In 1967 and 1973, the Arab-Israeli wars of those years also involved NATO-Russian standoffs that could have led to apocalyptic nuclear escalations. But, of course, the world left those terrible Cold War days behind when the Soviet Union fell in the late 1980s. Or did it? No, history didn’t end back then (as was predicted), and today geopolitics still remain tangled in a jungle of anarchistic self-interest.
In the aftermath of the first Cold War, NATO decided to move closer to Russia’s borders, using the excuse that each country had its own sovereign right to decide its own future. Similarly, the countries of the old Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact chose the safety of NATO over any neutral stance which would have left them in the embrace of their much stronger Russian neighbor to the east. In 1985 I had argued on the front page of the Christian Science Monitor that, for there to be peace in Europe and the Middle East, a correct balance of power, with an international agreement to maintain that balance, would be essential to move the world slowly out of conflict and toward an era of cooperation.
In Europe, the recipe I designed was called “defensive integration”. It was a step-by-step approach to integrate NATO with the Warsaw Pact. As an initial phase, this pact-to pact-integration would eventually lead to an all-European defensive force (including Russia), but under a total European command structure. A separate and much smaller Russian force would be allowed to situate east of the Ural Mountains. However, by treaty this smaller force would be required to remain east of the Urals as an all-European trip-wire in case of an attack from the Asian heartland. In other words, an all- European military structure united under a central command for the common defense of all the countries of Europe. In this scenario, Turkey would have to decide under which balance of power regime it wanted to participate — Europe or another one designed for the Middle East, but completely different in concept. This second construct for the Middle East, I now call the Zone of Peace. Its description has been published in this blog on many occasions.
Of course, Europe never united. On the contrary, its present division has led us to edge far closer to the precipice of war than any politician or analyst in the West had ever thought possible. In fact, the old Cold War lives on in the Ukraine, and now — with the shooting down of a Russian warplane by a NATO member-state, Turkey — in the Middle East as well. Syria has become an international crisis very much like the Arab-Israeli wars of the last century. But unlike the 20th century, events now portend an even greater risk, because Russia feels backed into a corner and without any recourse other than threat and adventurism. Syria is one such very dangerous gambit.
Russia needs the Assad regime now, even more than it did during the old Cold War. In those years Russia had a forward defense which drove westward straight through the very heart of Germany. Russia’s naval presence in Syria could pressure NATO member-state Turkey, and it could also give the Russians leverage against NATO’s soft underbelly of member-states, Greece and Italy. Together these two lines of defense were enough to create a bi-polar advantage that accrued to the Russians, given their initial nuclear weakness (the 1950s) and their extraordinary losses, yet amazing contribution, in the defeat of Nazi Germany during WWII.
Remember, it was the Western allies who had rejected the neutralization and demilitarization of Germany in the aftermath of WWII. Russia could have lived with a neutered Germany and would have withdrawn to its own borders if the Western allies would have accepted those terms. But it was the US which refused to disarm Germany after the war. The US feared that the world might slip back into another capitalist economic depression. In fact, Washington felt strongly that the very idea of an aggressive Soviet Union (as the villain) would inhibit the advancement of large anti-capitalist domestic populations in all the countries of the European West. America believed in the freedom of the marketplace and the role of individual self-autonomy. To the leaders of the US, communism represented authoritarian dictatorship and the very absence of liberty and an independent judiciary. But a Western European model for socialism (like the kibbutz in Israel) could represent a real threat to Wall St. and the post-war forces of international corporate monopolies. Western Europe had the very real potential to synthesize workers’ control with Western democratic structures.
But it was not to be, and instead Europe remained an armed camp, and divided. This era became known as the Cold War. Capitalism expanded globally, and the US and Western Europe reaped the wealth. The Cold War competition eventually bankrupted the old Soviet Union, which had very limited access to international finance. The West never did fall back into another economic depression. Alternatively, they borrowed their way out of repeated crises by creating a fiat international reserve currency (the US dollar) de-linked to anything of value, other than the raw global geopolitical power of American arms. Now, that same geopolitical power is being challenged (once again) by Russia and China. But unlike during the Cold War, this time around Russia feels conventionally insecure and very much encroached upon, while China has become an economic powerhouse of cheap labor for US corporations.
The 2014 winter coup in the Ukraine set off loud alarm bells in the Kremlin. Not only was Assad’s position in Syria being challenged by the Sunni Arab states and Turkey, but Russia’s crucial Black Sea port in the Crimea was also put in dire jeopardy. The post-Cold War West had begun to attempt to dismantle Russia’s conventional defense through the overthrow of two internationally-recognized governments. At least this was the way the world was being seen through Russian eyes. Russia’s much vaunted strategic depth was being placed in jeopardy. It would be as if Israel were being forced to retreat toward the outskirts of Tel Aviv by forces hostile to its security and capable of engaging it with a nuclear deterrence.
Iran might be in a similar position within a decade or so, if its position in Syria and Iraq can be sustained and the US-led nuclear deal allows its potential military research and application to move forward. After all, Iran has said that its military bases are off-limits to international inspection, and presumably so too are any inspections that go beyond those designated sites within the nuclear agreement. For rational actors, nuclear weapons are essentially meaningless unless you can maintain a monopoly on them. Therefore even in a nuclear competition, the conventional balance remains the essential element in a nation’s defense. Israel is positioned like Russia, both country’s crave strategic depth.
