Op-ed

It's not your grandfather's Cold War, Canadian and NATO officials insist

by Murray Brewster (feat. Stéfanie von Hlatky)

CBC News
July 11, 2016

There is something NATO — and more importantly Canadian officials — want you to understand about the rising tensions with Russia: This is NOT your grandfather's Cold War.

In fact, throughout last weekend's Warsaw Summit they were really skittish about anyone drawing any comparisons to the nearly half century long standoff between East and West, which brought the world to the precipice of nuclear annihilation.

"The Cold War is history and it should remain history," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared, as though just saying so was more than enough to make it so.

Yet, the military alliance has retrieved from the vault and dusted off phrases, adjectives and even a handful of concepts from that precarious time.

'Strategic communications' to deter Russia

Buried amid the avalanche of web pages and .pdfs that dominate 21st Century summits such as this one, there was reference to how the 28 nations that make up NATO must do more civil preparedness.

It wasn't quite 1950s "duck and cover," but the language coming out of Warsaw was perhaps more stark than it has been in recent memory.

The "forward" deployment of a brigade into eastern Europe, including as many as 450 Canadians in Latvia, was delivered with an awkward gravity and no small amount of contradiction.

It's serious, but not that serious, reporters were told. No need to worry. We're just sending a message to Moscow.  

Like those kitschy Second World War "Keep Calm and Carry On" signs that have been rebranded for today's consumer culture, officials attempted to dress up and sell the notion of deterring Russian ambitions to a whole new generation.

"We're using the word deterrence, but we're careful to call it modern deterrence," said one Canadian official who briefed the media travelling with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The official couldn't speak on the record because of diplomatic sensitivities.

"So, it isn't a Cold War construct with soldiers standing toe-to-toe across a border. It's not that construct. It's more agile, more flexible and recognizes there are other tools to deter. It's layered deterrence. You know what I mean?"

Well, not exactly.

The official tried again: "Part of deterrence now is strategic communications."

Spin? Well, no. It's more than spin.

"Part of it is resilience, building up our home defence forces. That sort of thing. So, modern deterrence looks a bit different."

NATO deploying thousands of troops in Europe

The questions kept coming.

Will the new brigade be prepared to fight? Will Canadian troops bring heavy equipment like tanks and artillery to provide credible deterrent?

The officials seemed to shift awkwardly in their chairs.

"What it's really saying to a potentially hostile force is: If you come in, you are not going to just stroll in without a problem," the official said. "Think of it as a tripwire."

The force is going to be very credible, they insisted. But it's not going to be so overwhelmingly credible as to be considered a threat to Russia.

"We've just upped the game a little bit," said a military official.  

"What we should avoid is thinking of it as is some kind of large, hostile force to Russia. Clearly it isn't. These are not big forces."

That's true. NATO is deploying 4,000 troops in eastern Europe when Russia will — by the end of the year — in all likelihood have 20,000 on their western frontier.

Some officials in the Trudeau government cringed at the description of the Canadian-led battalion being a "speed bump" for an hostile force truly intent on taking over the Baltics.

But the Kremlin is howling about it.

"Will they spin it?  Yes, they will," said the military official.

Just so that we're clear: The Russians are spinning. NATO isn't.

Nuclear bomb issue 'politically unpalatable'

What was most troubling about some of the pretzel logic presented in Warsaw was that there was absolutely no public mention of the one deterrent that truly kept the former Cold War from running white hot: The Bomb.

Stefanie von Hlatky, the director of the centre for international and defence policy at Queen's University, said no one seems willing to talk about modernizing and strengthening the existing nuclear weapons policy.

"I think it's a thorny debate," she said during an interview on the sidelines of the Warsaw summit. "It's not a public debate a lot of NATO countries like to have. It's an issue they like to sweep under the rug…It's politically unpalatable."

Britain appeared to be the only nation even thinking about it. Outgoing British Prime Minister David Cameron announced there will be a Parliamentary vote July 18 on whether to renew the country's ballistic missile submarine fleet.

"We must invest in the ultimate insurance policy of all, our nuclear deterrent," he told NATO leaders.

But von Hlatky wondered where other nations, including Canada, stood on the question of where nuclear weapons fit in this new standoff that nobody wants to call a Cold War.

"So, the question is: Do you strengthen those capabilities in terms of increasing training and exercises to signal to Russia [that] the nuclear posture is strengthened? That's the debate, and I don't know what the Canadian position is on that."

Think this is just an academic, or even alarmist, argument?

A white paper produced by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last winter expressed concern both NATO and Russia seem to accept the notion that a limited exchange of tactical nuclear weapons might be acceptable.

"Moscow appears to have developed a strategy of 'escalating to de-escalate' through so-called strategic conventional and, if necessary, nuclear strikes," said the Feb. 26 report.

"A conflict over the Baltics, for instance, would presumptively have a nuclear coloration, especially as defending against and particularly ejecting Russian forces would very likely require extensive and heavy attacks into Russian sovereign territory by NATO."

So, the question becomes: If Canadian troops are the "tripwire," what will go boom?


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