In the final chapters of Surprise Attack I spent a good bit of time evaluating the tendency, and risks, of turning to military posturing in pursuit of domestic political advantage. Having covered several examples of that, ranging from LBJ’s manipulation of the Tonkin Gulf incidents through the Nixon and Reagan administrations, I was struck by the fact that in regard to current events, as 2013 ended Russia’s Premier Putin was once again opening Pandora’s Box in an effort to restore his domestic reputation.
In detailing his efforts, even in those early days, it was obvious that playing the nationalist / national security card was producing wonderful results in his public perception and polling. And as his spending plans became constrained by a dramatic decline in oil and gas revenues the predictable response was accelerating rhetoric about a Western threat and traditional calls for Russian economic self-sacrifice to sustain a massive rebuilding of both its nuclear and conventional military complex.
In the broad perspective, regardless of your political position, it would be hard to accept that the Obama Administration had represented a military threat to the Russian Federation – or that European nations which had for years been essentially disarming themselves would have represented a territorial or even economic threat to Russia. Yet almost immediately Russian spokespeople and Putin himself began a regular discourse based in threats related to Russia’s atomic weaponry and its strategic nuclear power.
Still, all of that might have just been a domestic political play – not too different as that routinely seen in American political campaigns. Even seeing Russia assert its global power with aerial reconnaissance flights and probes of American naval units conducted by its classic turboprop Bear bombers would not have been unusual. Such reconnaissance was relatively standard by both West and East during the Cold War. America continues it today in the Pacific, just as does China – with both air and naval units. Asserting international transit rights has some risks but it’s not nearly in the same category as the intimidation tactics Russia turned to in Europe and elsewhere.
Increasingly NATO forces, and later Japanese and other Western nations including the U.S. began to track actual “strike packages” composed of tankers, long range fighters and strategic bombers making approaches towards and along their borders. In Scandinavia, Russia strike packages clearly carried out what appeared to be full blown bombing attacks, right to the edge of the Russian border and in some instances a bit beyond it. And to add to the danger, the flights were conducted with international identification transponders turned off and with no notice or communication with civilian air traffic control. In at least one instance and possibly more, collisions between Russian aircraft and civilian transports were avoided only through civilian pilot course changes.
Most recently, we have seen similar risk taking and actual consequences. Russian built fighters flown by Syria had previously overflown Turkish air space and over the last couple of weeks massive Russian air strikes have been conducted with no coordination or real time communication between the Russians, Syrian government or the Turkish government. Apparently a couple of days ago Turkey actually warned Russia against close air strikes against the anti-Assad Turkman enclaves across its border in Syria. And today one of those Russian aircraft engaged in just such strikes was downed by Turkish fighters after repeated radio warnings. Given that the pilots of the plane were apparently shot and killed by Turkman fighters as they parachuted from their plane, the public calls for some sort of retaliation are going to be extreme.
At present the net result of Putin’s extensive focus on and use of the Russian military has escalated and solidified his domestic support. The same thing could have been said for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, following his assertive military response to a North Vietnamese attack on an American destroyer – which never really happened. It’s widely held that Johnson’s move ensured his re-election just as Putin’s strategy has maintained him in power. That seems to almost always be the short term result, as for the long term result – history shows us the consequences.