The aftermath of a close encounter with the Russian Bear and a consideration of some very dangerous alliances
Last year, when Russia annexed Crimea and covertly invaded Eastern Ukraine, NATO kicked into gear and mobilized a land, air and sea deployment of multinational forces to stare down the Russians and deter them from continued aggression. As part of this mission, HMCS Toronto sailed the Black Sea, meeting Russian fighter jets head-on in one of the tensest confrontations since the Cold War’s end. What’s at stake here? Maybe not much. But it also may be the start of another cycle of conflict and war the outcome of which no one can predict. At the centre of the crisis is a little-known clause called Article 5, a NATO treaty commitment that enrages Russia and binds Canadians to a life-or-death defence of countries such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Two Steak Nights At Sea
My trip to the front lines of a war against Russia that hasn’t happened yet turned out not to involve any Russians at all.
That’s not to say it didn’t involve any unsavoury characters, because it did. Throughout my stay on HMCS Toronto, there were enduring rumours of a large malevolent rodent onboard who stalked sailors at night, earning a nickname that made it sound even scarier than the Russian Bear: Gary Laser-Eyes.
According to a certain lieutenant in the officer’s mess, Gary didn’t actually exist, or at best there had been one unconfirmed sighting. My sources on the third deck repudiated this, claiming Gary Laser-Eyes not only existed, but that he’s a scoundrel and a rogue.
These are the kind of things that consume a person’s attention when they’re stuck aboard a warship for 10 days.
And 10 days, it must be noted, is absolutely no time at all compared to the six or more months the crew of HMCS Toronto spent on the ship during this deployment.
For them, time really loses the meaning it has for those of us ashore. One young sailor asked me how long I’d been aboard, and when I told him the date I embarked, it clearly didn’t help. “How many steak nights have you been aboard for?” he asked.
“Two,” I replied.
“Oh, you just got on!” he laughed.
Steak nights were every Thursday and despite my efforts to convince him that nine days was a long time, he wasn’t hearing it.
In any case, the ship was only a few weeks from its encounter with the Russians in the Black Sea—when it had been overflown by two fighter jets—and the buzz was still in the air.
It had been a close encounter with the fabled Russian Bear, the long-time Cold War enemy turned ally, now apparently an adversary again.
“I was pretty convinced we were going to interact with Russian surface units and air assets,” said the ship’s captain, Commander Jason Armstrong. “Canada sailed 5,000 nautical miles to the Black Sea and we hadn’t been there in 22 years, so it was expected that they would demonstrate their presence.”
Armstrong reflects the general attitude aboard HMCS Toronto, which was that the Russians had come out to meet them in an aggressive way that was largely appropriate, given the circumstances.
“It was a slightly provocative gesture, and that would be an accurate term to use,” said Armstrong. “It was slightly provocative. They could have stayed farther away, but that’s what they chose to do. All our reactions were what we trained for, and we didn’t escalate a tense situation.”
Armstrong did acknowledge that there was a threshold beyond which things would be in danger of escalating.
“Two fighters is OK. Three is OK. Four? That’s a lot of weapons. Six? Did all their surface vessels start to scatter? I had to ask myself: ‘What would be the triggers?’”
As it turned out, there were only two fighters and after flying around the Toronto for about 30 or 40 minutes, they just left. At no point did Armstrong think it was necessary to ratchet up the ship’s response.
“If anyone thinks my decision to not use the fire control radar was anything but careful and calculated, they’re foolish,” said Armstrong. “We never used our fire control radars because we had a linked picture with another ship. We never needed to.”
The other NATO ship sailing with them, the Spanish frigate Almirante Juan de Borbón, “had them the whole way in,” said Executive Officer Lieutenant-Commander Sheldon Gillis. “And the Russians knew it. The Spanish had long-range surface-to-air missiles.”
While it’s clear that the leadership of the Toronto felt the pressure of their deployment to the Black Sea—after all, they were NATO’s canaries in the coal mine—in the end it was nothing to worry about, all part of the job.
“The government makes a statement by sending a warship somewhere and when somebody acknowledges that arrival, it’s to be expected,” said Gillis. “It’s classic gunboat diplomacy.”
“Being in the Black Sea was the coolest thing, the most operational thing I’ve done,” said Armstrong. “We were at the forefront of NATO’s Operation Reassurance. We had international press focused on us. And not just Canada but NATO focused on us. We were being looked at all the time to make sure we were meeting our objectives and not going to spool this up anymore. All the stuff we talk about and all the history, it’s the one where it all really mattered. I wanted to make sure that what I said was correct. The reactions from the ship to that Russian aircraft? It mattered.”
