Brushing up on the Cold War with Putin, Ukraine

How much trouble are we in as the Russian bear re-emerges as apex predator and eyes the Ukraine?

As usual, President Vladimir Putin was correct in pointing out that the Ukraine is on the verge of civil war. As the principal author of that unrest, the conqueror of Crimea is clearly in the best position to know what’s going on. After all, his agents are the ones encouraging pro-Russian demonstration in eastern Ukraine while his “Spetsnaz” troops on both sides of the border stand ready if more “active measures” are required.

In our blissful 21st-century innocence, seemingly secure with a community organizer to lead us, we have forgotten the tactics and the mindsets perfected in the early 20th century by a far more aggressive species of political activists. Even before the Russian civil war, agitation and propaganda were twin tactics in the Bolshevik playbook, intimidating opponents while creating the “correlation of forces” leading to victory. Thereafter, “agitprop” became a staple of the Soviet lexicon, a reliable strategy used to advance insurgencies worldwide as well as Soviet interests closer to home.

Both Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama have been exceedingly naive in their oh-so-American conviction that Mr. Putin, though trained as a KGB agent and card-carrying member of the Soviet elite, was the leopard who had somehow shed his spots. Could maybe his single-minded pursuit of national interests be averted by soothing talk of diplomatic resets, Group of Eight conferences and the comforting norms of 21st-century statesmanship?

Professor Richard Shultz of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy has a far more realistic view. He recently pointed out that Mr. Putin’s character is that of a Russian revanchist, a nationalist who deeply deplores the loss of the Soviet empire. Few things are more deeply seated in that consciousness than the sanctity of the near-abroad, which is how Russians have traditionally viewed Ukraine.

If Mr. Putin is the new Soviet man, then to him, the “correlation of forces” (tactical, operational and strategic) clearly favors Russian interests in eastern Ukraine. No chess player in his right mind relies on rhetoric or nasty facial expressions while ignoring the precise arrangement of pawns, knights, rooks and queens. To ensure that we got the point, on Tuesday a Russian fighter aircraft repeatedly overflew a lonely American destroyer floating innocently in the Black Sea, presumably sent there to underline American resolve.

While the gesture may not have been understood clearly by Foggy Bottom diplomats advising Secretary of State John F. Kerry, the subtle language of statecraft is comprehended more precisely by foreign ministries around the globe. It is the same language used by Seattle in the Super Bowl, content to run the same defensive set over and over again until Denver stopped it — which of course they never did.

The problem with all real-world provocations, however, is that they carry an inherent risk of war by miscalculation and the inevitable effects of Murphy’s Law, which says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, we went to DEFCON-3 in the U.S. Army-Europe because the Soviets were moving to the outer edges of their exercise areas — precisely as they are doing now in eastern Ukraine.

The White House and the Kremlin thought they were just sending diplomatic signals because both sides were committed to detente. As a junior officer serving in an intelligence unit on the East German-West German border, however, I recalled how things often went wrong, despite the best of intentions.

I must have interrogated a score of American soldiers who, after rock concerts, crossed the border on the wrong train, were promptly seized by the East Germans — and just as promptly expelled. Sometimes things got more serious, such as when an American patrol forgot to set the handbrake on its jeep, which rolled down the hill and stopped directly astride the border. (We got it back peacefully the next day.)

In another, an American patrol got lost in the dark on the wrong side of the Czech-West German border and briefly considered shooting it out with their would-be captors. According to a colleague who investigated that incident, the most junior soldiers on that patrol did the most to prevent disaster. Their chain of command? Not so much.

There is simply no predicting what can happen when opposing military forces find themselves operating in proximity. Wars have begun in precisely that way.

During the Cold War, though, we were able to rely on the power of deterrence to ensure that small provocations stayed small because the Soviets were certain we would defend NATO territory with our full arsenal, including nukes. Now the Russians are confronted by weak sisters armed only with declining forces and endlessly annoying cliches.

Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national-security issues.

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