Now and during the Cold War, the West and Russia are at least a part of the same civilization. They both communicate, have diplomatic and other relations, and to a strong degree understand each other. But Iran and Israel are of a completely different mix. It is unclear whether or not Iran is an irrational actor. Their compulsion toward genocidal rhetoric only compounds a future nuclear hair-trigger situation.
However, the situation now in Syria is one of strict conventional balance and a distinct lack of concern regarding Russia’s perception of a Western threat. But events also involve NATO member-state Turkey and their fear of Russian aggression and encirclement. Everyone knows that nuclear weapons hang over these specific conventional threats, but conventional threats are real, and conventional perceptions are vital in order to assure that nuclear weapons are kept sequestered.
Albert Einstein perhaps said it best in the aftermath of the US nuclear bombing of Japan: “The release of atomic power has changed everything except our way of thinking”. Einstein was prophetic. It is simply not rational to rely on mutually-assured destruction as a means to deter conventional imbalances. But our way of thinking is so tied to the past and the risk of mutual suicide so odious, that we must continue to rely on conventional strength. In fact, we continue to use conventional arms in order not to have to resort to nuclear suicide. The paradox is obvious. If nuclear weapons can’t be used, then it is not mutually-assured destruction which prevents war. Most countries still believe their security lies through conventional strength. However, without such conventional strength, nuclear weapons become a country’s fallback position. Nuclear weapons are probably certain death, while one country’s conventional strength is almost always at the expense of another country’s weakness. Hence the unresolvable paradox, and therefore the lack of any real sense of political and security rationality. In the nuclear age, our historic paranoid way of thinking (like described in Einstein’s prophesy) has only led us toward continued geopolitical impasse.
NATO’s strength has now become Russia’s weakness, and weak countries either act or are taken advantage of. War was certainly risked over Russia’s invasion of the Crimea, but the risk paid off for Russia. With a more aggressive political leadership in Washington, some kind of standoff might have been inevitable. Enter this new situation in Syria with Turkey. Turkey watched as the Obama administration refused to risk its power over events in the Ukraine. As a NATO ally, Turkey was alarmed. But then Russia moved into Syria as Assad appeared to be losing badly. Russia claimed it had international law on its side, and once again the US responded to Moscow with only a shallow verbal complaint. Ankara was aghast. Then Russia began to probe Turkish airspace and started to bomb pro-Turkish militias inside Syria. Again, Obama relented to Russian actions.
However, once Turkmen blood started to spill, President Erdogan of Turkey used military force and shot down a Russian warplane over his country’s airspace. For Turkey, there are two existential and geopolitical questions, the Russians and the Kurds. With the Russians strong in Syria and the Middle East, both Turkish geopolitical questions have now come into sharp focus. A strong Russian presence in Syria to prop up Assad could easily lead to greater Kurdish autonomy along Syria’s northern border with Turkey. Just like Putin’s fear of a NATO expansion into the Ukraine, Erdogan could never accept a Kurdish autonomous state along its border and very close to the Mediterranean Sea.
Assad’s continued alliance with both Russia and Iran is also a direct threat to Turkey’s (and Israel’s) security. Once Erdogan shot down the Russian plane, he invoked his membership in NATO, and the first really critical post-Cold War crisis began in earnest. Russia needs a position south of NATO’s soft underbelly, and they need it now more than ever. But a direct military conflict in Syria using Russian air and sea assets has never happened before. This simply cannot be tolerated by Turkey. Sooner or later Russia will be challenged again. Everyone is watching Obama very closely. If Putin doubles down on his bombing of Turkmen militias, or if another Russian plane is shot down, the international crisis in Syria could escalate. The stakes are enormous.
Putin could back down, but the greater likelihood is that he will continue to probe American will. Obama is perceived as a weak president, while Putin’s geopolitical position has forced him to become a risk taker. Erdogan probably can’t back down because once he does, the Kurdish genie will be completely out of its bottle. Also Erdogan’s political position with the nationalists on his right-wing will then become severely, if not completely, strained. The Turkish President knows this, and so do all of his neighbors. If Ankara invokes Article V of the NATO Charter, Obama must come to Turkey’s aid. All of Europe is holding its collective breath. Putin could gamble in hopes of breaking NATO. But if Obama turns on Russia conventionally or even threatens to turn on Russia, Putin would be forced to either back down or risk a conventional or nuclear escalation.
Nothing has really changed since the Cold War began sometime in 1947. During Israel’s War of Independence, it was Russian political and military support which helped defeat the Arab armies. Without an American patron in 1956, Israel was forced to retreat — because of a direct Soviet nuclear threat — from positions gained in the war. In 1967, Russia used the Cold War hotline to call Washington and threaten war over Israeli advancements toward Damascus. During the War of Attrition, Israel faced Russian pilots and shot down Russian planes. The world came close to nuclear war in 1973, as all sides edged toward the brink. Even with a superpower patron, Israel’s resupply situation had become so desperate that doomsday methods had to be signaled.
Now, once again, the world stands at a serious precipice because of events in the Middle East. This time, the situation is far more dangerous because nearly everyone involved is threatened with conventional weakness and/or the perception of conventional weakness. In the final analysis Einstein was correct: “The release of atomic power has changed everything except our way of thinking”. Now is the historical moment to change our way of thinking, before the geopolitical world becomes too hot to handle.