rebels and ISIS fighters. They obviously won’t.

From my perspective, the only surprise about the Russian buildup in Syria is that Russia waited so long to go this far.

Russia has a lot to lose in Syria, and it needs Assad or an Assad-clone to remain in power for two major reasons. The first and most obvious reason is for Russia to keep its one Mediterranean naval base. The second and more subtle reason is that a critical part of Putin’s empire rebuilding strategy revolves around maintaining and creating allies. The ally-creation part of Putin’s grand strategy has failed miserably.

Most of Russia’s old Cold War European allies have either joined NATO or are trying to. Even the stubbornly neutral Swedes are considering joining NATO. Beyond Europe, most of Russia’s old allies have come to expect less aid from Russia in the post-Cold War environment. Russia’s popularity has, in most cases, plummeted amongst undeveloped nations around the world.

In the narrow and mostly closed mind of Vladimir Putin, keeping Assad in power has become a critical need for maintaining a facade of Russian relevancy in the 21st century.

This, of course, is more bad news for both the Syrian people and the Russian people. Putin is once again missing an opportunity to move past his Cold War childhood and embrace modern opportunities.

So how will the West respond to Russia in Syria?

The same way we have for the last half-century. The US and Europe will continue to support enemies of the Assad regime without directly confronting Russian troops in Syria. If Russian forces “mistakenly” fire on US or Western aircraft in Syria, the West will then likely upgrade the weaponry of Syrian rebels in order to make life more miserable, and more dangerous, for the Russians in Syria.

It appears that Putin is willing to invest heavily in propping up the Assad regime. As long as Czar Putin is able to maintain his stranglehold over Russia, I would not expect a Russian retreat from Syria in the near future.

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Bayard & Holmes Official Photo

Piper Bayard is an author and a recovering attorney. Her writing partner, Jay Holmes, is an anonymous senior member of the intelligence community and a field veteran from the Cold War through the current Global War on Terror. Together, they are the bestselling authors of the international spy thriller, THE SPY BRIDE, to be re-released in September, 2015.

THE SPY BRIDE Final Cover 3 inch

Keep in touch through updates at Bayard & Holmes Covert Briefing.

You can contact Bayard & Holmes in comments below, at their site, Bayard & Holmes, on Twitter at @piperbayard, on Facebook at Bayard & Holmes, or at their email, BH@BayardandHolmes.com.

 

Intelligence Fail–Operation Barbarossa, the Soviet View

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

In our last post, we discussed the intelligence lesson to be learned by Hitler’s choice to invade the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. On the other side, the Soviet Union’s reaction to that invasion provides us with one of history’s most glaring examples of bad intelligence assessments.

Intelligence professionals that read this series should be aware that I use the term “assessment” in the generic English sense rather than in the technical professional sense. All intelligence agencies have their own requirements and rules for what an “intelligence assessment” should look like. We are not following any of those requirements other than the ones that coincide with the researching and writing of history.

To understand the Soviet Union’s failure to adequately prepare for the German invasion of June 22, 1941, it’s important to consider the decision making process of the Soviet Union.

 

Josef Stalin in Berlin, 1945 Image from US Library of Congress,  public domain.

Josef Stalin in Berlin, 1945
Image from US Library of Congress,
public domain.

 

Josef Stalin was a dictator that only nominally reported to the Communist Party of the USSR. In reality, the Communist Party lacked the will or practical authority to oppose any decisions taken by Stalin.

By 1941, everyone in the USSR understood that disagreeing with Stalin about anything was likely to lead to arrest, torture, and possible execution. Not surprisingly, Stalin had grown accustomed to people agreeing with him. While he may have enjoyed his success in bending the entire USSR to his will, it had an isolating effect that would prove disastrous.

Even though Hitler vastly underestimated the war fighting capability of the USSR, he understood that the USSR had a much larger military than did Poland or France. Accordingly, he instructed the German military to move approximately 3.8 million troops into position to invade the USSR. Some of those troops were not for employment in the spearheads of the invasion, and, therefore, did not need to be kept close to the Soviet borders. Still, even in the pre-satellite age, it was difficult to disguise German troop buildups.

 

The six lines of attack comprising Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941. From The Battle of Russia, the fifth film in the Why We Fight series by US Govt. public domain

The six lines of attack comprising Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941.
From The Battle of Russia, the fifth film in the Why We Fight series by US Govt.
public domain

 

So how did Stalin manage to ignore the massive German buildup leading to Operation Barbarossa?

