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Cold War

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A Collision at Sea

18 February 2009

A Collision at Sea

By Gwynne Dyer

A ship I once served in had a small brass plate on the bridge with a quotation from Thucydides, the Greek statesman, historian and seaman of the fourth century BC: “A collision at sea can ruin your whole day.” It is still true.

It is harder to collide at sea than on land, since there are no blind curves and nothing moves much faster than a bicycle, so my normal reaction to a collision at sea is to think “How can they have been so stupid?” But here is a collision that beggars the imagination.

In the North Atlantic Ocean, on the night of 3/4 February, at an undisclosed depth, the British nuclear submarine Vanguard and the French nuclear submarine Le Triomphant ran into each other. Both boats were “boomers,” missile-firing submarines carrying sixteen ballistic missiles, each of which can deliver several nuclear warheads at intercontinental range.

The North Atlantic is the second biggest ocean in the world. The submarines are considerably smaller: around 145 metres long (475 ft.). So there they are, puttering along at six knots or less, with an entire ocean to play in, and freedom in three dimensions (they can go very deep if they

want) — and they run into each other. The damage was slight, but it ruined the day for two whole navies. How could they have been so stupid?

All right, it’s not quite that simple. The boomers — not just British and French missile-firing submarines but American and Russian ones too — congregate in specific parts of the Atlantic that are called “nesting grounds.” They need deep water that is relatively quiet, and they need to stay in range of their targets, so in practice they have only a quarter of the Atlantic to play with.

That still ought to be enough, but they are also deliberately running blind. If they operated their “active” sonar (the thing that goes “ping” in the war movies), they would detect everything on and below the surface for many kilometres (miles) around them — but everything they heard would also hear them.

They mustn’t do that. Their job is to hide out in the depths of the ocean as a last-ditch nuclear deterrent that cannot be found and destroyed in a surprise attack. So they only run the “passive” sonar, which listens to all the noises in the water but does not give away their own position.

Unfortunately, passive sonar cannot hear vessels that are not making any noise — and modern submarines are designed to be ultra-quiet.

In this case, they actually closed to touching distance without detecting each other’s presence, which suggests either that the two boats are astonishingly quiet or that there were two very negligent sonar operators.

The subs were obviously on courses that converged only slowly, because the damage was minor and all in the bows. If one had gone straight into the side of the other, however, then both of them could have been destroyed. Down to the bottom go their nuclear reactors, plus anything up to a hundred or so nuclear warheads on their missiles.

Both crews would have been lost — over two hundred men — but that would have been the end of it. None of the nukes would have exploded, and it really doesn’t matter if there is a couple of tonnes of highly radioactive material scattered on the deep ocean floor hundreds of kilometres (miles) from the nearest land. Nevertheless, this is a useful reminder.

We have just been reminded that although the Cold War ended twenty years ago, all the nuclear weapons are still there. Not only that, but the submarine-launched ones are still out on patrol as if this were 1975.

There is not a single good reason for them all to be doing this, but nobody has told them to stop. Why not?

Because you don’t know what the future might bring? I didn’t say scrap the subs tomorrow, but tie them up in port and stop this nonsense.

If we all end up in a new Cold War one day, then okay, you can have them back, but why are they cruising around out there now?

You have to keep the crews trained? Well, train them in other nuclear submarines — or if they really must train in these particular boats, then TAKE THE MISSILES OUT. It is not sane to keep deploying these instruments of mass death when no major power fears an attack by any other.

And by the way, if you could all agree to stop these ridiculous patrols, it would be a useful step towards the more sweeping measures of nuclear disarmament that all the great powers say they want, and that President Barack Obama has adopted as a serious goal.

Obama is the first occupant of the White House since Ronald Reagan with the vision to imagine a future free of nuclear weapons, and unlike Reagan he’s smart enough not to let the guardians of nuclear orthodoxy talk him out of it. He has a lot on his plate right now, but here’s a step in the right direction that costs nothing: announce that the US Navy will no longer run “combat patrols” with its nuclear missile-firing submarines, and invite the world’s other nuclear weapons powers to follow suit.

After this little demonstration of folly, they’d all come along pretty promptly.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 10 and 13. (“It is harder…imagination”; “Both crews…reminder”; and “You have to…any


Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

NOTE TO TRANSLATORS: Even very big submarines are called “boats”, not “ships”, in English. Check that there is not a similar convention in your language.

