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David Shaver: Is the Russian military saber-rattling or preparing for war?

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After the Vietnam War, I served in West Germany in the 1970s and 1980s before the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact dissolved. Back then, there were fearful thoughts about massive Soviet armor and infantry units coming across the border in Central Europe in overwhelming numbers.

On a family trip through East Germany on what was known as the "troop train" from Frankfort to West Berlin over New Years, the train stopped for an inspection by East German forces with Soviet officers overseeing the process. When my wife and I looked out the window, we saw hundreds and hundreds of rail passenger cars as far as we could see, outfitted with two floors and no seats. These were designed to carry a max load of soldiers at the ready for a swift, massive offensive attack. This was somewhat unsettling.

American war planners knew that even with all the weapon systems we had ready in the field and in prepositioned unit sets of equipment in key storage sites for our reinforcing units from stateside, we didn't really have enough to defeat the enemy, but we could stop his progress long enough to take more drastic defensive action. Think tactical nuclear weapons that would have to be employed. No choice. No brainer.

The actual use of tactical nuclear weapons then may have escalated into strategic nuclear war. We and the Soviets knew the strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction would inhibit either side from using the tactical nukes, unless one side was losing and was forced to do so. So now, Russia is trying to put us back into that same Cold War environment where, once again, attack threats against a weak North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally or series of allies by Russia will force a possible nuclear confrontation.

From March 2014 to March 2015, there were 39 well-documented military provocations by Russia's military forces. Since then, the Russians have conducted massive military maneuvers in the Arctic in March (80,000 men and hundreds of combat aircraft); surprise maneuvers in the Black Sea (12,000 soldiers, 250 combat aircraft); military maneuvers all along NATO member-Russian borders; and a 33,000-man exercise in Northern Russia involving the entire Russian Baltic fleet of more than 50 ships.

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This latest "exercise," according to a recent Centre for European Policy Analysis study titled "Baltic Sea Security: The Coming Storm," states the 33,000-man maneuvers were a rehearsal of the invasions of Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark. Two of those countries — Finland and Sweden — aren't even in NATO.

The Russians practiced taking islands similar to those found near these four countries so Russia could control the Baltic Sea shipping lanes and stop reinforcements from aiding the invasions and occupation of the Baltic, NATO countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

In addition to these conventional military maneuvers, David Blair in the Daily Telegraph writes that "the Kremlin is willing to use nuclear weapons. Last year, Russian jets simulated a nuclear attack on Bornholm, Denmark." That is a big difference in the old Cold War's Mutual Assured Destruction strategy. I guess you could say this new Russian military strategy could be called "Nuke First."

With the lack of discipline we have discovered in our nuclear forces, the need for an aggressive modernization program keeping pace with Russia's and the lack of testing to see if our nukes actually work under the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, we are quickly moving into unchartered military waters concerning readiness to defeat all our potential enemies.

It's time to "man-up" and "pony-up" the defense funding required to keep us safe and strong in the face of ever-growing threats.

David Shaver is a retired U.S. Army colonel and former faculty member at the U.S. Army War College.

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