Nation contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new American-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments are at TheNation.com.) This week’s discussion focuses on the growing US-led NATO military buildup—on land, sea, and in the skies—directly on or very near Russia’s borders: in the three Baltic states, Poland, Romania, and in other East European countries. Still more, Cohen points out, this is accompanied by last week’s activation of US-NATO missile defense installations in the region, which Moscow reasonably sees as having the potential to nullify its nuclear deterrence capability and to launch intermediate-range cruise missiles banned by the 1987 INF Treaty.
Cohen reports that Russian President Putin has called these Western encroachments a “direct threat” to Russia’s national security. Not surprisingly, Moscow is beefing up its own military forces in Russia’s Western regions. Cohen thinks Moscow may also deploy nuclear missiles to its enclave Kaliningrad in Eastern Europe and to Crimea, now part of the Russian Federation. Withdrawing from the INF and START treaties, which would end a decades-long US-Russian arms control and reduction process, is also being discussed in Moscow.
Batchelor and Cohen consider whether today’s eyeball-to-eyeball military confrontation is reminiscent of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when nuclear war was barely averted. Cohen thinks it is becoming even more dangerous partly because whereas Soviet missiles in Cuba were, as was said in 1962, “only 90 miles” from America, NATO forces in the Baltic states are only steps from Russia; and because while in the 1962 Cold War crisis there was only one tripwire, in and around Cuba, today there are several US-Russian confrontations, from the Baltic states, Ukraine, and Turkey to Syria.
Pointing to similar US and NATO military moves involving Ukraine and Georgia, Cohen asks why the Obama administration would risk war with Russia today, even nuclear war. The explanation given by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is Putin’s “increasingly aggressive behavior.” But Cohen cannot think of any such recent militarily “aggressive” actions by Putin—assuming that Russia’s war against the Islamic State in Syria is not considered “aggressive”—since the Ukrainian crisis erupted more than two years ago, in 2014. Either, Cohen adds, Washington is sleepwalking toward war or someone there seeks it.
Cohen reports, as he did last week, it is being remembered in Moscow that the last time such hostile military power amassed on Russia’s frontiers was in June 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Both Cohen and Batchelor are astonished by a yet unconfirmed report that the Obama administration is pressuring Berlin to add a German contingent to NATO’s presence on Russia’s borders today. If so, says Cohen, Washington, unlike Moscow, has no historical memory—unless it actually wants war with Russia.