It’s seems like a century ago that the northern hemisphere was divided by a line in central Europe upon either side of which both east and west stared at each other down the barrels of nuclear guns. The so-called Cold War will long be remembered as a curious position in the history of armed conflict in that the primary aim of the entire scenario was to NOT fire any weapons but to run down the opponent’s economy until he ceased to function as a superpower. Ultimately the capitalist western powers were victorious as the Soviet Union disintegrated around Russia; the domineering power in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
The Cold War was born out of victory in Europe and the defeat of Nazi Germany. World War II united the world’s powers against the seemingly unstoppable Nazi war machine that blazed across Eastern and Western Europe as well as North Africa. In the west the United States along with Britain and Canada liberated France, the lowlands and Scandinavia while in the east the Soviets liberated the Baltic States along with much of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. In the immediate post war period the liberated countries found themselves under the direct influence of their liberators and thus two power blocks were formed with the threat of yet another global war hanging over them perhaps using nuclear weapons.
The military situations on both sides were diametrically opposite in the late 1940s. While the Soviet Union enjoyed almost total control over the armies of the nations that found themselves under Soviet influence the western powers remained a jumbled mix of military forces each with their own doctrines on how to best defend against the “red menace” on the other side of Germany. Worse still many of those armies were still rebuilding from the war.
Something had to be done.
Therefore in 1949 the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, more commonly known by the acronym NATO, was formed. Its primary mission was to provide a united front against the Soviets and their Eastern Europe puppet armies by standardizing equipment, training and operating principles. Never before had so many countries worked so closely together on defence matters in “peacetime” and despite some teething troubles as well as a major member (France) storming out of the alliance over complaints regarding the UK/US monopoly on nuclear weaponry it achieved its goal throughout the Cold War by maintaining a credible, well trained and equipped force to match the numerical superiority enjoyed by the Soviets.
As the 1990s dawned the Cold War became a memory as did the Soviet Union, its Eastern European puppets and the stand-off. Given the enormous financial, technical and political commitments membership of the alliance required, questions began to be asked in the political parties of the NATO nations whether the alliance should continue now that the main threat was gone. However at the same time NATO found a new role as a result of the break-up of Yugoslavia; that of peacekeepers. The Balkans situation kept the alliance busy throughout the 1990s but even as the situation stabilized it then found itself drawn in to the war on terror following the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York on 9/11. Operations in Afghanistan against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda gave the alliance a third life but a new threat to its existence emerged during this period and that consisted of the “European Army”, a military alliance of the European Union that threatened to undermine NATO and cut out US influence entirely. The European Army concept died out as few European nations were willing to give up on NATO that had protected them for so long or risk angering the US and suffer the economic consequences.
In 2014 most NATO nations ended their commitment to Afghanistan save for a few remnant US and British troops/advisors. Once again NATO found itself seemingly without a driving purpose for a third time in 20 years. Operations in Libya were barely a token compared to Afghanistan or the Balkans and the political will for military intervention anywhere died under the weight of the worst financial recession in living memory. The time was ripe for separatists in the Ukraine.
Some have argued that the Ukrainian crisis is NATO’s biggest test to date. It might sound rather dramatic but certainly there is some truth in it and if that is the case then NATO is failing. Miserably. Since the fall of communism Kiev has moved closer and closer to the west signing trade treaties with the European Union that have been the building blocks towards membership. This has brought closer ties to NATO and Ukrainian forces have trained with their former adversaries as well as undertake moderate re-equipment with western systems.
But the west has been careful in its dealings with Kiev knowing that anything it does will only provoke a response from Moscow. Actual membership to either the EU or NATO would have meant a rather dramatic escalation of events in the Crimea and possibly mean an armed confrontation with at the very least the Russian separatists. As it stands both NATO and the EU are under no obligation to defend the Ukrainian government but nevertheless economic actions have been taken against Moscow for its part in the situation. The result of this is that the Russian military is once again exerting itself in the northern hemisphere by flying its bombers and patrolling its warships near NATO members. Moscow is clearly sending a message that it will not be intimidated by the west and once again a Cold War has descended over the European map.
So is the 2015 NATO as ready to meet the challenge as its 1985 counterpart?
One thing is for certain; NATO is a shadow of its former self. Even the biggest player, the United States, is far leaner than it once was and reports released in 2015 showed that only a few of the member states met their 2% GDP defence expenditure requirement for 2014; the minimum annual amount a member is expected to achieve. Just as big a problem for the alliance in the face of increased Russian aggression has been the effect the war on terror has had on its operating principles. NATO armies are now more tailored to fighting insurgency wars against technologically inferior but highly creative enemy forces. The Royal Air Force is a classic example of this with some of its latest acquisitions being designed to directly fight insurgents such as the use of Reaper unmanned combat aerial vehicles – an aircraft that would be extremely vulnerable against a traditional enemy. Training has largely been tailored towards the Afghanistan mission and this has meant that pilots are not spending as much time training for a conventional war as they once did. Nearly all air operations against Al-Qaeda, the Taliban or now against the Islamic State terrorist organization have been carried out at medium to high altitude where the threat to the aircraft is minimal. In a conventional war with a dense threat environment this would be courting death and pilots will have to go back to low level operations whilst utilizing sophisticated electronic countermeasure techniques.