The Goose and the Gander

29 August 2008

 The Goose and the Gander

 By Gwynne Dyer

Three weeks ago, when the Georgian army foolishly invaded South Ossetia and the Russian army drove it back out, I wrote that we shouldn’t worry about a new Cold War. An old journalist friend in Moscow immediately e-mailed me saying that I was wrong, and I’m beginning to think he was right. The preparations for a new Cold War, or at least a Very Cool War, are coming along quite nicely.

On 27 August Britain’s foreign minister, David Miliband, flew into Kiev to say that “the Georgia crisis has provided a rude awakening. The sight of Russian tanks in a neighbouring country on the 40th anniversary of the crushing of the Prague Spring has shown that the temptations of power politics remain.”

By recognising the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Miliband said, Russia has ended “the post Cold War period of growing geopolitical calm in and around Europe.” So Ukraine and Georgia, formerly parts of the Soviet Union, would be welcome to join NATO, formerly Russia’s great enemy. Oh, and one other thing. Russia bore “a great responsibility ” not to start a new Cold War.

On the same day Mitt Romney, a leading candidate for the Republican vice-presidential nomination, was in Denver to make the point that Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, lacked the judgement and the experience to deal with a crisis like the “invasion of Georgia.” He then proceeded to speculate that the next move of “the Soviets” might be to invade Poland. Well, why not? If we’re going to have the Cold War back, we might as well have the Soviet Union back too.

And so to Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who raised the stakes on the following day by speculating that the United States government had encouraged Georgia to attack South Ossetia in order to provoke a crisis. “The American side in effect armed and trained the Georgian army….The suspicion arises that someone in the United States especially created this conflict with the aim of making the situation more tense and creating a competitive advantage for one of the candidates fighting for the post of US president.”

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino dismissed the allegation: “To suggest that the United States orchestrated this on behalf of a political candidate – it sounds not rational.” Unfortunately, it sounds all too rational to Putin, who is widely suspected of having started the second war with Chechnya in order to win the Russian presidential election in 2000.

Indeed, it would be a perfectly rational (if utterly immoral) strategy if the Bush administration were trying to boost John McCain’s chances in November. Persuade the American public that it faces a great threat by starting a new Cold War, so the argument goes, and they’ll turn to the candidate who is old enough to have fought in the Vietnamese side-show during the first Cold War.

But I don’t believe that the White House told Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to go ahead and grab South Ossetia, counting on the Russians to counter-attack, smash the Georgian army, and scare Americans into voting for John McCain. The Bush administration would not have betrayed its favourite Georgian so callously. The truth is probably that Saakashvili, having been promised NATO membership, attacked South Ossetia on the false assumption that the United States would threaten war with Russia to back his play.

Now Russia has enraged the West further by recognising the independence of South Ossetia and Georgia’s other breakaway territory, Abkhazia. This is no real loss for Georgia, which has never controlled them since it got its own independence when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. The local ethnic groups fought off the first Georgian attempts to conquer them in 1991-92, and the “ethnic cleansing” by both sides in those wars ensured that the Ossetian and Abkhaz minorities would never again accept Georgian rule.

Yet for the past sixteen years Moscow did not recognise their independence. Russia has always insisted on preserving the territorial integrity of states, because so many of its own minorities might be tempted by separatism if it were legal for unhappy ethnic groups to just leave a country. If South Ossetia can secede from Georgia, why can’t North Ossetia secede from Russia?

When the major Western countries, having occupied Serbia’s Albanian-majority province of Kosovo in 1999 to stop the atrocities being committed there by the Serbian army, finally recognised Kosovo’s independence last February, Moscow was furious. This was a precedent that could unleash international chaos. Well, now it has accepted that same precedent for South Ossetia and Abkhazia — although Hell will freeze over before it agrees that the same principle might apply to, say Chechnya.

As the former British ambassador to Yugoslavia, Sir Ivor Roberts, said last week: “Moscow has acted brutally in Georgia. But when the United States and Britain backed the independence of Kosovo without UN approval, they paved the way for Russia’s defence of South Ossetia, and for the current Western humiliation. What is sauce for the Kosovo goose is sauce for the South Ossetian gander.”

