Stephen Cohen’s Analysis of Anaconda/NATO Exercises on Russia’s Borders

040711-N-4308O-066 North Atlantic Ocean (July 12, 2004) - A multinational formation of ships operates in the North Atlantic Ocean as part of Majestic Eagle. Majestic Eagle is a multinational exercise being conducted off the coast of Morocco. The exercise demonstrates the combined force capabilities and quick response times of the participating naval, air, undersea and surface warfare groups. Countries involved in the NATO led exercise include the United Kingdom, Morocco, France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Turkey. Truman's participation in Majestic Eagle is part of her scheduled deployment supporting the Navy's new fleet response plan (FRP) Summer Pulse 2004, the simultaneous deployment of seven carrier strike groups (CSGs), demonstrating the ability of the Navy to provide credible combat across the globe, in five theaters with other U.S., allied, and coalition military forces. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate Airman Ryan O'Connor (RELEASED) For more information go to:


Apologies for so many posts, but this is a period of more tensions between US/NATO and Russia since the Cuban Missile Crisis and we need to pay attention to this issue since Americans seem to be distracted with the presidential election and other items.

Listen to Stephen Cohen’s latest interview with John Batchelor for more on NATO’s military exercises in the Black Sea – the equivalent of China or Russia’s military conducting exercises in the Gulf of Mexico, how the Kremlin perceives these provocative actions, and politics toward Russia of Poland and the Baltic nations.


The Wisdom of JFK’s American University Speech & Why it’s Still Relevant Today


(President Kennedy delivers the commencement address at American University, Monday, June 10, 1963.

Although John Kennedy had shown some liberal and anti-colonialist leanings on certain issues throughout his political career, he began his presidency as a firm believer in the Cold War narrative.   He had even campaigned on the promise of fixing the reported missile gap the U.S. had with the Soviet Union – a gap he found, after taking office, did indeed exist but very much in the U.S.’s favor.

Early in his presidency, Kennedy was flabbergasted to hear the head of his Joint Chiefs of Staff, Curtis LeMay, and other military advisers talk seriously of a first strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union during meetings in which estimated casualties of over 100 million Soviets and tens of millions of Americans in reprisal attacks were cavalierly tossed around.  This no doubt led to Kennedy’s decision to have meetings with his advisers during the Cuban missile crisis secretly tape recorded.  Those tapes were released and transcribed in the 1990’s, offering a window into the demented mindset of those at the highest echelons of power during the most dangerous moment in human history.  Several of those same advisers encouraged the president to escalate.  Fortunately, Kennedy had both the wisdom and the courage to resist such pressure.

Due to secret back channel correspondence that had existed between Khrushchev and Kennedy from 1961, the president had developed somewhat of a rapport with the Soviet premier.  Despite their obvious political differences, they were each aware of the pressures the other faced from hawkish factions in Washington and the Kremlin.  Nevertheless, there were many missteps and errors in judgment that led to the crisis.

Khrushchev interpreted comments made by Kennedy in a March 1962 interview with The Saturday Evening Post as a first strike threat.  This, combined with Washington’s continued actions aimed at overthrowing Soviet ally, Fidel Castro in Cuba, prompted Khrushchev to place nuclear missiles on the Caribbean island.

One of the worst moments of the crisis, when a nuclear war seemed imminent – at one point, Khrushchev ordered Soviet ships to halt just miles away from breaching the US blockade in order to de-escalate the dangerous game of chicken – actually served as a strange but powerful bonding experience for the two leaders in the sense that both men were terrified of their glimpse into the abyss and resolved to negotiate a subsequent end to the Cold War and to ensure disarmament.

This was the backdrop to Kennedy’s speech at American University the following June.  The President wanted to set the world on a path toward peaceful co-existence and believed he could work with Khrushchev toward this end.  However, he was keenly aware of both Khrushchev’s humiliation before the Kremlin hawks who saw the premier’s “retreat” during the crisis as a defeat and those in Washington who would obstruct such a policy.

Meanwhile, a nuclear test ban treaty had stalled due to disagreements over the number of inspections the Soviets would allow, fearing inspections would be used as a cover for espionage.  Kennedy realized he needed to extend an olive branch to the Soviets while also appealing to the American public, which he sensed had drawn the same lessons from the crisis and would be receptive, thereby sidestepping powerful elements who would oppose such a peace initiative.

Kennedy tapped his assistant, Theodore Sorensen, who had been with him since his days in the Senate, to draft the speech while Kennedy reviewed and advised the process.  Only a few select members of Kennedy’s staff were even aware that Kennedy planned a momentous speech as the president had learned by this point not to trust his military advisers, the CIA or the State Department.

What Sorensen and Kennedy created was a speech of great elegance and wisdom.  It has continuing relevance to U.S. foreign policy today, particularly as it relates to Russia.

Several important points were made in the speech:  First, that pursuing peace had not been treated with the same allure and fascination in our culture as war (e.g. guts and glory).

Second, he challenged the notion that pursuing peace was quixotic or too abstract.  He made the point that it could, in fact, be broken down into concrete and manageable steps if the political will was there. Indeed, if practical steps were taken toward peaceful conflict resolution, then such actions would develop a momentum of their own.