The biggest problem to NATO’s position against a resurgent Russia however is the lack of a political will to commit military forces in any manner that might seem provocative to Vladimir Putin. On this matter the European members of NATO are most divided. In 2014 Britain deployed Challenger 2 tanks on an exercise in Poland near the Ukrainian border despite the situation in the Crimea. This fact was largely ignored by the British media who went in to a frenzy when Russian bombers began to fly near UK airspace and Russian ships traversed the English Channel; both acts were perfectly legal under international law. Coupled with their economic and military sanctions it appears that Britain, the US and France are all taking very strong stances Putin for his role in the situation and are getting sufficient attention for it in return.
But this is not a universal position in Europe. The last thing in the world the Greek government want is to be drawn in to another stand-off with Russia like the days of the Cold War. The Greek economy has been on the verge of collapse for quite some time and in the most recent developments have started to probe Moscow and Beijing for support. Consequently the Greeks aren’t interested in events in the Ukraine for it serves no purpose in dealing with their near-critical financial situation. Beyond Greece’s borders another consequence of the financial crisis has been the growing dissatisfaction with the European Union who some view as being the reason their country’s economy has taken a downturn. The UK, Sweden and France especially have seen the strongest resentment towards EU membership and this again has provided a strong distraction away from events in the Ukraine. In other nations the threat of home grown terrorism and Islamic extremists is what’s driving their view on defence and not events over 500 miles away that has little to do with them.
NATO has tried to respond to the Russian threat in the way it always has but is having to behave more like an Alsatian dog tied up to the house it is guarding barking at the “Big Red Dog” that keeps walking around his territory. Meanwhile its owners are arguing what to do about it. So the question must be asked then; what threat is there to the west from Moscow in this new Second Cold War?
The Russian military was seen by many in the west as a joke during the 1990s and 2000s. Corruption and embarrassment over their performance in Chechnya coupled with ageing, sometimes obsolete equipment made many think that the Russian Bear had lost his teeth. It’s true that while the Russian military was in decay for quite some time a great deal of effort has gone in to reversing that situation. While re-equipment with T-90 tanks and Su-35BM fighter-bombers has been slow it has been consistent and increasing in frequency since Vladimir Putin’s “return” to the presidency. The most visible aspect of the resurgent Russian military has been the use of Tu-95MS bombers to patrol around British and French airspace. While much has been made of how old these propeller driven bombers look to the uneducated eye especially when being photographed being intercepted by high performance RAF Typhoon and USAF F-22 fighters it is often forgotten that they have been consistently upgraded with new stand-off cruise missiles such as the Raduga Kh-55. These long range weapons mean that if they were used in an actual attack against the UK then RAF fighters would have to fly further than ever to destroy these aircraft before they can launch their weapons.
The Russian Navy on the other hand is in serious decay. Reports circulated in 2014 that at any one time less than a third of the Russian Navy was operational with large numbers of ships and submarines tied up at harbour physically unable to move. There has been some new acquisitions such as the Borei-class SSBN but they are few and far between. A ground breaking deal with France to acquire four Mistral-class helicopter carriers seemed to collapse when French President François Hollande put a block on the delivery of the first ship in 2014 as a result of the Crimean Crisis. This no doubt earned the French a visit to its borders from a few Tu-95s.
The Russians are therefore not to be taken lightly especially when you consider that they have quite a bit of combat experience now thanks to its operations in Georgia in 2009. So the final question now is how far will Putin go to get his new Soviet Empire or sphere of influence that he seems intent on building?
Putin is no fool despite what certain western media outlets say. Every one of his moves so far leading up to and beyond the annexation of the Crimean peninsula has been both well orchestrated and well thought out doing enough to get the result he wants without putting himself in a position that would demand a strong military response. The flying of bombers and the patrolling of ships along NATO’s borders are not military acts exactly but rather are a form of communication in which he is telling the west he is a force to be reckoned with believing that this will strengthen his position at the negotiating table while at the same time continuing to push the NATO members in to making a decision to act in one way or another. He knows NATO is weaker than at any other point in its history and as long as he keeps stirring things up it will remain divided. This prompted British Prime Minister David Cameron to state on British television in mid-February 2015 that Putin’s behaviour should not be dignified with too much of a response.
This is the form the Second Cold War is taking. It is now about how unified the western nations are in the face of military and political aggression. Against a backdrop of petty squabbling among the European Union, political uncertainty over President Barack Obama’s ability to make legislation in the US following the loss of his majority in Congress last year and a handful of nations struggling to simply keep their economies alive in some fashion it has to be said that NATO is far from ready for this new Second Cold War.