Monday, October 10, 2016

The Gathering Storm (Russia Edition)

This post is being written late Sunday afternoon, about three hours before the second presidential debate from Washington University in St. Louis.  At this point, we (officially) don't know what questions will be posed to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump by moderators Anderson Cooper of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC, along with members of the studio audience.  But you don't need to be a political pundit to discern that many of tonight's queries will focus on Mr. Trump and his contemptible remarks about women, made to Billy Bush (then a co-host of "Access Hollywood") almost 12 years ago.

Conversely, we'll be greatly surprised if Mr. Cooper, Ms. Raddatz and the audience questioners spend much time outside the realm of the salacious, and actually inquire about issues that actually matter to the nation's security.  And we're not referring to the border, immigration or other issues that are clearly security-related, and have dominated much of the campaign season.  Instead, it's time for a discussion on equally-pressing matters that are reaching the crisis level at hot spots around the globe.

The logical starting point is Russia.  As John Schindler recently noted in the New York Observer, we are facing a likely nuclear standoff with Russia in the Baltics region, probably before President Obama leaves office.  It's no secret that Vladimir Putin has no regard for the American leader, and he is determined to inflict another humiliation on Mr. Obama before he leaves office.

It’s long been obvious that Vladimir Putin and his inner circle view Barack Obama with utter contempt. To the hard men in Moscow, who got their schooling in the KGB, our diffident, wordy Ivy League lawyer president is a weakling—almost a caricature of everything they despise about the postmodern West.

Here the Kremlin mirrors most Russians, who find Obama a puzzling and contemptible man. This is nothing new. I’ve heard remarkable put-downs of our commander-in-chief for years, going back to 2008, even from the mouths of highly educated Russians. Their comments are invariably earthy, insulting, and nowhere near politically correct.

It’s therefore no surprise that Russians view Obama with contempt—and so does their leader. As our president winds up his second term and prepares to move out of the White House, the Kremlin simply isn’t bothering to hide that contempt any longer, even in high-level diplomacy, where a modicum of tact is expected.

Of course, Mr. Obama hasn't exactly helped his cause by ignoring Russian provocations and refusing to make tough choices--and stand behind them.  That non-existent "red line" in Syria was followed by Putin making (and keeping) his own vow to support long-time ally Bashir Assad.  Pentagon analysts claim Russia's military efforts in Syria have been far from a victory, but that misses the central point.  Putin didn't go to war to defeat ISIS; his primary objective was to prevent Assad's military collapse and weaken the U.S.-backed rebel groups trying to depose his regime.  By those metrics, the deployment has been successful.

The Russian President has derived additional benefits by showing off his modernized arsenal, and vowing to challenge the U.S. and NATO.  In recent months, Moscow has deployed two advanced surface-to-air missile systems to Syria, to protect its forces and Assad's troops from western air attack.  Shortly after the second system (the SA-23) arrived, a senior Russian military official vowed to attack U.S. aircraft over Syria, if they pose a military threat.  

And, upping the ante even more, Putin is dispatching a carrier battle group to the eastern Mediterranean, extending his air defense network well beyond the Syrian coast, and posing a potential threat to U.S. naval forces in the region. Defense analysts have speculated that any American attack against Assad would likely be a cruise missile strike, mounted by ships and submarines assigned to the 6th Fleet. 

Mr. Putin is also on the move in Europe.  Elite airborne units--potentially useful in operations against Ukraine and the Baltics--have been training west of Moscow, near Russia's borders with Poland, Latvia and Estonia.  In some instances, airborne elements have deployed out of garrison with a full complement of equipment, rehearsing mobility skills that would be useful during future operations.  The most recent airborne drills come on the heels of a command post exercise involving many of the same units; it's a textbook example of the building-block approach favored by the Russian Army (and other military elements around the world).  Start off with the command units, then broaden the exercise to include troops in the field.  

But the airborne drills aren't the most disturbing aspect of Russia's on-going military activity.  Concurrently, Moscow is holding a massive civil defense drill, involving more than 20,000 Radiological, Chemical and Biological defense troops and other first responders, along with upwards of 40 million civilians.  The exercise scenario is reportedly based on a limited nuclear conflict between Russia and the west, a concept Russia has embraced in military doctrine developed over the last 20 years.  With the loss of massive conventional forces that were disbanded with the fall of the USSR, Russian doctrine is now built around the potential first use of nuclear weapons, and employment of defensive measures to protect key military, economic and leadership assets.  

While this doesn't mean a nuclear conflict is Miminent, there are other, troubling signs that should give everyone pause.  In recent days, Moscow has deployed SS-26 Iskander ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave that lies between Poland and Lithuania.  The SS-26 has a maximum range of 435 NM; it is extremely accurate and (as you might have guessed) it can carry a nuclear warhead.  From launch positions in Kaliningrad, the Iskander can strike targets throughout Poland and even reach Berlin--a fact that isn't lost on our increasingly nervous NATO allies.  

This is not the first time the SS-26 has been dispatched to Kaliningrad, but given the current tensions, Putin is using the deployment to send a very clear signal.  With Obama in the White House, he views NATO as rudderless and weak, and Putin ratchet up the pressure to further divide the alliance during the run-up to our presidential election.  

So far, the response from Washington has been muted, to say the least.  There was a blistering comment from the Army Chief of Staff, General Mark Milley, who warned "those who wish to do us harm" that the U.S. military, "despite all our challenges," will stop you, and we will beat you harder than you have ever been beaten before."  But Milley's superiors, including the Commander-in-Chief, have been remarkably silent in the face of Russia's latest provocations.  

Maybe it's the long holiday weekend (our hard-working federal bureaucrats are enjoying a three-day break for Columbus Day).  Or perhaps the president's political advisers counseled against a high-level statement ahead of last night's debate.  Or maybe our latest bluster over Syria will go the same way as that infamous red line of a few years ago.  Put another way: we don't have anything beyond rhetoric, and Mr. Obama leaves office in less than 100 days.  He is quite happy to play out the string and leave the Baltics as yet another mess for his successor.  

But he may not get off that easy.  Putin is quite aware of how America is now perceived on the world stage and he understands the potential impact of one last humiliation before Obama exits the White House.  A Baltic version of the Cuban missile crisis?  Don't discount that possibility.
ADDENDUM:  As predicted, the Baltics didn't make the cut for questions in last night's presidential debate.  Russia was mentioned, in the context of hacking and trying to influence the U.S. election next month.  But the looming crisis on NATO's eastern flank was conveniently ignored--rather curious considering that one of the moderators, ABC's Martha Raddatz, has reported extensively on national security issues.  Then again, Ms. Raddatz (along with CNN's Cooper) seemed to abandon at pretense at impartiality, interrupting Trump five times more often than they challenged Clinton.  Against that backdrop, it's no surprise that Russian moves in the Baltics never entered the debate.             


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