There are various opinions about the details of how and why Stalin failed to anticipate a German invasion, but some aspects are nearly universally accepted. One might assume that the Soviet NKVD (the precursor to the KGB) and military intelligence forces were inadequate or perhaps nearly blind to all evidence. This was clearly not the case.

The Soviet Union leadership considered itself to be in a perpetual state of war with the rest of the world. From their point of view, the character and intensity of that war varied, but there was no such thing as real “peace” with Western nations. The Soviet State also operated on the assumption that it was and would always be in a state of war with a significant portion of its own citizens.

These two fundamental assumptions caused the USSR to invest heavily in intelligence efforts. Both the NKVD and Soviet military intelligence accurately assessed that Hitler was planning an invasion of the USSR. They had done an excellent job of penetrating Hitler’s Foreign Office, intelligence services, military staffs, and industry. They were receiving more than enough information from a variety of independent sources to be certain that Operation Barbarossa was imminent.

In addition to its direct sources in Germany, Stalin’s intelligence community was aware of US and UK assessments of Hitler’s intentions.

When diplomats from the US and the UK informed Stalin of German plans to invade the USSR, Stalin had already heard this from his spies in the UK and the US. He assumed that all the warnings coming from the Western nations were part of a Western conspiracy to force him to go to war with Hitler prematurely. Stalin preferred to let the West demolish itself, and he planned to step into a convenient power vacuum of a destroyed Western Europe.

Opinions vary about precisely how, in the face of so much corroborative information, Stalin failed to anticipate the German invasion. In one sense, he didn’t.

Just as Hitler understood that carving up Poland with the USSR would in no way appease Stalin’s long term goal of annihilating Western nations and governments, Stalin clearly understood that Germany would try to attack the USSR. Stalin’s basic reaction to that reality was to attempt to outsmart the Western nations.

Remember, from Stalin’s point of view, the UK, France, and other Western enemies were as much a threat to the Soviet system and Soviet ambitions as was Germany. All Westerners were Stalin’s enemies, and all of them needed to be accounted for in the Soviet geopolitical calculus of the day.

In addition to considering the threat from his Western neighbors, Stalin had to consider the very real threat of invasion by the Japanese military to the east. Japan had already conquered vast swaths of China, and it could not be completely ignored.

Stalin responded to the threats that surrounded him by using his vast NKVD resources to try to maneuver Western countries into war with themselves and by counting on the Japanese to continue being strategically diverted with their slaughter of the Chinese. From Stalin’s point of view, Hitler’s invasion of his Western neighbors perfectly fit into his plans.

 

Wehrmacht troops cross the USSR borders in Operation Barbarossa, June 22, 1941. public domain

Wehrmacht troops cross the USSR borders in Operation Barbarossa,
June 22, 1941.
public domain

 

Stalin never doubted that Hitler would invade the USSR, but since Germany was still busy dealing with the undefeated UK, he was certain that Hitler would not make the mistake of throwing Germany into the same sort of two-front war that brought that country to ruin in 1918.

When Stalin’s magnificent intelligence services explained to him that Hitler was not going to wait for the fall of the UK to invade the USSR, his megalomaniacal personality enabled him to ignore them. When anyone in his intelligence, diplomatic, or military organizations foolishly attempted to argue the point with him, he accused them of being enemy agents and had them murdered or banished to labor camps.

Since June 22, 1941, Stalin’s miserable intelligence assessment of German intentions has been a popular topic of study. As more files have been obtained from the now defunct USSR, more explanations are offered as to precisely how Stalin managed to deceive himself.

 

German soldiers in Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa, June 1941. Image from German Federal Archives, wikimedia commons.

German soldiers in Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa,
June 1941.
Image from German Federal Archives, wikimedia commons.

 

Thus far, the various theories and occasional new evidence have not changed the essential facts of the case.

Stalin failed to prepare for Operation Barbarossa because he refused to acknowledge that anyone might understand the strategic situation as well as or better than he could. The results of his grand miscalculation were devastating for the USSR. We cannot assume that the best possible preparations by the USSR would have completely and bloodlessly defeated the German invasion, but it is reasonable to assume that the USSR would have suffered far fewer casualties in halting the German advances.

There is one other “what if” that we usually ignore when examining Stalin’s grotesque mismanagement of the Soviet military machine. If indeed Stalin had been able to defeat Hitler’s invasion more efficiently, then Soviet forces likely would have advanced further west before the Allied Forces reached the same positions. Then the post-war division of European nations might have left even more European nations enslaved by Soviet occupation.

