Russian President Vladimir Putin’s stern warning earlier today not to cross what he called Russia’s "red line" needs to be taken seriously. The more so, as Russia builds up its military capability to respond to any provocations from hotheads in Ukraine and from those in Washington telling them they can give Russia a bloody nose and escape retaliation.
Putin prefaced his his unusually pointed remarks by saying Russia wants "good relations … including, by the way, those with whom we have not been getting along lately, to put it mildly. We really do not want to burn bridges." In a clear effort to caution provocateurs not only in Kiev, but also in Washington and other NATO capitals, Putin added this warning:
“But if someone mistakes our good intentions for indifference or weakness and intends to burn down or even blow up these bridges, they should know that Russia’s response will be asymmetrical, swift and tough." Those behind provocations that threaten the core interests of our security will regret what they have done in a way they have not regretted anything for a long time.
At the same time, I just have to make it clear, we have enough patience, responsibility, professionalism, self-confidence and certainty in our cause, as well as common sense, when making a decision of any kind. But I hope that no one will think about crossing the "red line" with regard to Russia. We ourselves will determine in each specific case where it will be drawn.
Does Russia Want War?
A week ago, in its annual briefing on threats to U.S. national security, the intelligence community was unusually candid on how Russia sees threats to its security:
We assess that Russia does not want a direct conflict with US forces. Russian officials have long believed that the United States is conducting its own ‘influence campaigns’ to undermine Russia, weaken President Vladimir Putin, and install Western-friendly regimes in the states of the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. Russia seeks an accommodation with the United States on mutual noninterference in both countries’ domestic affairs and US recognition of Russia’s claimed sphere of influence over much of the former Soviet Union.
Such candor has not been seen since the DIA (the Defense Intelligence Agency) wrote, in its "December 2015 National Security Strategy":
The Kremlin is convinced the United States is laying the groundwork for regime change in Russia, a conviction further reinforced by the events in Ukraine. Moscow views the United States as the critical driver behind the crisis in Ukraine and believes that the overthrow of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych is the latest move in a long-established pattern of U.S.-orchestrated regime change efforts.
~ December 2015 National Security Strategy, DIA, Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, Director
Does the U.S. Want War?
It would be interesting to read the Russian counterpart assessment of the threats they face. Here’s my idea as to how Russian intelligence analysts might put it:
To assess whether the U.S. wants war is particularly difficult, inasmuch as we lack a clear understanding as to who is calling the shots under Biden. He calls President Putin a "killer", imposes new sanctions, and virtually in the same breath invites him to a summit. We know how easily decisions approved by U.S. presidents can be reversed by powerful forces nominally subordinate to the president. Particular danger can be seen in Biden’s nomination of Dick Cheney protege Victoria Nuland to be number three at the Department of State. Then-Assistant Secretary of State Nuland was exposed, in a recorded conversation posted on YouTube on February 4, 2014, plotting the eventual coup in Kiev and picking the new prime minister two and a half weeks before the actual coup (Feb. 22).
Nuland is likely to be confirmed soon, and hotheads in Ukraine could easily interpret this as giving them carte blanche to send more troops, armed now with U.S. offensive weapons, against the anti-coup forces of Donetsk and Luhansk. Nuland and other hawks might even welcome the kind of Russian military reaction that they can portray as "aggression", as they did after the Feb. 2014 coup. As before, they would judge the consequences – no matter how bloody – as a net-plus for Washington. Worst of all, they seem oblivious to the probability of escalation.
It Only Takes One "Spark"
Calling attention to the large buildup of Russian troops near Ukraine, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned Monday that it will only take "a spark" to set off a confrontation, and that "a spark can jump here or there". On that he is correct.
It took just one spark from the pistol wielded by Gavrilo Princip to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand of Austria on June 28, 1914, leading to World War 1, and eventually WW 2. U.S. policy makers and generals would be well advised to read Barbara Tuchman’s "The Guns of August".
Was 19th century history taught at the Ivy League schools attended by Nuland, Blinken, and national security adviser Sullivan – not to mention nouveau riche, provocateur extraordinaire George Stephanopoulos? If so, the lessons of that history seems to have been blighted by a benighted, outdated vision of the U.S. as all powerful – a vision that has long since passed its expiration date, particularly in view of the growing rapprochement between Russia and China.
In my view, there is likely to be increased Chinese saber-rattling in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait if Russia decides it must become involved in a military clash in Europe.
One key danger is that Biden, like President Lyndon Johnson before him, may suffer from the kind of inferiority complex vis-a-vis the elite "best and brightest" (who brought us Vietnam) that he will be misled into thinking they know what they are dong. Among Biden’s chief advisers, only Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has had any experience of war. And that lack, of course, is typical of most Americans. By contrast, millions of Russians still have had a family member among the 26 million killed in World War Two. That makes a huge difference – particularly when dealing with what senior Russian officials call the neo-nazi regime installed in Kiev seven years ago.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst includes serving as Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).