At Easter, 2013, six Russian jets carried out a simulated attack on Stockholm. Sweden, proud of her two centuries of peace and getting fat on the ‘peace dividend’, failed to scramble any of her interceptors. Had the attack been for real, Stockholm would now lie in ruins.
This was far from an isolated incident. Russian warplanes routinely violate Sweden’s airspace. At the same time, Russia conducts regular naval exercises in the Baltic Sea, with an accent on landing and supporting units of marine infantry.
The Swedes have finally cottoned on to the possible consequences of pacifism. They’re going through the motions of rebuilding their army, but it’s a long way to go.
For example, they’re increasing their contingent on Gotland, the country’s largest island, to 300 soldiers, equipped with 14 German-made Leopard tanks. Yet at the height of the Cold War the Gotland garrison numbered up to 20,000, which goes to show the size of the gap to fill.
It’s not only Sweden but also the rest of Europe, particularly its eastern half, that has reasons to worry. In 2015 Russia carried out about 4,000 military exercises, compared to NATO’s 270.
A recent US war game showed that Russia would take less than three days to occupy Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The opposing NATO force wouldn’t be strong enough to resist.
Not only do the Russians use their Kaliningrad (née Königsberg) contingents effectively to surround the Baltics, but they back up this strategic advantage with a prohibitive numerical superiority.
Opposing Russia’s eight airborne fleets and 27 manoeuvre battalions, each equipped with main battle tanks, are merely 12 NATO battalions – with no tanks. Seven of those battalions are native to the Baltics, and their training levels are uncertain.
The overall situation in Europe is even more dire. The three biggest European armies, French, German and British, have, respectively, 423, 408 and 407 tanks, including vehicles that wouldn’t even qualify as tanks in the Russian army.
By contrast, Russia officially boasts a 15,500-strong tank force in active service – augmented with thousands of older but still usable models mothballed in warehouses.
What gives NATO some hope of stopping the Russian army should it finally stop playing games is the approximate parity between NATO and Russian air forces. Modern air-launched anti-tank weapons greatly offset the danger presented by massed tank formations: if during the Second World War bombing was practically useless against tanks, today’s laser-guided missiles can pick off the tanks one by one.
Nonetheless, given the overwhelming numbers of the Russian ground forces, the best possible effect of air resistance would be to slow down the juggernaut, not stop it in its tracks.
It increasingly appears that we’re back to the 1970s. At that time only the US nuclear umbrella (and not the EU, as its champions claim so disingenuously) provided a viable deterrent to Soviet tank swarms sweeping across the Central European plain.
That military doctrine went by the name of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction), the assumption being that neither NATO nor the USSR would be crazy enough to risk a full-scale nuclear exchange.
One would like to hope that Putin’s fiefdom can be counted upon to show similar sanity. Then again, there are signs diminishing that hope rather drastically.
Putin seems to have decided to resort to the traditional manner in which tyrants try to thwart economic disaster: militarisation first, war second.
The first two wars for which the Russian dictator is personally responsible, against Chechnya in 2000 and Georgia in 2008, failed to alert NATO to the danger of a KGB kleptocracy armed with nuclear weapons. But Russia’s attack on the Ukraine in 2014 began to awaken the West.
Things have escalated since then. Russia is heavily involved in Syria, with only naïve observers believing that Putin is our ally in the region. Tensions with Turkey, a NATO member, are mounting, with Russia’s violations of Turkish airspace becoming more frequent and cynical.
The tone of Russia’s shrill home propaganda is unmistakably warlike, with bugles whining and drums rattling off every newspaper page and TV screen. The West in general and the US in particular are being painted the same black colour as back in the USSR.
Some Russian commentators are talking about the possibility of an eighth Russo-Turkish war, others threaten to ‘turn America to nuclear dust’, still others are issuing open threats to the Baltics and the rest of Eastern Europe, and a first strike with nuclear weapons is mentioned as a distinct possibility.
In fact, the Russian military doctrine has been rewritten under Putin to include the possibility of such a strike, something that even the Soviets discounted, at least openly.
This isn’t supposed to be scaremongering. It’s possible that Russia is flexing her military muscle only to strike poses designed to rally flagging domestic support. Yet it would be criminally irresponsible not to prepare for the other possibility – however much such preparation could cost.
Si vis pacem, para bellum, as the Romans used to say. If you want peace, prepare for war. We want peace, don’t we?