Stalin’s horrendous failure to anticipate Operation Barbarossa reinforces the lesson that even the best intelligence is only useful when leaders use it effectively. Stalin’s failure in 1941 also demonstrates another important lesson from Intelligence history . . .

Nations and their leaders should be aware that their own plans and ambitions can blind them to their enemies’ intentions.

In our next segment we will consider an oft-ignored intelligence wild card in Operation Barbarossa.

Russia’s Ukraine Invasion–The Cost

By Jay Holmes

Precisely who is fighting in Ukraine depends upon whom you ask. When Russian Dictator Vladimir Putin speaks to non-Russians, he claims the Russian-speaking Ukrainian rebels are valiantly fighting to save Russian-speaking orphans, Jews, and senior citizens from the vicious onslaught of the Ukrainian government. When Putin speaks at home, he says the Jews are plotting with Americans to overthrow Ukraine. The Ukrainian government, along with most of the rest of the planet, takes a different view. According to Kiev, the violence in eastern Ukraine is instigated by, funded by, and in part fought by Russian security forces.

 

 

Base image for Putin meme  from Agencia Brasil, wikimedia commons.

Base image for Putin meme
from Agencia Brasil, wikimedia commons.

 

From Putin’s office in Moscow, the Russian invasion must seem like a great idea. His entire campaign platform—for the next campaign, last campaign, or any campaign—is his vision of returning Russia to the former glory that, in his view, it enjoyed during the Soviet era. Many Russians don’t have the same memory of enjoying that glory, or much of anything else during that time. Unfortunately, their memories and opinions no longer count for much since Putin has consolidated his power as a New Age Stalin.

A year ago, NATO-aligned nations warned Putin that the costs to Russia for invading Ukraine would far outweigh any nationalist glory that he might obtain.

In response, Putin confidently explained to Western journalists that Europe would suffer more than Russia would from any Western-imposed economic sanctions. At that time and to this day, Putin is denying that any such invasion has taken place, or that the economic sanctions are hurting Russia. They are.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s currency and its stock market have plummeted, and energy prices have dropped like a rock. Between that and the damaging economic sanctions that Putin had so confidently laughed off, the economic outlook for Russia is much less favorable today than it was a year ago.

Given Putin’s plans for increased military spending, the Russian taxpayers can expect decreased standards of living, accompanied by decreased civil rights.

The Russian people are already experiencing a decline in the standard of living in economic terms. Along with this, Putin is intolerant of dissent, the state controls the media, and political opponents are being jailed. Apparently, Putin’s visions of former Soviet glory come down to more centralized authority, fewer human rights, and the same economic hopelessness that made life so miserable in the old regime. Welcome to the “good old days.”

 

Euro to Russian Ruble Exchange Rate Image by Gorgo, wikimedia commons.

Euro to Russian Ruble Exchange Rate
Image by Gorgo, wikimedia commons.

 

For the most part, we in the West have measured the consequences of Putin’s folly in Ukraine in terms of damage to his economy, but there are deeper and less obvious consequences that will affect Russia for decades to come.

For starters, Putin grossly overstated his support at home for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The lack of real democracy in Russia means that Putin can pretend to ignore the unpopularity of his Ukrainian adventure, but even for a skillful, self- promoting dictator, there are limits to his power. I don’t know what those limits are. Unfortunately for Putin, he doesn’t know either. He would not like to discover them, as his increasing ruthlessness could mean that if he is toppled, he could end up with a retirement plan similar to that of his old pal Colonel Gaddafi in Libya.

Another price Russia is paying is that a substantial percentage of its young professionals are immigrating to the West in the wake of Russians allowing Putin to install himself as a modern czar.

That brain drain is hurting Russia. In fact, if so many Russian engineers and scientists had not left their country during the last fifteen years, Russia might not have needed to pay France to build new amphibious assault carriers for them. And now, with the sanctions, Russia doesn’t get the carriers from France. Putin wants desperately to modernize and enlarge his military, but that modernization depends on Russian engineering and scientific capacity, which has has been badly damaged by the intellectual exodus resulting from his repressive policies at home.

Russia is also paying in the form of deteriorating relations with Scandinavian countries.

