After Ukraine

After Ukraine, upon which East European nation will the West next turn its back?

By Gary Scarrabelotti

It’s a thought I’ve entertained for years. It first came to me as a tiny flash during the 1980s. 

It was the Cold War and I was seated, one evening, with a friend and fellow cold warrior. We were in deep conversation over a vinous table. 

It must have been 1984, or thereabout.  It was in the middle of the controversy over the deployment of Pershing IIs into Western Europe. 

Anyway, I leant across the table to my brother-in-arms and said: 

“One day Russia will enter Europe and dominate it.” 

“Oh,” he replied, and answered my confidentiality with a reciprocal bow across the table. 

He was, and remains, deeply anti-European and seemed to take a certain satisfaction – if a skeptical one — in my prophecy.

“And how will that be?” he asked. 

I uttered a few incoherent sentences, in the way prophets do, but could not conjure up a scenario worthy of the moment. Maybe it was the wine, but my vision of the future suddenly clouded over and my words petered out. 

I really could not figure how it was going to happen; I just had this hunch: that, owing to fissiparous tendencies within Europe, a strategic vacuum would one day form, and for Russia the temptation to “fill the space” would prove too great. 

It’s now 2014 and today my future projections seem less visionary and more brutally possible than in 1984, when there was no strategic vacuum to fill, or in 1994 when Russia could hardly fill its own shoes let alone those vacated by others. 

So I’ll re-propose my thesis: Russia is a rising power and one day could overshadow Europe. 

Oh, dear! A faux pasBelly laughs all round!  Strategic gurus rolling in the aisles! 

  • “Russia has a weak army. It’s forces couldn’t compete, head-to-head, with those of NATO.”
  • “Russia is imploding demographically.” 
  • “It’s economy is weak and getting weaker. 

Economy be damned

We can deal easily with the weak economy argument.

If you consider the Russian story from Peter the Great to our day, a weak economy, Russia’s widely reputed “backwardness” and its “inefficiency”, rarely have prevented Russia from throwing its weight around when necessity, interest or ambition were at stake.  

Sure, from time to time, they have forced Russia to postpone action.  But Russia has a way of picking itself off the floor — where many a time it’s been – dusting itself off, re-adjusting its battered harness and re-entering the field with a determination remarkable for its grimness.  So, don’t be fooled into thinking that not having an OECD-approved economy means that Russia is weak. 

People power 

The problem with the claim that Russia’s population is imploding is that it was true 15 years ago. Today, almost everything that is commonly believed about Russian demography is wrong: 

  • The decline in Russian population has plateaued out; a recovery might even be in the offing. 
  • Fertility has been rising since 1999 and is back to 1991 levels.  Interestingly, Russian fertility rates are now converging with those of the USA. 
  • Life expectancy is up. 
  • And the death rate is falling.

If you want to get up-to-date, you could do no better than study the way US economist, demographer and Russian specialist, Mark Adomanis, recently wiped the floor with Masha Gessen on the question of Russian demographics: 8 things Masha Gessen got wrong about Russian demography.

And, to help get a sense of where the debate has gone, here’s a helpful graphic:

 Russia Population

Army without opponents

As for Russia’s army, it’s no longer the same one that fought two wars in Chechyna (1994−1996 and 1999 – 2002) and another much smaller one in Georgia (2008). 

The performance of the Russian army in 2008 shocked the Kremlin.  Subsequently, a big effort has gone into restructuring the armed forces, modernizing its equipment and focusing training efforts on the corps of NCOs.  The Russian army today is a different beast from that one that blundered into Georgia. It’s leaner, better equipped, better trained, and more capable of manœuvre. 

True, experts say that the Kremlin’s plans have been implemented much less well than envisaged.  They claim that Russian aircraft and armoured vehicle inventories are still dominated by up-graded Soviet-era models supposedly outclassed by the latest tanks and planes that the West can deploy.  And the technical training of rank-and-file Western soldiers is reckoned to be higher than that of their Russian counterparts. 

These things would only be of crucial importance, however, if Russia were to invade Western Europe or NATO were to invade Russia, both of them improbable scenarios. Short of these, Russia doesn’t need armed forces that match tank-for-tank and aircraft-for-aircraft those of the West.  If the Russian aim, beyond defending its own territory, is to exert decisive influence over its “near abroad”, then the fear of Russia among its opponents will compensate for many a technical deficiency in the quality of its forces. 

You just don’t need NATO-equivalent forces to deal with opponents who lack the right stuff.

The scrimmage of the NATO bloc of nations with Russia over Ukraine demonstrates the point.  The approach the West took toward Ukraine exposed its lack of moral integrity and psychological toughness under stress.   At first, members of NATO egged on the Ukrainians to revolt against their former pro-Russian government. Then, they abandoned Ukraine as the unforeseen consequences of the Maidan revolution unfolded.

Four years ago, in a piece entitled Where’s Kiev?, I predicted that the West, having used Ukraine to mess with the Russian periphery, would abandon it when things got hot.  And so it came to pass.  As the tide of battle turned against Ukraine, in its war against Russian-backed separatists, no US 1st Airborne flew to the rescue. Unlike with Israel, which the US resupplied in the middle of its recent assault on Gaza, Ukraine got nothing: and this nothing from the same people who, a few months before, were glad-handing protestors on the Maidan and handing out biscuits. You just don’t need NATO-equivalent forces to deal with opponents who lack the right stuff.

Alarm bells are ringing.

In June a Polish news magazine carried a story based on a taped conversation, allegedly between Polish foreign minister, Radislaw Sikorski and a parliamentarian and former finance minister, Jacek  Rostowski.  The voice, said to be Sikorski’s, employed the bluest language to express its low estimation of the worth of the US alliance (and, by implication, NATO) to Poland.

“You know that the Polish-US alliance isn’t worth anything. It is downright harmful, because it creates a false sense of security … “

Decency prevents me from quoting the rest.

Whether Sikorski spoke these words or not, hardly matters. Publication has given life to the thought. From Kiev to Tallinn a single question must now be exercising the minds of presidents, prime ministers and diplomats: After Ukraine, upon which East European nation will the West next turn its back?

Among nations already enmeshed in the tentacles of Russian gas supply, that’s a question worth many divisions to Russia – and many an opportunity. 

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