On the first day of this weekend's NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg assured the public, "We don't want a new Cold War. The Cold War is history and should remain history."
Yet Stoltenberg seemed to simultaneously defy that claim when he also announced that NATO's "response force" is now three times larger than it was during the Cold War—further stoking fears that NATO's recent saber-rattling may herald a new major war with Russia.
"It is irresponsibly foolish to believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not take countermeasures—at a time and place of his own choosing."
—Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity
And President Barack Obama confirmed many of those fears when he added to plans to bolster the number of American troops on Poland's Russian border, and announced the creation of a new U.S. military headquarters in Poland as well as the delivery of "the most advanced" U.S. military equipment for NATO and Polish troops.
In addition to a recent enormous NATO war game that simulated a war with Russia, the increased troop levels and military presence on Europe's eastern borders "reflects a new and dangerous strategic outlook in Washington," wrote Michael T. Klare in The Nation.
Klare explains the drastic strategic shift signaled by Obama's comments:
Whereas previously the strategic focus had been on terrorism and counterinsurgency, it has now shifted to conventional warfare among the major powers. "Today’s security environment is dramatically different than the one we've been engaged in for the last 25 years," observed Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter on February 2, when unveiling the Pentagon’s $583 billion budget for fiscal year 2017. Until recently, he explained, American forces had largely been primed to defeat insurgent and irregular forces, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan. Now, however, the Pentagon was being readied for "a return to great-power competition," including the possibility of all-out combat with "high-end enemies" like Russia and China.
The budgetary and force-deployment implications of this are enormous in their own right, but so is this embrace of "great-power competition" as a guiding star for US strategy. During the Cold War, it was widely assumed that the principal task of the US military was to prepare for all-out combat with the Soviet Union, and that such preparation must envision the likelihood of nuclear escalation. Since then, American forces have seen much horrible fighting in the Middle East and Afghanistan, but none of that has involved combat with another major power, and none entailed the risk of nuclear escalation—for which we should all be thankful. Now, however, Secretary Carter and his aides are seriously thinking about—and planning for—conflicts that would involve another major power and could escalate to the nuclear realm.
"There is the matter of self-fulfilling prophecies," Klare added. "By announcing the return of great-power competition and preparing for a war with Russia, the United States and NATO are setting in motion forces that could, in the end, achieve precisely that outcome."
"By announcing the return of great-power competition and preparing for a war with Russia, the United States and NATO are setting in motion forces that could, in the end, achieve precisely that outcome."
—Michael T. Klare, The Nation "This is not to say that Moscow is guiltless regarding the troubled environment along the eastern front, but surely Vladimir Putin has reason to claim that the NATO initiatives pose a substantially heightened threat to Russian security and so justify a corresponding Russian buildup. Any such moves will, of course, invite yet additional NATO deployments, followed by complementary Russian moves, and so on—until we’re right back in a Cold War–like situation," Klare noted.
Indeed, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), a group of current and former members of the U.S. intelligence community, this week published a memorandum urging German Chancellor Angela Merkel to oppose NATO's saber-rattling regarding Russia for similar reasons.
"We shake our heads in disbelief when we see Western leaders seemingly oblivious to what it means to the Russians to witness exercises on a scale not seen since Hitler's armies launched 'Unternehmen Barbarossa' 75 years ago, leaving 25 million Soviet citizens dead," VIPS wrote:
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In our view, it is irresponsibly foolish to believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not take countermeasures—at a time and place of his own choosing.
Putin does not have the option of trying to reassure his generals that what they hear and see from NATO is mere rhetoric and posturing. He is already facing increased pressure to react in an unmistakably forceful way. In sum, Russia is bound to react strongly to what it regards as the unwarranted provocation of large military exercises along its western borders, including in Ukraine.
Yet not everyone at the summit appears to be on board with NATO's current activities.
German officials, compared to those from other NATO countries, are largely opposed to military escalation against Russia. In fact, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier last month condemned NATO's provocative war games, telling the media, "What we shouldn't do now is inflame the situation further through sabre-rattling and warmongering."
"Whoever believes that a symbolic tank parade on the alliance's eastern border will bring security is mistaken," Steinmeier added.
Russia itself has condemned NATO's actions for reflecting "anti-Russia hysteria."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Reuters that it was "absurd to talk about any threat coming from Russia at a time when dozens of people are dying in the center of Europe and when hundreds of people are dying in the Middle East daily," adding that "you have to be extremely short-sighted to twist things in that way."
Some speculate that the true motivating force behind NATO's escalation against Russia may be U.S. interests, as the country seeks to bolster its status as the world's sole superpower: "Under the euphemism of 'containment,' the U.S. is relentlessly advancing its new Cold War on Russia and China," writes John V. Walsh in Consortium News. "Its instrument in the West is NATO and in the East, Japan and whatever other worthies can be sharked up."
"The goal of the U.S. foreign policy elite would clearly be for Russia and China to 'lose,' but even if they 'won,' they would be brought low," Walsh continues, "leaving the U.S. as the world's greatest economic and military power as it was in 1945."
Walsh adds: "Europe is beginning to awaken to this. We have Steinmeier's plea. But it is not only Germany that is worried. The French Senate wants an end to the sanctions imposed on Russia. Business people in many Western European countries, most notably in Germany and Italy, European farmers who export to Russia and tourist entrepreneurs like those in Turkey and Bulgaria also want an end to sanctions and military exercises."
For his part, Klare argues that European leaders must "not allow their inclination to 'demonstrate unity' and 'act resolutely' lead them to approve military moves that are inherently destabilizing. Surely it is possible to reassure the Baltic states and Poland without deploying many thousands of additional troops there and inviting an additional military buildup on the Russian side."