Last week, Sweden suggested to its partners in the Nordic Defense Cooperation that they do two things. First, that they raise the status of cooperation from the current minimal form by establishing an actual Nordic standing task force to deal with growing aggression from Russia. Second, that deeper military coordination and cooperation be extended beyond Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark to include Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

 

Nordic Defense Cooperation Countries Image by S. Solberg J., wikimedia commons.

Nordic Defense Cooperation Countries
Image by S. Solberg J., wikimedia commons.

 

The bad news for Russia is that it didn’t take more than a few hours for the Nordic members to enthusiastically agree to Sweden’s suggestions. But that’s not all. Sweden has suggested that the combined force that they create should be available to integrate in NATO operations. So in effect, Putin has achieved what Western diplomats could not achieve with half a century of their best efforts–he has managed to get Sweden to join a Western alliance against Russia.

These developments are all consequences of Putin’s adventurism in the Ukraine, and they are all precisely the sorts of developments that Putin was hoping to avoid.

In an alternative scenario, Putin would be capable of seeing beyond 1986.

It is a view that would leave Russia without enemies in Europe. It would be a country where the aspirations of so many of its brightest young people would not include relocation to London or Paris. In that alternative paradigm, Russia could pick up a phone and ask Sweden if it could send a submarine to Swedish waters, and Sweden would say “yes,” because Russia would be a modern nation with a modern foreign policy and friendly relations with its neighbors.

That Russia would experience a better standard of living, greater scientific and cultural achievements, and far better national security. The NATO nations would be happier for it and would enjoy all the advantages of real cooperation between Russia and the West. But that’s the alternative paradigm and a view that Vladimir Putin will not entertain, because such a view would place the interests of the Russian people above his own desire for absolute political power.

The scope of Russia’s lost opportunities is spectacular to behold, but until new leadership arrives, Putin’s dingy Stalinist Cold War reality is all that we can expect for that country and its unfortunate neighbors. Proof that you can take the boy out of the Cold War, but you can’t always take the Cold War out of the boy.

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Related Posts

France–At the Crossroads of Russia and NATO

How Putin is Having His Way with the West

Dances with Bears–The Putin/West Waltz

Ukraine in Crisis:  Vladimir Putin and the Power of Gas

Timeline of Ukrainian Turmoil–Part Two, 2001 – Present

It Didn’t Start Last Week–Timeline of Ukrainian Invasions

 

 

At the Crossroads of NATO and Russia

By Jay Holmes

Friday, November 14, 2014 might end up being an important date in Western history—not for what happened on this day, but rather for what didn’t happen. The French government failed to deliver the new Mistral class helicopter carrier to the Russian Navy.

 

FS Mistral Amphibious Assault Ship in Toulon Harbor Image by Rama, wikimedia commons.

FS Mistral Amphibious Assault Ship in Toulon Harbor
Image by Rama, wikimedia commons.

 

On December 24, 2010, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced the sale of two French Mistral class ships to the Russian Navy. The contract was signed on January 25, 2011, with a delivery date for the first helicopter carrier, the Vladivostok, in October of 2014 and the second ship, the Sevastopol, to be delivered in 2015. Two more ships of the same class were then to be constructed under license in Russia. The price of the contract for the first two ships was 1.37 billion euros. This, of course, represented thousands of jobs for the troubled French economy.

In what was likely a well-rehearsed press briefing, Russian reporters asked Russian General Staff member General Nikolai Makarov why the ships would not be built in Russia where Russian workers could benefit from the project. General Makarov stated that the reason for purchasing the French design, rather than Russian, was that “Russia would require another ten years to develop technologies” that could match the Mistral class capabilities and that the Russian Navy did not want to endure that delay. In answering the question, he effectively confirmed the concerns of the US and some of its NATO members.

When the contract was announced in 2010, US Republican senators, led by John McCain, sent a letter of protest to the French Ambassador to the US. NATO member states Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia also protested against the sale. During his visit to Paris on January 8, 2011, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates expressed US concern over the substantial military technology upgrade that the French were exporting with the sale of the Mistral class ships to Russia. When questioned by journalists, Gates’ representatives stated that, in spite of US concerns, there was nothing that the US could do to block the sale of the Mistral ships to Russia. France had anticipated the complaints and ignored them. The construction proceeded on schedule.

