Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Kremlin Said Thinking about World War But Russians May Not Be Ready to Fight for Narva

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 7 – “Judging by everything,” Yevgeny Kiselyov says, “the Kremlin is seriously considering the scenario of a military conflict with the West, and with a high degree of probability could unleash this conflict in the Baltics.” But there is at least one indication this week that ordinary Russians may be less than enthusiastic about dying for Narva.

            The Russian journalist says that he reached this “extremely worrisome conclusion” after several developments this past week, most prominently the statement of Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matvienko that the Russian leadership is no longer willing to put up with discrimination against Russians abroad (echo.msk.ru/blog/kiselev/1778686-echo/).

            That is disturbing on two grounds: Moscow made the same argument before using military force in Crimea, and Matvienko mentioned far more countries as problematic from the Kremlin’s point of view on this issue than is typically the case, including not just the Baltic states but Belarus and even Kazakhstan.

            And related to that is the reappearance of a second argument by those near the Kremlin that they used before sending forces into the Ukrainian peninsula, “if Russian military units hadn’t taken Crimea under its control,” they argued then and suggest once again, then two weeks later there would have been NATO forces.”

            Kiselyov says that that argument was nothing new for the Kremlin: it had used it before sending troops into Czechoslovakia in 1968 and into Afghanistan in 1979. And now senior Russian officials like Frantz Klinetsevich, the first deputy head of the Federation Council’s defense and security committee, has resuscitated them about the Baltics.

            He is arguing, Kiselyov says, that “NATO is preparing a place des armes for a military strike against Russian” in the Baltic countries” and strongly implying that Moscow needs to take “a ’preventive’ hybrid special operation of military and special services of the Russian Federation against this threat.

            By issuing such threats, Moscow is “attempting to use intimidation tactics,” with some even talking about the need to use tactical nuclear weapons,” an action that if taken would put NATO in a difficult position: if it responded in kind, there could be escalation to full-scale war; if it did not, NATO might die as a result.

            That Vladimir Putin is prepared to push things to the limit was shown, Kiselyov says, by his rejection of Aleksey Kudrin’s argument that the Kremlin should seek a rapprochement with the West to save the economy.  The Kremlin leader not only said he would never trade on Russia’s sovereignty but also added that he would defend Russia “to the end of his life.”

            That last phrase, the Moscow journalist argues, “speaks volumes.”

            “The diagnosis of the situation is bad,” he continues. “Putin lives as a prisoner of his own ambitions and phobias,” which suggest to him that Russia is surrounded by enemies and that the West is trying to destroy it and him.  In this, Kiselyov says, Putin thinks just like the zombified Russian population that he has created.

            What is more significant, he continues, is “not only this episode but practically any discussion about how to get the Russian economy out of its prolonged crisis runs into one and the same thing: the striving of the Putin regime to retain power at any price,” including military conflict and nuclear blackmail.

            “Any serious reforms are impossible without political liberalization,” Kiselyov suggests, something that the Kremlin understands quite well. But if it begins reforms, it will “inevitably” lose power or be forced to share it with others. “The only alternative is the tightening of the screws … all under the flag of uniting the nation against a foreign threat.”

            As a result, the Moscow journalist suggests, “military confrontation with the West is becoming ever more likely, and most likely of all in the Baltic region.”  Of course, Putin could expand the war in Ukraine or launch something in Kazakhstan or Belarus, but these are “exotic scenarios” given his past approach. Consequently, he is going to go to the brink in the Baltics – and possibly even over it.

            But there is at least one indication that perhaps the Russian people aren’t nearly as enthusiastic about that prospect and that they do not want to “fight for Narva” for Putin’s vision and salvation and against the Western alliance, especially because they can see that NATO has built up serious forces in the region, Russian military analyst Aleksandr Golts argues.

            In an article in today’s “Yezhednevny zhurnal”  entitled “Will We Fight for Narva?” he observes that the Western alliance has “in fact returned to the scenarios of the cold war. No one is talking about whether Russian threatens or not the countries of the alliance. Instead, they talk about where this threat is greatest and how to counter it” (ej.ru/?a=note&id=29778).

            NATO has developed a system for putting its forces in forward areas, Golts observes. “Earlier, the field of battled was assumed to be Germany; today, it is the Baltic region,” and even Sweden and Finland, which during the earlier Cold War, were neutral, are now “taking part in NATO military preparations.” 

            Obviously, Moscow has to react to this, a situation it played the key role in creating. But one chain of events this week suggests that the Russian people may be less enthusiastic about war than Putin is and more frightened of the NATO forces with which any Russian move would have to deal.

            First, a senior Russian parliamentarian announced that the defense ministry planned to close some of the military training faculties in key universities; and then the defense ministry denied this was the case.  Golts suggests that perhaps the best explanation is that the Kremlin didn’t want to “take the risk” of doing something like this before the elections.

            And that in turn suggests, although Golts does not take this next step, that at least some in the Presidential Administration are worried about how the Russian people view what the Kremlin leader’s warlike attitudes will lead to and what they will mean for their own lives and not just his.

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