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DO NOT BAIT THE RUSSIAN BEAR

Deyan Ranko Brashich

A Crimean primer for NATO: the Bosnia & Kosovo wars 

The world’s media has covered the ongoing confrontation between United States lead NATO and Russia, the “invasion” of Crimea, the referendum on secession and its subsequent annexation; the ongoing unrest in the region with pro-Russian elements seeking control over territory formerly an integral part of the Ukraine. NATO is now threatening to deploy some 40,000 ground forces, including the US military, to Eastern European countries bordering Russia.

Pundits of all stripes have weighed in with divergent views. Even the regional press feature articles on the subject. The Litchfield County Times, a local weekly, reported last week on a speech by Thomas Graham, a managing director of Kissinger Associates, said to be an expert on Russia. His comments and views as a former Presidential special assistant and National Security Council director were covered with appropriate gravitas. But I noted that the issues of a possible military response or fallout from economic sanctions were not addressed. Another expert was reported as categorically stating that military action “is off the table”.

With this last assessment I agree, but as a casual observer of events without expertise I feel obliged to comment.

Bear baiting was an ancient traditional Russian sport to be engaged only with the blessing of, and in the presence of, the Grand Duke, the precursor of the Tsar. It was a ritual duel between a tormented, beleaguered bear and men and dogs with the outcome always uncertain. The present state of affairs brings bear baiting to mind with its inherent dangers and risks.

Some in the United States still lust for blood and war. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld have all retired but are still a potent force. Others support conflict and war for selfish and ulterior motives. The industrial-military complex that President Eisenhower feared is still ascendant. But I, as a first hand observer of the Bosnian and Kosovo Wars, would advocate utmost restraint and diplomacy.

NATO has traditionally been led by American admirals and generals. I do not know what they are teaching at West Point, Annapolis and the Air Academy these days but the curriculum seems to have omitted Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Carl von Clausewitz’ On War. Nor does it seem to teach the lessons that should have been learned from recent United States and NATO wars. The military mindset of NATO’s leadership is still frozen in the tactics and experience of the Second World War.

The Viet Nam War should have taught US general officers that a determined peasant-based guerilla force waging a war of insurgency in an unfamiliar and hostile geographic terrain would neutralize and make ineffective a mechanized, technologically superior military power culminating in a conventional military victory. Even then earlier American presidents and generals were operating under the tenets of a conventional mid-twentieth century European land war failing to heed the still fresh lesson of the siege of Dien Bien Phu and the French defeat in Indochina. You can’t try to bomb a jungle into oblivion and expect it to surrender.

The Iraq War is still fresh in our minds while the one in Afghanistan is still ongoing. In Iraq the “Coalition of the Willing” with an overwhelmingly superior force destroyed an ill-equipped third world military in a matter of weeks. By 2003 Iraq’s armed forces were “down to 40% of their 1991 Gulf War levels” due to international sanctions, their equipment outdated and outgunned, “[i]n fact, no Iraqi combat aircraft flew in the conflict”. Afghan, 14 years later and still counting speaks, for itself.

In those wars the enemy did not have the capability to retaliate against NATO civilian or military targets in their member countries. Whatever actions against foreign military presence were purely local, primitive and improvised. Not so in the looming Crimean crisis.

The best templates for prognosis of a limited non-nuclear armed NATO Russia conflict are the wars of ex-Yugoslavia: the Bosnian War and the Kosovo War [or if you will, “intervention” or “police action” depending on your point of view], the last armed conflicts fought on European soil. From a military point of view the Bosnian War was a fiasco: paramilitary units careening about, acting independently without central command. At the request of UNPROFOR NATO controlled the skies denying the Serbs of air superiority. Only upon the United State’s covert intervention in violation of the arms embargo and the training of Croatian forces by “private military contractors” [Military Professional Resource Incorporated “operat[ing] in the shadow of the Pentagon and … hired by the CIA and our State Department”] for Operation “Oluja” [“Storm”] was the stalemate broken ending the war.

For NATO Bosnian intervention, except for a small limited boots on the ground presence, was casualty risk free with member countries safe from retaliation. The conflict was geographically contained with little or no chance of escalation beyond Bosnia’s borders. With that in mind the use of force was a viable alternative.

The Kosovo War was not a war; it was shooting fish in a barrel. NATO, without United Nations Security Council approval, engaged in an indiscriminate bombing campaign. I say “indiscriminate” advisedly since I was there and witnessed the campaign first hand.

I was staying at Belgrade’s Intercontinental Hotel when less than 3 blocks away Tomahawk cruise missiles slammed into an office building and destroyed it. It had no military significance whatsoever. Some days later a mere 10 blocks away, smack dab in the in middle of a residential neighborhood, cruise missiles destroyed the Chinese Embassy. I personally witnessed the destruction of the civilian infrastructure, power plants, schools, bridges and the electrical power grid. But again there were no boots on the ground, men and women or assets at risk. NATO member countries were safe, out of reach of retaliation.

Serbia, then part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, had it retaliated, as it should have after having its sovereignty attacked, would have committed suicide. The civilian population, as in all wars, would have paid the price. The fact that international law had been violated was not a factor. Military might always trumps right.

Not so should armed conflict between NATO and Russia take place. Russia will have no qualms in retaliating forcefully should its forces be attacked or placed at risk. The difference between the Ukraine and Bosnia/Kosovo is that Russia has the capability and will to defend its national interests.

Baiting the Russian bear is a dangerous sport to be avoided if possible.

Deyan Ranko Brashich, an attorney, Op-Ed columnist, resides and writes from New York City and is a frequent contributor. He is the author of “Letters from America,” and “Contrary Views”. His contact and blog “Contrary Views” is at www.deyanbrashich.com.

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