There is still no good reason to have a new Cold War, and I still think it won’t happen. But as the politicians posture and the stupidities accumulate, I’m less sure than I was that it won’t happen.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“White…War”)

Stereotyping Russia

27 February 2008

Stereotyping Russia

By Gwynne Dyer

The coronation of Dmitri Medvedev as Vladimir Putin’s anointed successor, by means of a presidential election on Sunday whose outcome is a foregone conclusion, has unleashed the usual deluge of stereotypes about “the Russians” in the Western media. They are backward, they cannot ever escape from their dreadful history, they are “different from us.” They are “reverting to type,” and the next stop is a new Cold War.

A striking example of this kind of reporting is provided by British journalist Jonathan Dimbleby, who spend a whole eighteen weeks travelling in Russia for his new book “Russia: A Journey to the Heart of a Land and its People.” In a newspaper piece promoting the book, Dimbleby writes: “I have returned more aware than ever before that the Russian people are not like “us”. In a fundamental way, they neither belong to the West nor share Western values.”

In a fundamental way, Dimbleby is talking nonsense, but it’s true that the Russians have been through a very bad time recently and that their scars are showing. That’s why the election of Medvedev as the new president amounts to a coronation, and why most Russians wouldn’t have objected if Putin had simply declared that Medvedev would take over without a vote.

It may even be the case that Putin’s promise to serve Medvedev as prime minister is mainly meant to reassure the Russians that there will be no surprises. This promise has been universally interpreted in the Western media as a stratagem to let Putin cling to power while formally observing the two-term constitutional limit on the presidency, but he may not actually want to cling to power. (At his farewell press conference, Putin said that being president was about as much fun as being away on “an eight-year business trip.”)

Putin’s eight years in office gave Russians stability and a measure of prosperity after the political chaos and economic banditry of the 1990s, and they don’t want to lose that. The experience of the 90s is also why a large majority of Russians show no great enthusiasm for “democracy,” or even openly reject it.

It often shocks visiting foreigners when Russians talk like that, but what they mean by “democracy” is really “the way Russia was under Yeltsin.” That was a place where inflation wiped out the savings of the whole middle class, where well-placed members of the old Communist nomenklatura and their clever young neo-capitalist allies “privatised” large chunks of the economy into their own pockets, and where elderly people who had worked hard all their lives went cold and hungry.

It was humiliating to be Russian under Yeltsin. Powerful foreigners treated the country almost as a colony, and Yeltsin went along with it. The elections were manipulated just as much then as they are now, but then the manipulation was being done at the behest of foreigners who wanted to keep Yeltsin in power. Of course Russians don’t want that sort of “democracy” — and they have never known any other sort.

Does that mean they are not “Western”? Of course not. Look at their art and music and literature, look at the way they behave towards one another, look even at their religion, which survived over seventy years of official atheism under the Communists virtually untouched: about the same proportion of people in Russia are observant Christians as in France or Canada.

Russian politics are different, at least for the moment, but Spain was still Western under Franco, and Germany was still Western even under the Nazis. Russia may move towards democracy once the traumas of the recent past have healed, or it may not, but it remains a part of the West. It will be no less so even if it slides into a military confrontation with the rest of the West (like France did in the early 19th century, and Germany in the early 20th).

If that should happen, it will be at least as much the fault of the United States and Western Europe as it is of the Russians. NATO formally promised the old Soviet Union that it would not expand into Eastern Europe if Russian troops were withdrawn from the former satellites, and then it broke its promise.

The United States unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty it had signed with Moscow, and is now planning to install exactly that kind of missiles in Poland on the pretext that they are needed to intercept the long-range rockets that Iran doesn’t have, carrying the nuclear warheads that Iran doesn’t have either. Nobody in Russia believes that story, and neither do I.

Most recently, the larger Western powers partitioned Serbia and recognised the independence of Kosovo in defiance of passionate Russian protests and of international law. It may have been the least bad remaining option, but Russians are quite right to think that it shows a contempt for their state and its interests in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin.

Even so, with any luck there will not be a new Cold War. With enough time, there may even be democracy in Russia. In the meantime, most Russians are reasonably content with their lot, and the oil wealth that is the main reason for their new-found prosperity is being invested in ways that will ultimately enable Russia to re-emerge as a fully modern country with a viable and competitive economy. There is no need for panic.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“It may…trip”; and “Does…Canada”)

This article may be used before the Russian presidential election on March 2nd, or after it by changing “is” to “was” in the first sentence.

