10 Jan 22. The very apparent worsening of relations between the Russia and the West is not something that any of us can now afford to ignore. Below I proffer below a few personal thoughts on issues and some of the underlying threats to peace and stability now being posed by Russia.
In stepping up the pressure with the West and increasing the level of tension that already existed, Russia’s leadership has chosen its timing well in the belief that the US is more divided than at any time in the past, that it is led by what it sees as a weak president and that the opportunity, according to one Russian commentator, has arisen “to accelerate the eviction of the US from the global throne”.
Other factors that include a more divided Europe combined with obvious political weakness and lack of statesmanship will not have escaped notice in Moscow. Despite a reshaping and strengthening of NATO over the past ten years, that there has been an increasing desire by some EU member states to have greater control over Europe wide defence and that potentially could weaken NATO will not have failed to escape notice by Moscow either. That the EU no longer appears to speak as one and in respect of NATO and of European defence and that it continues to pay a heavy price for having been blinded for too long by the so-called ‘peace dividend’ has undoubtedly further strengthened Russian resolve.
Back in mid-December Russia had given the US and separately, the NATO alliance what is widely described as having been an ultimatum of demands that included that the following should be legally established:
“The renunciation of any enlargement of NATO [to the east], the cessation of military cooperation with post-Soviet countries, the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from Europe and the withdrawal of NATO armed forces to the borders of 1997”
“Russia and the United States commit themselves not to deploy nuclear weapons abroad and to withdraw those already deployed, as well as to eliminate nuclear weapons deployment infrastructure outside their territory”.
“The Russian Federation and all participants which were, as of 27 May 1997, member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, shall not deploy their armed forces and armaments on the territory of any other European state in addition to the forces stationed on that territory as of 27 May 1997.”
“The participants, which are Member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, shall refrain from conducting any military activities on the territory of Ukraine, as well as of the other States of Eastern Europe, Transcaucasia and Central Asia.”
Despite having other serious problems to cope with and that include Kazakhstan which Russia may well see as a serious threat to its regional power, Vladimir Putin appears to believe that the West has no choice but to either accept or to challenge Russia by military threat. But while Ukraine may be seen as the primary temperature gauge of Russia’s next intention it will likely continue to be troubled by regional issues that may slow wider political intentions.
NATO Secretary General Jens-Stoltenberg warned Russia last week “to abandon its belligerent foreign policy and co-operate with the West or face a military alliance steeled for conflict” adding that “”NATO was prepared for new armed conflict in Europe” should what I understand to mean planned discussions with Russia in relation to reducing the size of military exercises, arms control and Russia’s requirement that the US should not missiles in Ukraine fail – something that most seasoned commentators believe to be inevitable.
Formal discussions between the US and Russia are I believe due to have started today but the outlook for agreement on any of the issues under discussion looks bleak. The reported US response is that Russia must choose between ‘dialogue and confrontation’ but that is unlikely to inspire any change of heart in this regrettable renewed round of threats from Moscow.
Is Russia sabre rattling? Does it have sufficient military power to its elbow in order to believe that the West has no other choice but to accept its demands? In respect of conventional military power Russia may be far less powerful than the US and the Western Alliance as a whole but that is not to suggest that the threat that it poses can be ignored. A with an ever increasingly militarily powerful China, the West is now facing a very serious challenge.
Last week the new Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin reminded that there had been what he described as a “phenomenal increase in Russian submarine and underwater activity over the past 20 years” and that “such activity is threatening underwater cables that transmit internet data crucial to communication systems around the world” adding that any attempt to damage these could be considered as an “act of war”.
Interference with undersea cable would not be something new. Indeed, Royal Navy ships cut various German laid undersea telegraph cable during the First World War. Subsequently, tapping of undersea cables combined with other attempts to interfere were commonplace during the ‘cold war’ period. The difference in respect of ‘threat’ posed today though is that nations have become totally reliant of the vast amounts of data carried by in the order of an estimated 1.2 million kilometres of underwater cables now laid across the oceans of the world, the vast majority of which is to be considered as unprotected.
The problem is made worse because the vast majority of undersea cables are marked on charts in order to safeguard against the potential of maritime accidents. Navy Lookout which is an independent Royal Navy news and analysis internet site wrote a very interesting piece on the potential threat to the world’s undersea cables in March last year and the link to this is below:
That Russia has been testing the resolve of the West for many years’ past is well known but is the Western Alliance are we ready to meet a potential real challenge? There are those that suggest we are we are but the reality is that we still have a long way to go. For all the sabre rattling of successive UK governments that we are increasing spending on defence the truth is that in respect of capacity to meet such a challenge we are still scratching at the surface in respect of what we really need to do. Until defence in the UK is prioritised and we begin to understand the level of increased international threat posed the UK can only be described as vulnerable.
The same is also true across other members of the NATO alliance and Russia knows that only too well. But it is the political weakness and lack of genuine resolve that we should perhaps fear most. The US is perceived as being strong militarily but weak politically. The distinct lack of strong leadership within the Western Alliance not only beggar’s belief but plays into Russia’s hands just as it also does for China.
The West must get its act together, show that it is determined not to be intimidated by Russia or China, that it will not close its eyes to the threat or political desires that Russia may cherish and that it will not hesitate to act in the face of such potential and real threats to the freedoms that we cherish.
CHW (London – 10th January 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785