The chief of Russia’s General Staff, the top uniformed officer in the country, is at it again. Makarov is always a good source of bombast, including his ruminations last fall about “full-scale war” including nuclear weapons.
Now, he’s making barely-veiled threats against Finland, noting that any Finnish cooperation with NATO will be viewed as a threat to Russia. According to Defense News, Makarov demonstrated his usual finesse at a meeting in Helsinki:
“Military cooperation between Russia and NATO is progressing well and is beneficial to both parties. In contrast, cooperation between Finland and NATO threatens Russia’s security. Finland should not desire NATO membership, rather it should preferably have closer military cooperation with Russia.”
To translate from the Russian military idiom to plain English: “NATO is our peer, and we have to accept that, but you little Finns better figure out whose neighborhood you live in, capisce?”
Okay, that wasn’t entirely in English. But Makarov’s comments had all the subtlety of a Mob shakedown. Or more to the point, it had the solid ring of a Soviet general who hasn’t gotten past the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, and thinks “Finlandization” still applies to…well, to Finland.
The Finns reacted with equally blunt language, and they were backed by their fellow Nordic neutral, Sweden, who told the Russians, in effect, to mind their own business. But the best line came from Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, who said:
“Gen. Makarov is not the only general who lives in the world of the Cold War, and Russia is not the only country where such generals exist. However, this kind of time-machine speech should no longer come from responsible Russian leaders.”
“Time-machine speech” is a great phrase that captures it perfectly, and I wish I’d written it. (And yes, we have more than a few of those over here on our side, too.) The Finnish Prime Minister, Jyrki Katainen, got in a good shot as well, reminding Makarov that the days of Moscow trying to make Finnish policy are long over:
“Finland will make its own decisions and [do] what is best for Finland. Such decisions will not be left to Russian generals. Our decisions relating to military exercises are a part of the process of our national sovereignty. Our soldiers train where there is reason to do so from a national defense perspective.”
The report in Defense News notes that “Moscow’s initial informal response to Helsinki has been to distance itself from Makarov’s remarks, while adopting the position that the military commander was expressing his personal opinions,” but few Finns doubt that Makarov’s views are shared by a large number of senior government and military officials in Russia. (Of course, I’m just expressing my personal views on that.)
Why did Makarov think it was a good idea to antagonize the Finns and the Swedes needlessly? My guess is that it’s a reflex: unable to think outside of the categories of the Cold War, Makarov cannot possibly imagine the Finns and the Swedes cooperating with NATO and find anything in it but anti-Russian intent.
Of course, by making his comments, he’s actually confirming Finnish fears, and acting every inch the unreconstructed Soviet general. I can’t help but believe, however, that what Makarov thinks we’re all going to fight about probably isn’t clear even to him. In all the years I’ve studied the Soviet Union and then the new Russia, I’ve never been able to get a clear answer from any Russian military officer about how or why World War III starts — probably because there isn’t a scenario that doesn’t require the Russians themselves to start it.
For a long time now, I’ve been arguing that we should simply bypass negotiating with the Russians and start reducing and reorganizing our nuclear and conventional forces according to our own evaluation of our future needs, and not based on what the Russians will allow or match, until they start living in the 21st century. Comments like General Makarov’s are the best evidence that discussion isn’t going to get very far with people who are still living somewhere in 1984, literally and figuratively.