By Ray McGovern
On The Critical Hour earlier today, I discussed why I thought it reasonable to expect some progress to come out of tomorrow’s meeting between Secretary Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva. When it was announced just two days ago, plans for a Lavrov-Blinken meeting Friday came as a surprise; I suggested then that one could breathe a little easier amid all the talk about an imminent Russian attack on Ukraine. (See: https://original.antiwar.com/mcgovern/2022/01/19/breathe-easier-blinken-lavrov-meet-friday/ )
Rather than repeat the material in that piece, I included two more straws in the wind — one of them suggesting that Blinken was not the only one thrown off his horse on the road to Damascus. Lying on the road beside Blinken, so to speak, was NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg — a super-hawk if there ever was one.
1 — Under-reported is Stoltenberg’s sudden conversion, the day after the NATO-Russia talks in Brussels, to an advocate for talks on “re-establishing some kind of limits on missiles as long as this is reciprocal, balanced, and verifiable.” Stoltenberg added that NATO “was ready to discuss not only limitations, but also a ban on intermediate range weapons.” He emphasized that this is “the kind of diplomatic negotiations that should not take place in public as that will only undermine the possibility for a successful outcome.” (See: https://tass.com/world/1387915 )
2 — Also under-reported is a Washington Post article from two months ago reporting that the White House had asked the Pentagon to provide a rundown of exercises the U.S. military has taken in recent years in Europe to deter Russia, and how each was justified. It is no secret that the Russians have protested loudly at the number and the intrusiveness of many of those exercises, but in vain — at least up until now.
This strikes me as a rare leak of a highly unusual White House request. One cannot rule out the possibility that President Putin is now being heard — and by someone in the White House. In any case, limitations on exercises is one of the issues U.S. negotiators are willing to discuss with their Russian counterparts. And it is a significant issue.
The entire article by Paul Sonne and John Hudson on Nov, 19, 2021 bears a close read for what light it sheds on the current back and forth about what the U.S. and Russia should focus on. (See: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/us-military-exercises-russia-ukraine/2021/11/19/074c6b40-4884-11ec-973c-be864f938c72_story.html ) I include excerpts below:
Amid tensions with Russia, White House scrutinizes military exercises in Europe
The White House has asked the Pentagon to provide a rundown of exercises the U.S. military has taken in recent years in Europe to deter Russia, as well as the justification for each mission, as the Biden administration takes stock of military operations in the air, on land and at sea that are designed to check Kremlin power and reassure U.S. allies and partners in Europe.
The purpose of the request, according to a senior Biden administration official, is to give the White House full visibility into U.S. military exercises and other deterrence activities in Europe so new missions can be evaluated and scheduled in the context of past actions. The bulk of the exercises in Europe focus on protecting against Russia …
U.S. military missions in Europe have grown in scope in recent years amid tensions with Moscow, leading to a slew of exercises, observation flights and maritime operations undertaken to ward off the Russian military from any further adventurism in Europe and reassure allies in the region that the United States takes seriously its commitments to their defense.
Some outside experts have raised concerns that some of the missions have become too provocative and should be reevaluated, even though the senior Biden administration official said the White House isn’t seeking the information from the Pentagon with a view to curtailing the activities.
In many cases, the missions have extended beyond NATO allies to include partner nations bordering Russia, such as Ukraine and Georgia. The United States doesn’t have a treaty obligation to defend those nations but has backed their right to sovereignty and provided support to their militaries. …
Russian President Vladimir Putin has become increasingly vocal in recent months about military activities by the United States and its allies near Russia, particularly in Ukraine. …
Putin said NATO countries were crossing “certain limits” by flying strategic bombers 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) off the coast of Russia over the Black Sea that carry “very serious weapons,” a reference to the nuclear warheads the planes can hold.
“We regularly express our concerns about this, we talk about red lines, but of course we understand that our partners are very idiosyncratic and — how to put it mildly — they treat all our warnings and conversations about red lines very superficially,” Putin said.”
“We regularly express our concerns about this, we talk about red lines, but of course we understand that our partners are very idiosyncratic and — how to put it mildly — they treat all our warnings and conversations about red lines very superficially,” Putin said. …
The White House hasn’t made any decision to modify or curtail the U.S. military’s missions and exercises in Europe, the senior Biden administration official emphasized.
“The important thing is that all we are looking for is basic information from the last several years of where we have done exercises, how many troops were involved, what policy objectives they were in support of,” the senior administration official said, describing the request from the White House National Security Council to the Defense Department, which was sent earlier this year, as “regular order.” …
In the years since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the United States and its NATO allies have backed Ukraine with training and arms, in addition to mounting regular exercises, at times with Ukrainian forces, to deter Russia from escalating the conflict in the country’s east. U.S. and NATO troops from Western Europe rotate through Poland and the Baltics, keeping a constant presence on the alliance’s eastern flank as a deterrent to a Russian invasion. …
Some of the activities have led to close calls.
Last year, a Russian fighter jet came within 100 feet of an American B-52 conducting an exercise with NATO allies over the Black Sea, rocking the heavy bomber with its afterburner and prompting a condemnation by the Pentagon. …
“Asking the question about the purpose of all this [NATO exercise] activity is totally legitimate and important, because if we are just doing stuff for the sake of doing stuff, which tends to be the default mode, then that can lead to problematic situations where we are having dangerous interactions with Russia for reasons unclear,” said Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist and Russia expert at the Rand Corp. … [Emphasis added.]
Russia’s military has also engaged in escalating activities, most recently holding a joint exercise with Belarus called Zapad 2021, which reportedly involved 200,000 troops, making it one of Europe’s biggest military exercises in decades. …
END OF EXCERPTS
In my view, this issue of military exercises — including efforts to prevent cowboy-type behavior leading to incidents at sea or in the air — is another important area in which sober heads in both Russia and the U.S. share a common interest. And on this issue, the two sides could negotiate without either having to worry about appearing the supplicant.
As for tomorrow, at this point, one can only guess how the talks between Blinken and Lavrov will go. “The Critical Hour” has invited Scott Ritter and me to spend a half-hour mid-afternoon tomorrow discussing whatever is known about the talks by that time (to air tomorrow evening).