Next Cold War

13 May 2005

Planning the Next Cold War

By Gwynne Dyer

The cover of the May “Atlantic Monthly” has a angry-looking Chinese sailor glowering out at the reader in menacing black-and-white, next to a headline blaring: “How We Would Fight China: The Next Cold War.” Yet “Atlantic Monthly” is one of the more respectable American monthly magazines, heavy on intellectual pretension and not generally seen as part of the lunatic fringe. If this is what passes for rational discourse among the American foreign policy establishment — and there have been many others like it in “serious” journals and papers over the past year or so — then God help us all.

The author of the lead article in question is Robert D. Kaplan, a minor player in the neo-conservative fraternity. In measured, almost academic tones, he discusses the strategy of the coming military confrontation between the United States and China as if it were inevitable.

A sample: “The Chinese navy is poised to push out into the Pacific — and when it does, it will very quickly encounter a US Navy and Air Force unwilling to budge from the coastal shelf of the Chinese mainland. It’s not hard to imagine the result: a replay of the decades-long Cold War, with a center of gravity not in the heart of Europe, but, rather, among Pacific atolls that were last in the news when Marines stormed them in World War II.” So explain to us, Mr Kaplan: how is it that, sixty years after World War II, the US Navy and Air Force are unwilling to budge from the coastal shelf of the Asian mainland?

He does not, of course. He takes it as read that the natural dividing line between the navies of the United States and China, two countries separated by 6,000 miles of ocean, lies about 10 miles off the Chinese coast. He also takes it as read that the growing power of China must be “contained,” as NATO contained Soviet power during the old Cold War. And in these assumptions, he is entirely representative of the people who run US foreign policy these days.

Never mind that there is no evidence whatever that China is a territorially expansionist power (with the possible exception of Taiwan), whereas the armies of the old Soviet Union occupied and subjugated all the countries of Eastern Europe. Never mind that the Soviet Communists still believed in world revolution, or at least felt obliged to support Marxist revolutions elsewhere, whereas the Chinese regime has been emptied of all ideology and pursues pure capitalist policies.

Never mind that the men ruling China are so uncertain of their grip on power that they would not dream of risking military clashes that would interrupt trade and kill the economic growth that keeps the masses quiet. In Kaplan’s view, any country that grows strong enough to challenge America’s status as the sole superpower is automatically an enemy to America, and must be contained: “Whenever great powers have emerged or re-emerged on the scene (Germany and Japan, to cite two recent examples), they have tended to be particularly assertive — and therefore have thrown international affairs into violent turmoil. China will be no exception.”

This stuff is so shallow that it would lose a student marks in a high school history essay. What about America’s own emergence as a great power, or Russia’s, for that matter? It is just as often the case that a paramount power that is losing ground economically and fears demotion in the great-power pecking order will gamble everything on a resort to war, like Austria-Hungary in 1914. Or, perhaps, the United States now.

Few ordinary Americans would knowingly support the remilitarisation of international affairs and the launch of a second Cold War merely to preserve America’s position as the sole military superpower on the planet, but they will never be asked the question in those terms. Instead, they will be warned of emerging “threats” by people like Robert Kaplan, and told that China must be “deterred.” They will not be encouraged to ask: deterred from doing what?

Kaplan is not some fringe loony. He is what passes for a house intellectual among the neo-conservatives who currently dominate American defence and foreign policy, and his ideas are fully shared by them. He recounts with approval how the United States has already “formed a Pacific military alliance of sorts” through bilateral security agreements with “such places as Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines.” Given the older US alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, China is already half-encircled.

Now the emphasis in Washington is on drawing India into an anti-Chinese alliance, too: US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited New Delhi recently bearing bribes in the form of access to next-generation American military technology, and President Bush himself is due there later this year. Fortunately, the Indians seem unconvinced of the need for a confrontation with China.

Kaplan, like most of the people he hangs out with, lives in a fantasy world that runs on the rules of the 18th- and 19th-century great-power game. They understand very little about the realities of the 21st-century world beyond the US borders: Kaplan, for example, talks with perfect seriousness about “an ever expanding European Union (that) becomes a less-than-democratic superstate run in imperious regulatory style by Brussels-based functionaries.” But these people are in charge of US policy now, and there is a significant risk that their fixation on a new Cold War with China could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 10. (“Never mind…policies”; and “Now…China”)