On February 27, 2014, when the Russian flag was hoisted over the Ukrainian parliament in Crimea, the pending transfer of the Mistral ships to Russia quickly became a much more serious problem to Ukraine, to NATO member states, and to Sweden. With a planned delivery date of October 15 looming on the horizon, the US and NATO quietly stepped up pressure on the French government to halt the sale of the high tech Mistral ships. The French quickly complained that they would have to reimburse Russia the 1.1 billion euros already paid for the ship construction, and that it would cost France over a thousand jobs.

Members of the US Congress responded that NATO should purchase the two ships for use by the NATO Standing Force Atlantic and NATO Standing Force Mediterranean. NATO was slow to respond, but after a few weeks, they decided that they lacked the funds and mechanism for making such a purchase. In reality, if the UK and the US cooperated, an offer to purchase the ships at their original sales price could be made within days. France would have no doubt as to the validity of the offer, but that does not mean that France would easily agree.

In less public communications, the Russian government offered, in general terms and without producing a contract, to make further substantial warship purchases from the French shipyards if France delivers the two Mistral ships. Russia is also in a position to quietly make a variety of generous financial offers to the French government or to members of the French government. I am not aware of what other offers have or have not been made.

 

 

In response to pressure from its fellow NATO members, France delayed the projected delivery date to November 14 with the condition that a cease-fire and a permanent political solution be in place by then.

Only days before the deadline, Vladimir Putin did what he always does best. He hurt Russia. On November 10, 2014, Australia deployed warships to shadow Russian warships that had approached the Coral Sea. On November 13, the Russian ships were in the Coral Sea, where they approached, but did not enter, Australian territorial waters.

This bit of Putinism was in response to the announcement by the Australian government that at the G-20 meeting, they would confront Vladimir Putin about the fact that Russian forces had shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 on July 17, 2014. Thirty-eight Australians were killed in that attack.

On November 12, another Russian armored column crossed into Ukraine, further escalating the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and making it more politically difficult for France to deliver the ships. The November 14 delivery date has now passed, and France has thus far declined to turn over the ships to Russia.

The Russian government responded with its traditional lack of finesse. It officially announced that it would make financial claims against France if the first Mistral is not delivered by the end of November. Less officially, but quite publicly, they have announced that the financial claims would be in the neighborhood of 3 billion euros, and that France would face “grave consequences.” France responded by stating that it would not be forced into any decisions by anyone outside of France.

In spite of what Vladimir Putin’s media machine will tell the Russian public, Russia is, in fact, in no position to deliver and “grave consequences” to France. The Russian ships in the Coral Sea are not capable of overcoming Australia’s defenses, but the move plays well on Putin-controlled state media. As for Australia, Putin doesn’t give a damn what anyone in that country thinks.

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin contemplating the  "grave consequences" he would like to deliver. Image by www.kremlin.ru.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
contemplating the “grave consequences”
he would like to deliver.
Image by http://www.kremlin.ru.

 

While NATO maintains that it cannot purchase the two Mistral ships from France, some interesting options are available.

In 2010, Poland expressed an interest in possibly purchasing a Mistral class ship from France. For lack of funds, no offer has been tendered. Canada, a nation that has the funds, has also expressed an interest in purchasing two Mistral class ships from France. The UK, a nation that has the funds but won’t give the funds to its navy, has not expressed any interest in purchasing a Mistral class ship. Perhaps it should. With the once mighty Royal Navy currently reduced to having no carriers in service, the purchase of a single Mistral class helicopter carrier could serve to boost the Royal Navy’s defense capabilities until the two new Queen Elizabeth carriers enter service sometime after 2016. The helicopter carrier would remain useful to the Royal Navy long thereafter.

The likelihood of the UK considering the purchase of one of the Mistral carriers is approximately equal to the likelihood that I will win the lottery. I don’t buy lottery tickets. Since the US is expected to pick up the slack from the Royal Navy, and since there is next to no Canadian navy afloat from which to pick up any slack, it is in the direct interest of the US to offer partial financial assistance to Canada or to Poland for the purchase of the two Mistral carriers. The key to getting such a deal done would be to allow the French to announce that any such arrangements were the results of inspired, avant-garde thinking by members of the French government. Neither Canada nor Poland would care who claimed credit for any such deal.

My best guess is that between now and the end of November, Vladimir Putin will not learn to act in the best interests of Russia. Russia will continue its aggression against Ukraine, and, therefore, France will want to avoid suffering the political damage that will result in supplying Russia’s invading military with a new high-tech warship. Time still remains for France and its Western allies to come to their senses and redirect the Mistral ships to an allied navy. Whether or not reason will prevail in the long term remains to be seen.

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