We need a Slow War movement
The U.S. and Russia let lapse a web of treaties, agreements, and understandings that kept the Cold War cool. Time to bring them back.
President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ponder the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962.
On a gray November afternoon 36 years ago I stood on the edge of the Iron Curtain, a no-mans land that slashed across Germany. Behind me, West German woods and pastoral farmland. To the east, the Soviet bloc’s razor-wire fencing, vehicle barriers and trip-wired land mines. Snouts of machine guns protruded from watch towers and East German guards patrolled with machine pistols and attack dogs. Within a few hundred yards, the coiled lead elements of the largest armies ever amassed: two million troops, 37,000 tanks, 6,000 fighter aircraft. Untold ranks of howitzers, armored personnel carriers, antitank weapons and, further back, nuclear warheads readied as aerial bombs, missile nosecones and artillery shells.
This was Observation Point Alpha, manned in the depths of the Cold War by the U.S. Army. From its hillside perch, OP Alpha overlooked the infamous Fulda Gap, a notch in the mountains through which armies over time had invaded and clashed. Across no-mans land, barely visible through a light snow: the grimy East German industrial city of Meiningen and a Soviet motorized rifle regiment.
Where exactly—there? I raised my arm to point and an officer struck it down. “We don’t point!” 1st Lt. Kevin Mercer cautioned me. The tanks of his unit, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, were forbidden to approach within 50 yards of the border, Mercer explained. His men were under strict orders never to point a rifle toward enemy territory, not even a pointed finger. At this flashpoint, the rules were taken seriously.
In a small way, the finger-pointing taboo was part of the reason the Cold War stayed cool. A web of treaties, agreements and understandings, built over time between the two armed blocs, enshrined a shared interest in preventing war, accidental or intentional. Imperfect as these rules were, as occasionally as they were breached, in the most critical way they kept a stable, if tense, peace.
Every one of those measures now has been discarded as relics of a bygone age. As the conflagration in Ukraine threatens to explode across European borders and beyond, the new confrontation between Russia and the West is likely to be more turbulent and more perilous than the Cold War at its worst. For not only are the old rules gone, but social media and the 24-hour news cycle have acted to compress the time decision makers have in a crisis to weigh next steps.
That matters. The Cuban Missile Crisis is often portrayed as 13 scary days in October, 1962, in which President Kennedy suddenly had to decide how to respond to Soviet plans to install nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba without igniting World War III. In fact, U.S. intelligence reported evidence of a massive Soviet military build-up in Cuba early that September. Kennedy explicitly warned the Soviets against further action on Sept. 4 and again Sept. 13. Not until Oct. 22 did the president announce a quarantine of the island against Soviet ships, almost five weeks—34 days—in which to devise and thoughtfully debate various response options.
A five-week response time today seems unimaginable. Thanks to local cellphone videos, Twitter feeds and publicly available satellite images, we know or think we know as much as the White House about a rising crisis. Near real-time intelligence provides fodder for armchair analysts and opposition-party firebrands to pressure the White House to act. The result was evident even five years ago. “Decision space has collapsed,” Gen. Joe Dunford, then chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, noted in Joint Forces Quarterly in 2017. The acceleration of time “makes the global security environment even more unpredictable, dangerous and unforgiving … Today, the ability to recover from early missteps is greatly reduced.”
So too with the loss of crisis-prevention rules in Europe.
“During much of the Cold War, there were mechanisms that enabled the protagonists to calculate risks and use backchannels to prevent crises. Today, many of those systems no longer exist and most of the people trained to use them are no longer here with us,” U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the Munich security conference last month. “So miscommunication and miscalculation can make a minor incident between powers escalate out of control, “ he said, adding that “the threat to global security now is more complex and probably higher” than during the Cold War,
It’s hard to imagine now, but in 1975 the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact, and the United States and other NATO members, together signed a pledge to respect the inviolability of borders, human rights, the right to self-determination and other vague ideals. So much for ideals.
But the parts of the Helsinki Final Act that did work were mechanisms -- so-called “confidence-building measures” (CBMs)—that kept the inevitable friction between the two armed blocs from igniting into fire.
The amassing of troops and armor for large exercises required three weeks’ prior notice to the other members. Military observers were allowed to cross the border to watch. This last was particularly important: it meant that frontline American and allied officers got to know their Soviet bloc counterparts, and vice versa. Small border incidents that might have spiraled out of control thus could be resolved quickly and informally among professionals rather than being kicked upstairs to faraway politicians in Washington and Moscow.
Later treaties limited the size and deployments of American and Soviet nuclear weapons, limited deployments of tanks, artillery, attack helicopters and combat aircraft; allowed inspections of each other’s forces; and set limits on stockpiles of weapons. Under the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, an astonishing 52,000 heavy weapons were destroyed in place. Soviet generals were regular visitors at the Omaha headquarters of the Strategic Air Command and at Marine exercises at Twentynine Palms, California. Inevitable disputes could be aired, even if not resolved, at regular meetings.
But as the Cold War grew distant, and with Russia’s growing assertiveness and NATO’s drift, the CBMs and the habits that went with them withered and died. Squabbling ended the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty in 2011. The Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty finally collapsed three years ago and the wonderfully titled Agreement on the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities is also dead. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which grew out of the Helsinki Final Act, maintains a robust presence in Europe. But it evacuated its team of inspectors from Ukraine a week ago. A Ukrainian member of the OSCE monitoring team, Maryna Fenina, was killed by shellfire March 1 in Kharkiv.
Not long ago I asked the then-U.S. Army commander in Europe if he knew his Russian counterpart, Colonel-General Andrei Kartapolov. “I sat beside him at a conference and filled his water glass,” Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges told me. Hodges handed Kartapolov his business card but didn’t get one in return. They never spoke or saw each other again.
Last month, Gen. Hodges, now retired, called for a renewal of the Cold War’s confidence-building measures. “We should double down on exercise transparency and offer to reestablish the mutual military special observer missions which existed during the Cold War,” he told a congressional subcommittee. “We should utilize the maximum transparency.”
“I actually welcomed when I had inspectors from Russia and Belarus visit our exercises and our barracks in Europe,” Hodges said. “They could see our capabilities and the quality of our soldiers which, I believe, had a deterrent effect.”