Third, he warned against self-righteousness and a superiority complex toward Russia. Furthermore, regardless of differences over politics or government, we should never dehumanize the other, but acknowledge the others’ culture and accomplishments.  This warning would prove to be particularly prophetic after the U.S.’s perceived “victory” in the Cold War and subsequent attitude and policy toward Russia.

Fourth, he recognized that we will never see the end of conflict, but we can have peaceful methods of resolving conflict.

Kennedy let the Kremlin know beforehand of his impending speech. Khrushchev’s response was very positive, allowing the speech to eventually be heard and read uncensored throughout the Soviet Union, which normally spent significant resources jamming all western broadcasts.  Unfortunately, the speech was largely ignored or ridiculed in the U.S.

Watch the speech here:

Or read the transcript here:

Russia Scholar Richard Sakwa Discusses Danger of NATO Exercises on Russia’s Borders; Paul Robinson on What Factors into Russian Foreign Policy

American Embassy in Moscow; photo by Natylie S. Baldwin, 2015
American Embassy in Moscow; photo by Natylie S. Baldwin, 2015

As the Polish-led Anaconda military exercises were underway as part of NATO’s continuing military moves, on the heels of the recent installation of a controversial missile defense shield in Romania, The Real News Network interviewed British Russia scholar Richard Sakwa about the potential for dangerous consequences if the pattern of escalation continues between NATO and Russia.

Sakwa also discusses the unresolved nature of the historical grievances of Poland and the Baltic states in relation to Russia and how this plays into the dangerous (and unnecessary) rhetoric, which is contributing to a re-militarization of Europe, while NATO politics is enabling rather than preventing peaceful resolution.  Lack of dialogue between NATO and Russia, suspended on the part of NATO in 2014, also contributes to a dangerous atmosphere where a small incident could turn into a flashpoint for war.

Listen to the interview here:

Note that this is a 2-part interview and the second part will automatically load after the first part is finished.  Total time is approx. 20 minutes.

Also, Paul Robinson discusses the nuanced interplay of several factors that best explain Russia’s foreign policy.

Read the article here:

Explaining Russian assertiveness



Russia Amends Foreign Agents Law to Exclude Charities & Cultural Organizations


Meeting of Public Council in Krasnodar

(Meeting of Public Council in Krasnodar, Russia; October 2015; photo by Natylie S. Baldwin)

It is my understanding that it is not unusual for Russia to draft a law attempting to address some problem or issue, only to realize once it has been passed that it is problematic or not being implemented.  In cases like this it is often discovered that such a law is viewed by local bureaucrats as so vaguely worded that they don’t bother implementing it.  Or, conversely, it is abused by local bureaucrats.   The Russian government often has to review and amend such laws.

The Moscow Times reported on May 18th that the Russian government has amended the controversial foreign agents law to exclude charities and cultural organizations:

“Charities are no longer to be classified as “foreign agents” if they receive money from abroad, according to a new amendment approved by the Russian State Duma.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in areas such as art and culture will also be exempt from the “foreign agent” label, the Interfax news agency reported Tuesday.”

About a year from now, I intend to follow up with the civil society activists I interviewed in Krasnodar and see how the change in the law is playing out on the ground.

Read the full article here:



“Fail-Safe”: How a Classic Cold War Novel Still Resonates Today



I don’t know what the President is doing, but whatever it is he’d better be right.  Khrushchev isn’t going to sit around forever and watch those planes move in on Moscow.  The whole thing rests on the President’s ability to persuade Khrushchev it was an accident.  If he doesn’t, then we’re going to have all-out, 100 per cent, slam-bang, hell-bent war.  That’s right, isn’t it, General?

-Congressman Raskob, “Fail-Safe,” page 206

For those who are familiar with the story of Fail-Safe due to the 1964 film directed by the legendary Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda in an unforgettable performance as a U.S. president who finds himself in a nuclear crisis with the Soviet Union, the book is much like the film but delves deeper into the central themes as well as some of the main characters’ psyches and background.

The story explores not only the ideological foundation of the Cold War conflict of 1945 – 1989 and its contribution to creating the immediate crisis but also the related political, psychological and technological foundations.  On the political level, the question is implied throughout: why do ideological differences in how to organize one’s society have to mean confrontation that puts all of humanity at risk as opposed to a “live and let live” approach?  As the US president and Soviet premier (openly referred to as Khrushchev) attempt to deal with the crisis, it is clear that a psychological spiral of long-standing mutual distrust and perceived escalations have made the situation worse, creating circumstances that compound the crisis as it is learned that an understandably suspicious Soviet military leadership has already jammed radio communications on the US nuclear bombers that are on their way to attack Moscow as the result of a mistaken “go” order.  The jamming has prevented the US leadership from communicating the error and an abort mission order to the pilots.

This poisoned atmosphere of distrust leads directly to the horrendous decisions made to resolve the crisis later on.