The NATO Strategy Of Empire
What to make of this conflict is an interesting question. Why did Russia annex Crimea and covertly invade Eastern Ukraine? Why is the NATO alliance so intent on getting involved in what Russia is doing with its neighbouring states?
These are loaded questions, essentially a geopolitical Rorschach test. It is a complex situation, open to various interpretations and there are multiple ways to understand it.
The first and most natural position is to look at Russian President Vladimir Putin as the culprit. A former KGB agent with strong authoritarian tendencies, Putin has declared that his intention is to create a new Russian empire, expand Russia’s influence and power, and restore its place among the world’s great powers.
There is ample support for this view among professional observers. “Russia is a revisionist power,” said Edward Lucas, senior fellow at the Centre for European Policy Analysis in Washington, D.C. “Accommodating Russian interests is not about changing outcomes within an existing set of rules. It is about accepting new rules dictated by Russia. This is hard for many Westerners to understand, because we believe implicitly that the European security order we have known for nearly 40 years is fair, and therefore stable. Russia regards it as unfair and ripe for change.”
Lucas goes on to argue that Putin’s Russia presents a growing danger to Europe and the West and that confrontation is not only inevitable, but will get harder and more costly with the passage of time.
“The West won the Cold War and the Soviet empire was dismantled,” he said. “But Russia wants to rewrite the rules. It does not believe that its neighbours should make their own decisions about their geopolitical future.”
However, Russia’s aggression against its neighbours, while undeniable, is only part of the story and it is a mistake to see this conflict only from that one perspective.
One of the factors that caused the First World War was that each state resolutely failed to see things from the perspective of other states. The result of this was a situation of inequality, where one state felt permitted to act in certain ways which other states were not permitted to do. This sense that the rules only apply to some—commonly called exceptionalism—leads to oddities such as Britain attempting to defend its right to have the world’s strongest naval fleet.
And so it is easy to imagine, from the Russian perspective, an entirely different understanding of the current situation.
In 1949, NATO was set up to help fight and win the Cold War against the Soviet empire. However, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the NATO alliance has in many ways continued to manoeuvre against its old enemy.
Consider the countries that have joined the NATO alliance since the end of the Cold War: Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania and Croatia.
In addition, several countries have advanced partnerships with NATO, and have variously declared their intentions to join: Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine and Georgia.
These states, all formerly within the Soviet Union or in its sphere of influence, have now switched sides and declared their allegiance to the North Atlantic alliance. NATO member countries are automatically entered into a mutual defence treaty—Article 5—which declares that an attack against one is an attack against all.
From Russia’s perspective, NATO expansion is perceived as a threat and as a continuation of NATO’s Cold War policy of containment.
“Russia particularly begrudges the former captive nations of the Soviet empire their freedom, their prosperity, and their independence,” said Lucas. “These pose an existential challenge to the stagnant and autocratic model of government pioneered by the Putin regime.”
Putin not only wants to restore Russian power, but he wants to end the “big institutional threats to its interests…the Atlantic alliance. This provides a framework for what it regards as American meddling in Europe,” said Lucas.
And therein lies what is likely the strategic hinge—the centre of gravity—upon which the Toronto’s mission to the Black Sea depends. The heated rhetoric and aggressive deployments, including Operation Reassurance, are not intended to create conflict with Russia, but are instead intended to deter Russia from turning its attentions to Latvia or Estonia, which would either trigger Article 5 and provoke widespread conflict or prove Article 5 is toothless, which would deeply undermine the NATO alliance.
“A security crisis in the Baltic region is the single most dangerous threat facing the Atlantic alliance,” said Lucas. “Reckless behaviour by Russia could face us with a choice between a full-scale military confrontation (including the potential use of nuclear weapons) or surrender, with the collapse of our most fundamental security arrangements.”
In effect, Russia is playing chess with America and NATO. If Putin moves to secure a Russian-speaking populace in a neighbouring country such as Estonia—as he did in Eastern Ukraine—it will be a gambit that exposes our precarious position.
Either NATO goes to war to defend Estonia, or the alliance is radically undermined by its failure to keep its promise and perform its core responsibility of defending its allies.
Terrorists In The Machine
Back on HMCS Toronto during its transit of the Mediterranean, there are no Russians in sight.
That’s not to say there are no bad characters who could possibly contribute to global disorder. After some particularly salient intelligence tips from an undisclosed source, the Toronto runs across a group of young men navigating from North Africa to Sicily aboard a small, dubiously seaworthy boat.
