Distant Echoes

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 01-09-2022

If you’ve been following the news, you know that Russia sent some 2,500 troops into Almaty, Kazakstan last week to restore order. They also brought with them a smaller number of Kyrgyz troops - which perhaps hints at the level of Russian influence in Bishkek. It’s also of note that Russia has recently sold additional long range surface to air missiles (S-300s and S-400s) to Belarus, and press releases hint these will come with the necessary command and control assets to integrate them into Russia’s defenses. Additional SAMs and an armored battalion were also reportedly moved into Tajikistan in October.

A few years back, in a similar situation, it was suggested that a conference of world powers be brought together quickly to apply pressure and keep the situation from spinning out of control. To this idea one prominent head of state, concerned that this would be too bellicose, responded:

"The inevitable consequence of any such action would be to aggravate the tendency towards the establishment of exclusive groups of nations which must be inimical to the prospects of European peace.” 

Hmmm… Are we seeing an echo of past troubles? Is Europe and the world sliding to a major confrontation? Kazakstan, Ukraine, Taiwan, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland

We even have the interesting situation that United States and Russia are about to sit down and talk about Ukraine and Europe, but neither Ukraine or any European country is going to be present. Which sort of rhymes with England and Germany sitting down and talking about Czechoslovakia, doesn’t it?

But there are differences.
- In the 1930s the rest of Europe wasn’t importing energy from Germany; today Europe is ever more dependent on Russia for energy.
- In the 1930s France and England had far more military power than Germany; today Europe can’t begin to match Russia’s military power.

The US is critical to affect any sort of military standoff.
- In the 1930s there were no nuclear weapons…

On August 23rd, 1939, a week prior to the German invasion of Poland, George Bonnet, the French Foreign Minister, convinced Premier Daladier to call a meeting of the Council on National Defense to discuss what they might do. Daladier posed three questions. They would be good questions to answer before we begin talks with the Putin:
1) Can France (the US) remain inactive while Poland and Rumania (Ukraine) are being wiped off the map of Europe?
2) What means has she (France then, the US now) of opposing it?
3) What measures should be taken now?

Bonnet posed an additional question:
Taking stock of the situation, had we better remain faithful to our engagements and enter the war forthwith, or should we reconsider our attitude and profit by the respite thus gained? The answer to this question is essentially of a military character.

These are good questions. But conceding Russian actions east of Poland seems to have already taken place. As the spokeswoman for the National Security Council said:
“We’ve been clear that should Russia further invade Ukraine we would reinforce our eastern flank NATO Allies, to whom we have a sacred obligation. We are tightly lashed up with our NATO Allies as we address this crisis, on the principle of ‘nothing about you without you.’”

“Should Russia further invade…” Russian troops are already in SE Ukraine. 

Meanwhile, watching with unblinking eyes, Beijing waits to see whether the US can organize a cohesive answer to Putin’s actions, one that threads the needle between concessions on one hand and war on the other. Unfortunately, having surrendered our own energy independence, and with it any chance of preventing Europe from becoming energy dependent on Russia, and with a US military that is stretched thin, the US finds threading that needle increasingly difficult. 

Which leaves us wondering:
If the US were a net exporter of energy, as it was last year, it could help Europe through the winter, free of Russian natural gas. Not only would this deprive Russia of leverage over Europe, it would deprive Russia of billions of dollars in hard currency. Better late than never: should we change our energy policies?

At the same time, it’s worth noting that most NATO nations do not spend the agreed minimum 2% of GDP on their defense, instead relying on the US to provide the bulk of NATOs combat capabilities. This should at a minimum raise the question of exactly how the current construct of NATO is beneficial to the US. Perhaps it’s time we take a hard look at NATO.

Nuclear weapons; As scary as they are, 27 years ago Ukraine had 1,700 nuclear weapons and presented a much more difficult problem to Russia. President Clinton guaranteed Ukraine’s sovereignty if they would give up those weapons. Are nuclear weapons once again the real guarantor of peace and independence? Is that the real lesson learned? Should we move more modern nuclear weapon delivery systems into Europe?

And what does all this mean as Beijing studies our responses and its various options vis-a-vis Taiwan, and vis-a-vis the South China Sea and South East Asia?

Should we move some nuclear weapon systems into the Western Pacific?

Will Beijing conclude we have the means to confront and as necessary contain China, without on the one hand escalating into a full-blown war, or on the other hand eventually acquiescing to China’s continual pressure? 

The quote above, the leader who didn’t want to appear to bellicose, was Neville Chamberlain, shortly after Nazi Germany occupied Austria in 1938; the Soviet Union, reacting to the Anschluss, had called for a conference of world powers to discuss what might be done to contain Germany.

Decisions made by President Clinton nearly 3 decades ago, and inaction by President Obama 8 years ago, have led us to this spot. The decisions made in the next several weeks may well lead us to another Chamberlain moment. And that led to war.