THE RISE OF PUTIN AND THE PROBABILITY OF A NEW COLD WAR
WALTER J. BOYNE
It is amazing the way our politically democracy grabs at straws no matter how small or evanescent. The recent demonstrations of opposition to the “election” of Vladimir Putin to becoming once again Russia’s President are being hailed by optimistic onlookers as a form of “Russian Spring” just as the same people hailed the “Arab Spring” in the uprisings in the Middle East.
Unfortunately these optimists are both right and wrong. They are correct that the events in Russia parallel those in the Middle East. They are wrong in assuming that these “Springs” will benefit the United States and its Western Allies. The “Arab Spring” has already made certain that the Muslim Brotherhood will rule from Eastern Mediterranean all the way through the Middle East into the Muslim nations formerly part of the Soviet Union. The “Russian Spring” is going to be as warm as Putin wishes it to be, allowing him to put a fake stamp of democracy on his autocracy.
There is a major difference in the two situations. The spread of the Muslim Brotherhood was facilitated by flawed diplomacy, inept NATO reactions and the perception that the United States is weak. The swift alteration of Arab governments as a result of the “Spring” could have immediate effect in the form of a concerted attack on Israel, perhaps in response to a preemptive strike on Iran. It is more likely, however, that the threat of the solidly Muslim Middle East will not materialize immediately. The Muslim world will be content to wait, confident that its procreative efforts will establish the massive Muslim majority populations that are projected for many European nations in the next forty years.
In contrast, Putin has no time to wait. He is 62 in a nation where the average male lifespan is 64.3 years. Although he is doubtlessly better cared for than the average man in the street, he is not by any definition a young man, no many times he poses without a shirt. Putin has been in power as president or prime minister (the title is immaterial) for twelve years, beset early for the most part by Russia’s sad economic situation. To his credit, his reforms have helped the Russian economy (thanks in large part to the surging prices of its great fuel resources). And we must not forget that there exists in Russia a masochistic sentimentality for a return to Soviet or Tsarist style rule. Putin, a long time veteran of the KGB, understands this.
His major concern of course is that of all dictators, his prestige and for his place in history. Putin is not thinking only of the next election—if there is one. He is vitally concerned with his ranking with the “greats” of Russia—Peter, Catherine, and although not yet so sanctified—Stalin.
Further, Putin is embarrassed that the Russia he controls is so weak compared to the United States, and even worse, to China. Unfortunately for the world, Russia has retained enough of the massive nuclear power of the former Soviet Union not only to deter others, but to foster the return of the doctrine of making the first strike. If things go badly for Putin economically or politically, he would not hesitate for a moment to raise the threat of war with the United States to bring his own country to heel.
Stop for a moment and think about the risk involved in the possibility of Putin’s Russia once again becoming a direct nuclear threat to the United States. We are currently engaged in massive efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a single nuclear weapon, but ignoring that a single command from Putin can place hundreds of weapons on immediate alert. And ironically enough, this is occurring at the same time that the United States is systematically demolishing its defense budget. One recent example the announcement of delays in the life extension programs for of its nuclear capability.
The optimists, dazzled by the various “Springs” around the world, will immediately cite the START treaty and the “mutual efforts” to reduce the weapons count. The fact is that the United States has abandoned (a) the concept of air power and (b) the concept of deterrence by overwhelming nuclear force. Russia on the other hand already has more weapons and is building its nuclear strength by creating new missiles. Furthermore, in perhaps the greatest bit of diplomatic chutzpah in history, it has forced the United States to abandon its anti-missile program in Europe.
The sad fact is that the United States has abandoned the classic concept of air power because it is politically incorrect to plan military actions which will kill large numbers of an enemy’s population. This reluctance to use the one means to deter an attack has been has been facilitated by the amazing manner in which the USAF supported ground forces against a primitive enemy. We have allowed the concept of deterrence to be eroded by the extraordinary success of our tactical forces engaged with a primitive, if brave and resourceful, enemy.
The word “eroded” is too nice. “Gutted” would be a better choice, for the total of our strategic bombers, nuclear and non-nuclear, has been reduced to 159 aircraft, some approaching fifty years of age. With an average in-commission rate of perhaps 70%, this means we have about 110 ancient aircraft with which to deter an enemy. Further, all of these aircraft are dependent upon technologies using satellite systems that even a rogue nation can destroy with an adequate explosion in space.
Why are strategic forces necessary to deter war? The reason is simple. With strategic forces you can kill the leaders of the enemy country, and those leaders know it. That same knowledge deterred the Soviet Union during the Cold War, for its leaders from Stalin to Gorbachev knew that their first strike policy would result in a retaliation strike that would not only destroy their country, but would kill them, the leaders, themselves.
Today any country wishing to dispute with the United States can be confident that the fighting will be done by the poor victims in the field. There is no concern about the United States dropping weapons that will kill them, the leaders. Thus they are unchecked, uncaring how many of their people die on their behalf.
When the Soviet Union was at the peak of its power, the United States was at a higher peak, with hundreds of bombers on alert, with missiles in silos ready to fire, and with submarines targeting their targets. This prevented a Hot War and ultimately ended the Soviet regime.
Sadly, the United States Air Force seems to be on its way to becoming the U.S. Army Air Corps again. By abandoning the concept of immediate and devastating retaliation, we have submitted to salami-slice surrender to petty tyrants such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, or whatever assassin is running the Taliban.
The basic question, for the long term or the short term, is this: “Is the American public ready to support leaders who will re-establish American power to the point that any enemy, from Somali pirates to t he Republic of China, will be intelligent enough not to attack us?”
At the moment, this seems highly improbable. One can only hope that somehow, the remains of the America of the past will assert itself so that there will be an America of the future..