Do the Russians want war?

This was the title of a 1961 Soviet song thundering ad nauseam from radio and TV sets for years.

Repetition being the mother of learning, most Soviets knew the song by heart. (I haven’t heard it in 45 years but, to my shame, could still hum every hack line by Yevtushenko.)

According to that piece of musical propaganda the Russians had suffered such misery in the Second World War that it was silly even to pose the question in the title.

“Ask the soldiers lying underneath the birches, and their sons will tell you whether the Russians want war,” was how Yevtushenko put it.

True enough, the hypothetical sons might well have answered the question in the negative, had they been asked. But they weren’t, and still aren’t.

The relevant question is “Do the Russian rulers want war?” These chaps, royal, communist or KGB, don’t seek their subjects’ consent.

They either force them, as they did in 1941, when the Red Army wouldn’t fight for the Kremlin butcher, or brainwash them, as they’re doing now, with about 110 per cent of the population screaming “Heil Putin!” (in Russian).

Either process produces the desired effect. When forced, the Russians die reluctantly; when brainwashed, they die eagerly. The common element is that they do die on cue, and that’s all that matters to their masters.

Since 1961 the Russians have brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster over Cuban missiles, fought a bloody 10-year war in Afghanistan, two equally bloody wars in Chechnya, a war with Georgia.

Millions dead, crippled, orphaned and widowed – pretty good going for a nation that doesn’t want war. One can only wonder what sort of mayhem it would wreak if it did spoil for a fight.

Yevtushenko’s question is now on the lips of everyone watching the events in the Ukraine.

No one knows for sure. All we can do is read the signs and try to interpret them as best we can.

Russia’s aggression against the Ukraine clearly pursues objectives that go beyond ensuring the autonomy of the country’s eastern provinces.

The evident geopolitical objective is rebuilding the Soviet Union to its former glory, which is Putin’s cherished and manifest aim.

This may or may not involve a subsequent invasion of the Baltic republics that are now Nato members. If they do come under attack, Nato will face the Hobson’s choice of either surrendering or fighting.

The first option isn’t worth talking about: its only possible outcome will be KGB domination of Europe. But the second option is worth contemplating.

Looking at the vectors of Europe’s and Russia’s military programmes, one can’t help noticing that they are diverging. To put it crudely, Russia is arming while Europe is disarming.

Between 20,000 and 30,000 crack troops are massed at the border with the Ukraine, and the Russian artillery is already in action, shelling Ukrainian positions from both outside and inside the country’s territory. Is this but a prelude?

The overall strength of the Russian army is about a million, a quarter of them reservists.

Between now and October it’s conducting full-scale exercises, critically involving thousands of reservists. Early reports suggest that the trainees have been issued winter gear, something not needed in August-September.

Many activities involve airborne troops, whose strength is being beefed up to 60,000, roughly five divisions. By contrast, the US army has only one fully trained airborne division, 82nd. (Some others bearing the same nomenclature don’t do any jump training.)

Airborne troops are by definition offensive: they are too lightly equipped to be much use in defence. Tanks are another clearly offensive weapon, and here the comparison between Russia and Europe is most instructive.

The three biggest European armies, French, German and British, have, respectively, 423, 408 and 407 tanks.

By contrast, Russia officially boasts a 15,500-strong tank force in active service. But that number is misleading.

Unlike Nato, the Russians don’t destroy tanks of the previous generations. They mothball them in warehouses.

Should the need arise, those obsolete but perfectly usable tanks can be taken out and thrown in. That’s what happened in the Second World War, when the Germans wiped out the Soviet tank forces in the first few days.

Much to their astonishments, new Soviet tank divisions appeared out of thin air, and the German intelligence couldn’t figure out their provenance.

How many of those mothballed tanks are there now? In 1970-80s the Russians had 50,000 tanks, a number that would have done any bellicose nation proud, never mind one that doesn’t “want war”.

Nato at the time had just over 6,000 tanks deployed un Europe, clearly not enough to stop a potential Soviet thrust by conventional means. Nato’s strategy was based on a tactical nuclear counter-strike, something deadly to massed tank formations.

However, at that time the Soviets had a nuclear superiority over Nato. Eugene Rostow, Kennedy’s and Reagan’s policy guru acknowledged mournfully that:

“In 1985, the Soviet Union had a lead of more than 3.5 to one in the number of warheads on ICBMs and a lead of more than four to one in the throw weight of these weapons. Its sea-based and airborne nuclear forces have made comparable if slightly less spectacular gains. In addition, it had a near monopoly of advanced intermediate-range ground-based weapons threatening targets in Europe, Japan, China, and the Middle East.”

Assuming that Nato is able to verify Russia’s compliance with various disarmament treaties (an unsafe assumption in view of the country’s gross violations of the SALT accords), that lamentable situation has changed for conditions of approximate parity.

However, even discounting the thousands of mothballed tanks, Russia’s superiority in tank forces has greatly increased.

Hence people living under the aegis of the demob-happy European governments must ask themselves this question: Should a Russian blitzkrieg come, would Nato be prepared to stop it with tactical nukes? Unlikely, would be my guess.

That’s why Nato generals are screaming themselves hoarse about the dire necessity of increasing our military strength. Their pleas fall on deaf ears: Western governments would rather spend money on cultivating our underclass and fattening up foreign tyrants’ bank accounts.

All this no doubt explains the West’s meek response to Putin’s rape of the Ukraine. Rather than presenting a united front bristling with weapons, our sweaty spivs are praying that Putin will be happy with what he’s got already. Nothing further bears thinking about.

But never mind the comparative statistics of tanks, warplanes or armies. By far the most vital weapon in any arsenal is the resolve to fight if necessary – and in this category Europe is even more disarmed than in any other.    






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