Before making any rash moves, we spend an hour or two tailing the boat. Standing near the bridge, looking through huge binoculars at the dozens of men crammed onto the vessel, it’s easy to imagine how much freaking out is happening as they all look back and see the nearly 440-foot-long Toronto lurking behind them.
Eventually, Gillis takes a rigid-hull inflatable boat over with a boarding party armed with assault rifles. On the small boat are maybe 50 fighting-age males who all clap mysteriously in unison as the boarding party approaches. Besides demanding that no pictures be taken of them, the men offer very little information.
With no clear idea of who they are and having only a shaky legal right to detain them, the suspicious immigrants are allowed to go on their way. The Toronto follows them for a few hours, until they reach Italian territorial waters, and then turns away. Gillis later said that his assessment was that the men were “sketchy,” and any attempt to board the small vessel would likely have resulted in violence.
Beyond that small glimpse into global instability, the ship’s company received further surprising news during the regular morning news broadcast: Canada was at war. Air strikes against Islamic militants in Iraq would soon begin.
The morning report was read by Toronto’s astute communications officer, Captain Sandy Bourne:
Good morning, Toronto. Your headlines for this morning:
Yesterday, in a rare speech to the House of Commons, the prime minister tabled a motion for Canada to join its allies in conducting air strikes against Islamic State militants for up to six months, in addition to the continued training mission underway by 69 special forces operators on the ground training forces in northern Iraq. Neither opposition party is supportive of Canada joining this war.
In related news, a British aid convoy volunteer was beheaded on a film that was released late Friday, entitled “Another message to America and its Allies.”
Nine UN peacekeepers have been killed in Mali. The convoy of peacekeepers, from Niger, was ambushed Friday by a group of heavily armed gunmen on motorbikes.
Those have been your headlines. Have a nice day.
Diplomatic Doomsday Machine
So the question that led me to accompany HMCS Toronto on its Mediterranean cruise must be re-asked: more than 100 years after the First World War, is it possible the world could again stumble into an uncontrollable conflict?
The answer is yes.
It may not be likely, it may be improbable, but the underlying conditions for conflict seem to exist now just as they did early in the 20th century.
The entangled alliances that led to the violence of August 1914 were famously referred to as a “diplomatic doomsday machine” by the American diplomat Henry Kissinger.
It is a bold but accurate phrase. It was this system of alliances, inevitably made during peace when the prospect of conflict was unimaginable, that helped draw countries from around the world—including Canada—into a war they neither wanted nor needed to fight.
Beyond the alliances, a second pre-condition is present. The annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by the Austro-Hungarians in 1908 led most directly to the conflict in 1914. And while the annexation of countries is currently rare, the general climate of geopolitical power struggle remains. Now though, annexation is not done by force but by treaty. Does Estonia belong to Russia or to NATO? It belongs to NATO. And for the sake of historical symmetry, it should be noted that Bosnia-Herzegovina is also scheduled to join NATO in the near future.
Why is NATO pursuing this course? Why take all the former Soviet countries into the alliance? What is the purpose of that, if not to corner Russia and diminish its power? And how is it not obvious that the closer we get to taking all these countries, the more agitated Russia will become?
American diplomat George Kennan, who was himself responsible for elements of the strategy that won the Cold War, laid out this view in a 1998 interview, right after the U.S. Senate approved the first round of NATO expansion. “I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies,” he said. “I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anyone else.
“We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that regime. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then the [NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are—but this is just wrong.”
It is widely understood that the harsh peace terms imposed on Germany after the First World War contained within them the seeds for future conflict. It is entirely possible that NATO expansionism into Russia’s neighbourhood in the post-Cold War era is having a similar effect. History has shown that it pays to be humble in victory.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Stephen Harper derides Putin’s aggression, recklessness and expansionism, saying they represent a threat to Canadian values and the greater peace.
Who is acting aggressively, recklessly? Is it solely Putin, or doesn’t NATO’s expansionism—it’s annexation by treaty—also amount to aggression?
While the underlying strategic rationale for entering into mutual defence pacts with countries such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania may be evident to policy planners and NATO generals, average Canadians—such as those who frequent pubs in Ottawa on snowy winter nights—are nonetheless shocked to discover that the government has pledged on their behalf to defend Estonian territorial integrity with Canadian lives. That the situation doesn’t pass the test of common sense is almost self-evident; which is exactly what makes it extremely dangerous.
In 1914, Britain narrowly chose to enter the Great War and its decision to do so was based largely on a treaty it signed in 1839 to defend Belgian neutrality. And as Britain joined the war, so did Canada. For its part, Germany couldn’t believe the British and Canadians would fight a war over such a distant treaty, a “mere scrap of paper.”
It could happen again.