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A hedgehog down NATO's trousers

  • 2001-02-22
  • Eric Jansson
February 2001. Spooks from the Pentagon whisper, anonymously, to the Washington Times that Russia has put tactical nuclear weapons into Kaliningrad. If neither the Pentagon's nameless leakers nor their spy satellites are lying, then Russia has broken a 1992 promise to keep the Baltics a "nuclear-free" zone but made good on a post-Kosovo promise, to counter NATO's eastern advance. Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev - conjuring all the credibility of the Russian defense minister - angrily calls the allegations "nonsense."

U.S. officialdom, including its establishment press, keeps mum, because, officially, Russia can move its weapons anywhere it pleases within its own territory without violating formal treaties, and anyway it's poor timing for unplanned conflict, what with debate brewing over Bush's anti-missile shield.

After all, would Russia have a right to complain if the U.S. slipped tactical nukes into Puerto Rico? So Poland's frantic request for inspections gets no support from the NATO allies and the Baltic states are, perhaps, just a bit more hemmed in than before. But all's quiet on the eastern front. Or should we say speechless?

Flashback to April 1962. Nikita Khrushchev sits in an big, velvety office with Malinovsky, the Soviet defense minister. Listening to his military man read out a report on new missile systems, the general secretary is dead bored. Khrushchev is a feisty man; he always thinks he has a better idea, even when the better idea is blatantly naive. He cuts off Malinovsky and blurts it out: "How about putting one of our hedgehogs down the Americans' trousers?"

Soviet missile systems are so far behind U.S. systems, technologically, that our only short-term edge is geographical, Khrushchev says. Cuba looks to the general secretary like an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" off the Floridian coast.

So let's load her up. In the name of Cuban independence, let's load her up! Thus began Operation Anadyr and the Cuban Missile Crisis, according to Dmitri Volkogonov, the three-star Soviet general who turned anti-communist late in the game and wrote Soviet histories based on opened KGB records, before dying in 1995.

I imagine a more recent meeting - perhaps in that same big, velvety Kremlin office - between Vladimir Putin and his faithful Sergeyev.

Sergeyev is reading out some disappointing statistics about Chechnya, or maybe tenderly tiptoeing through an awkward passage about joint U.S.-Russian patrols against militant Albanians.

Or maybe he is covering quite the same ground as Malinovsky: how Russia lags far behind the U.S.A. in research and development despite rising military budgets. Putin, a better listener than Khrushchev and more clever than feisty, draws a conclusion and suggests: "How about putting one of our hedgehogs down NATO's trousers?"

There will be no Kaliningrad missile crisis. Firstly, these ghost weapons are tactical nukes, not missiles. Secondly, as mentioned before, Kaliningrad is Russian territory so this is legal if ill-mannered, and the timing is bad for the new U.S. president.

Also, Europe will be split over the issue, or so Russia would expect, because Germany is politically timid about Russian policies in Kaliningrad. It was Koenigsberg, which was Prussian, which is a fair point, but this is a forbidden, politically-incorrect lever in current diplomacy.

Also, this is bad timing for Europe, which dreads a fresh spat with Russia now.

The European countries in their various ways are gingerly positioning themselves on Bush's "Son of Star Wars" initiative, while trying to court the "mystery man" Putin who is really no mystery man.

Western countries don't want to be distracted by Kaliningrad, which 99.9 percent of their citizens cannot pronounce or locate on a map. Poland's request for inspections, meanwhile, will never be taken seriously, because the new members of NATO cannot possibly dream of shifting the old alliance's policy. Of course, there will be no diplomatic frenzy over the alleged nuclear repositioning, because Russia already had first-strike capability in the region anyway.

But even aside from the question of a little diplomatic frenzy, the primary reason why nobody powerful will lift a finger to seriously pressure Russia on this issue, probably, is that nobody in Washington or Brussels considers Russia an equal anymore.

Far from equal, the elites consider Russia an invalid among nations. Like a handicapped child going one-on-one with Michael Jordan - that's Russia with the West. Jordan gives the handicapped kid a free shot every time, as if the kid cannot possibly score anyway.

He'll avoid slam dunks, pat the kid on the head, and he'll miss on purpose sometimes to make sure the kid doesn't cry. But there is something Jordan doesn't know about the handicapped kid. The kid has no inside game, but a deadly outside shot. Better than deadly. Nuclear.

Putin, if the Pentagon spooks' allegations are true and if the West maintains its silence, has discovered some valuable information, with which he will certainly craft future calculations: Russia's reputation is so sullied, its image as a power so deteriorated, that Russia can recraft its nuclear strategy without much complaint. It can reposition its most deadly weapons without a diplomatic hassle. Putin can add this to his little collection of other lessons.

Western powers do not just stay mostly quiet and inactive regarding Chechnya, a small, dusky region with a diplomatically expendable population.

They do not only look the other way when Russian presidential elections are brazenly stolen, as Putin's may have been according to credible evidence collected by the Moscow Times but downplayed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and ignored by major Western news media. Rules, it seems, are made for equals, not invalids.

And that is how NATO has got a hedgehog down its trousers, but why it doesn't feel the prickles yet. And why when the Baltics states suggest - as they must be doing quietly through diplomatic channels - that something uncomfortable is going on, the West's response will probably be akin to: "Keep your hands out of my shorts, thank you very much." And that will be the first prick.