On the technological side, it is brought out that the US nuclear bombers were given the erroneous “go” order to proceed to Moscow on an attack mission as the result of procedures that were supposedly infallible or as close to it as possible – hence, the term “Fail-Safe”.  In the midst of the crisis, one of the foremost engineers of the system who works for a private contractor, is forced to acknowledge that the more complex a system is, the more error-prone it is:

The fact of the matter is that the machines move so fast, are capable of such subtle mistakes, are so intricate, that in a real war situation a man might not have the time to know whether a machine was in error or was not telling the truth. (page 187)

Furthermore, the political and financial climate in Washington disincentivizes acknowledging potential errors and weaknesses in the system:

Those of us who manufacture the gear, who had some notion of what it was being used for – we never told anyone that it was infallible.  But somewhere in Washington they had to say it was perfect, that it couldn’t make a mistake. General, there is no such thing as a perfect system and they should have told you that….Look, for years there has been a fellow named Fred Ikle, who has been working with the Rand Corporation and the Air Force on how to reduce war by accident.  He has found flaw after flaw in the system, at just the same time that the newspapers were saying it was perfect.  Kendrew over in England has talked about accidental war for years – loud and clear.  So have dozens of others.  Most of us, the best of us on the civilian side, we knew that a perfect system is impossible.  The mistake was that no one told the public and Congress. (page 207)

Thus, technology – typically viewed without question as a convenient solution to excess labor or time-consuming tasks – becomes instead a short-cut that ensnares its subjects.

What is remarkable about Fail-Safe isn’t just its thought-provoking look at a topic of profound importance, but its ability to draw the reader in emotionally through complex and compelling characters who must grapple with the concrete decisions – large and small – that will contribute to the ultimate climax as the story unfolds.

The president, in terms of age, temperament and background is clearly modeled on then-president John F. Kennedy.  The reader gets to know the president through his translator, Peter Buck.  Buck, who was discovered years before to have an uncanny talent for picking up the Russian language, along with its nuances and dialects, has been coasting through his job at the White House while going to law school at night as his services were understood only to be needed in the event of a crisis.  Needless to say, it takes several seconds for it to sink into Buck when he gets the call on the special red phone in his drawer and is instructed by the president to meet him at the entrance to the underground bunker beneath the White House ASAP.

Then there is Walter Groteschele, a nihilistic professor who advocates the most hard-line positions imaginable in theoretical discussions of potential nuclear war, including first-strike actions, rattling off figures on what would constitute an acceptable number of deaths (in the millions) from the ensuing conflagration to still be considered a victory:

In one way, the public way, he was a respectable high priest of civic death.  This dialogue he had raised from a secretive conversation to a respectable art.  It was a game at which he was exquisite.  Almost by his own single-mindedness and wit he had introduced to a whole society the idea that a calm and dispassionate and logical discussion of collective death was an entertainment.  By refinements and logical innovation he had made municipal death a form of style and a way of life. (page 125)

The president has allowed Groteschele to be present and offer his opinions at his teleconferences with his national security team during the crisis.

And there is General Warren Black, a reflective warrior tormented by a recurring nightmare of brutality in which the perpetrator’s identity is elusive, who worries about the implications of conflict in the age of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), and is also an old college friend of the president.  He is ultimately (and ironically) tasked with an unimaginable responsibility.

Perhaps the most disturbing difference between 1962 – when Fail-Safe was first published, with the Cuban Missile Crisis fresh on everyone’s mind – and today is that a book like this could be an instant bestseller, with the film version released two years later in competition with Dr. Strangelove.  Unlike Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe makes a serious and unflinching examination of the insanity of confrontation between two nuclear superpowers, with the psychological, ideological and technological factors that can still converge in Armageddon more easily than many care to realize.

Unlike half a century ago, we are now bombarded with a popular culture that often seeks to normalize torture, never-ending warfare and militarization of society, rather than provide a space for thoughtful reflection or questioning of these phenomena in its story-telling.  It is difficult to imagine Hollywood coming out with a film like Fail-Safe today or a show like the original Twilight Zone, tackling similar issues every week in a thoughtful way that didn’t rely on gratuitous sex and violence to titillate and attract viewers.

As for the subject matter of Fail-Safe, in reading it today, one can’t help but feel this all sounds too eerily familiar to today’s renewed tensions between Washington and Moscow and the escalations in Eastern Europe with all they could portend.  Both nations still have a ridiculous number of nuclear weapons, with many on hair-trigger alert and fewer lines of communication open as during the original Cold War.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  Many rejoiced when the Cold War ended and hoped for a more cooperative approach to international relations and a peace dividend at home.  Indeed it sometimes feels as though the fates of the US and Russia are bound together in a strange never-ending dance of fear, fascination, competition and contempt.  Whether that fate is inevitable or is being intentionally driven by ideological madmen, drunk on power and messianic visions, holding the fate of humanity in their hands is a matter I have discussed in other articles.

But, unlike articles, which attempt to marshal facts and logic, story-telling is what tends to move people.  Our need and capacity for story-telling is perhaps one of the most essential aspects of being human.  A film, book or other work of story-telling art for a contemporary mass audience that can convey, like Fail-Safe, on such a visceral level, what is at stake in terms of the continuing dangers of geo-politics in the nuclear age is desperately needed.