Nation contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments are at TheNation.com). This installment returns to the large-scale NATO military buildup on Russia’s Western frontiers, again on land, sea, and in the air, now featuring Operation “Anaconda-2016,” an “exercise” involving more than 30,000 American and other NATO forces in Poland.
Batchelor asks whether alarmed warnings by informed analysts, including three longtime Russian residents in the United States, that actual war may be imminent are plausible. Cohen thinks this worst-case scenario cannot be ruled out, for several reasons. The NATO build up is not episodic but intended to grow and be permanent, and be ratified at the NATO summit in Warsaw in July. No such hostile forces have amassed on Russia’s Western frontiers—now from the Baltic to the Black Sea—since the Nazi German invasion in 1941. (The inclusion of a German contingent among the NATO forces has further awakened that memory in Russia.) The only explanation given by the US-led NATO is “Putin’s aggression” in Ukraine, but that was more than two years ago. (Claims that he is now menacing the small Baltic states and Poland are clearly without any basis in fact.) Not surprisingly, Cohen reports, Moscow is reinforcing its own conventional and strategic (probably nuclear) forces on its Western territories, bringing the two powers to a Cuban missile crisis–like confrontation. Even leaving aside accidental military acts, there are many other potential tripwires, from Ukraine and Turkey to Syria.
Astonishingly, this looming possibility of war with Russia has gone largely unreported and entirely undebated in mainstream American media. Neither Batchelor nor Cohen can think of a precedent for such a media blackout or indifference. The situation, according to Cohen, is quite different in Russia, where NATO’s buildup is hotly debated on, for example, prime-time television talk shows. Opinions vary as to the actual threat, but one growing opinion is that “a scent of a great war is in the air” and that Putin has not done enough to ready the country at home or abroad. Analogously, a leading Russian journalist publicly criticized the Kremlin for not having intervened militarily in Kiev in February 2014, when the ongoing crisis began with the overthrow of a pro-Russian Ukrainian president. That is, Putin also has a public opinion to consider as he decides how to react to NATO’s buildup.