By Trevor Busch
This month, millions in Germany and around the world celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, one of the ultimate symbols of Soviet Cold War repression which was toppled in 1989. It became one of many watershed events that would eventually see the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of a decades-long standoff between Russia and her allies and the United States and the West.
It was a proxy conflict that very nearly — on multiple occasions — brought the world to the brink of a full-scale nuclear war. We know now as we didn’t know at the time — such as the case of the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) Able Archer 83 war exercises conducted in Europe in 1983 that some analysts and historians suggest nearly caused the Soviet leadership to launch a pre-emptive strike against the West — that it was sometimes only by luck and good fortune that war was ultimately avoided.
What should have been a celebration in Berlin of the triumph of freedom over tyranny and absolutism was unfortunately overshadowed by the spectre of what many are already calling the rise of a new Cold War between a resurgent Russia and the West.
Russia’s recent bellicosity and aggressive military actions in Eastern Europe has radically escalated tensions between Russia and NATO, of which the United States and Canada are members. The seizure and annexation of the Crimea peninsula from the Ukraine and the ongoing civil conflict in that country’s eastern borderlands with Russia —almost certainly being encouraged and supported by Moscow, both politically and militarily — have shocked and angered Western powers but brought little reaction from the West except in the form of sanctions and half-hearted verbal condemnations.
Even more recently, NATO has openly accused Russia of military intervention to support pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine, and confirmed evidence of what Moscow still flatly denies.
Other recent moves, such as a Cold War-style naval hunt for a suspected phantom Russian submarine off the coast of Sweden and well inside Swedish national waters, raised tensions in the Baltic and Scandinavia. And top NATO brass have publicly warned about a handful of incursions of Russian military aircraft in different parts of Europe over the past six months that were greeted by NATO response, and came dangerously close to a military escalation on the continent. In North America, recent incursions by Russian aircraft over the high Arctic — hovering just outside Canadian airspace — have been monitored closely by NORAD (North American Aerospace Defence Command).
This should all sound familiar for those of us that came of age in the second half of the 20th century, when Canada’s high Arctic was a Cold War battlefield between superpowers, where missile subs and hunter-killers played cat and mouse under the polar ice cap, and nuclear bombers and fighters danced around each other in the atmosphere above. Many remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Khrushchev years, and the hard-line fall from detente that heralded the ascension of Brezhnev in the late 1960s. Glasnost and Perestroika under the Gorbachev 1980s might have been the end of an era, but many Westerners still remember the fears and anxieties elicited by the very real prospect of nuclear conflict.
The Russians — and certainly the Soviets — always viewed the world in a different way.
It is easy for us to consider their opinions, their ideology, their worldview as hopelessly out of step with the rest of the world. To be fair, this is a dangerous oversimplification. The Russians have a history of being invaded or conquered by foreign powers — from the Mongols to the Nazis — that has led to a pathological distrust of foreign powers and desperate fears of encirclement as an almost pre-requisite for the creation of the modern Russian psyche. And judging by their past, it is a Russian attitude that is hardly unjustified — the last foreign invasion of Russia’s heartland during WWII cost them the lives of 27 million of their citizens before they drove the Wehrmacht back into Germany. To put that into perspective for a moment, that would be like wiping out the entire population of Canada. And the vast majority of those deaths were civilians.
Let’s just say the Russians have their reasons for distrusting the West. However, their own bombastic actions have done much to legitimate Western fears that the Russians are back on the march in Eastern Europe and perhaps elsewhere, which could easily lead to a future conflict between NATO and Russia.
The three tiny Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were firmly under the Soviet boot ever since Stalin struck a deal with Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler to annex the territories prior to Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. After 1991, all three declared their independence and eventually during the post-Soviet collapse period in Russia in the late 1990s, they joined NATO. Recently, Russian military violations of Baltic airspace have escalated fears that Moscow may again be eyeing the countries as the next domino to topple on its way to attempting to re-create a new Russian Empire, this time based on extreme nationalism rather than communist political and economic ideology.
If the Russians chose to move against weak NATO partners such as the Baltic nations, there is little doubt it would lead to war. By treaty, NATO will not allow the violation of the territorial integrity of one of its members, an organizational lesson that was learned after the pathetic failure of the toothless League of Nations following WWI. If the Russians chose to test that theory — something that was never done during the Cold War — it would likely mean more than a regional conflict, and probably would involve all of Europe or even lead to another world war.
The military question on everyone’s lips in such a situation would be conventional or nuclear? Theorists on both sides during the Cold War came mostly to the same conclusions: In the event of a full-scale conventional conflict between superpowers, it would be almost impossible to avoid escalation to a nuclear conflict depending on the fortunes of war for either side. A losing side in a conventional conflict would almost certainly utilize their nuclear resources to prevent defeat. Thus military strategy became nuclear strategy — attack or be attacked.
Horrifying as nuclear military theory is, the most troubling aspect is that it actively encourages a first strike or decapitation attack against an enemy if there is any chance to achieve victory and eliminate the potential for mutually-assured destruction through massive enemy retaliation, what Cold War theorists called “MAD”. On the flip side of that coin, U.S. moves to create a “missile shield” program over North America which would effectively eliminate the threat of ICBM (Inter-continental ballistic missile) attack has been heavily protested by Moscow, which argues it removes a balance of power which has existed for decades and encourages a new arms race to overcome America’s new advantage.
Whether or not we are entering into a period of renewed tensions between Russia and the West for decades to come remains to be seen. Russia’s strongman president, ex-KGB Vladimir Putin, now never appears unprepared to challenge the West’s authority, and has been quietly re-writing Russian history to extol and embellish the virtues of the Soviet era and other periods.
If we are to deal effectively with Russia’s challenges, we will need to take a firm hand with the eastern giant and draw a deep line in the sand that will not be crossed without the threat of military intervention.
To do less — to allow Putin a free hand to gobble up the rest of the Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe without intervention — will lead us down the same path as the appeasers in the years leading up to WWII, when eventual action came far too late to prevent a world war.