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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Race to Bait a Sleeping Bear

The Chechen war is increasingly becoming a global political issue. The actual level of fighting since last June has been relatively low -- not counting recent clashes in Gudermes and Pervomaiskoye in December and January. But the inability of the Russian army to contain and subdue the Chechen secessionist rebellion are forcing Western military and political decision-makers to make a drastic and painful reassessment of future global strategic threats.

In the last days of Soviet Communist rule, when stores were barren and lines for food were a mile long, the CIA's earlier Cold War estimates of the Soviet economy as over 60 percent the size of the U.S. economy were proven false. But the military was still considered potentially very strong and capable of offensive action, if the regime in Moscow were to change and aggressive communists or nationalists came to power.

When Russian armored columns began their advance into Chechnya in December 1994 to crush Dzhokhar Dudayev's self-proclaimed independent Ichkeria, all Western observers expected a swift and bloody end. However, the fighting went on with no end in sight. The Great Red Army that was so feared in the West was in reality weak and untrained, its equipment insufficient for modern warfare, its fighting spirit low and swiftly approaching breaking point.

The unsuccessful war in Chechnya against an obviously not very strong opponent with no air support and almost no heavy artillery, proved that the Soviet military threat in the '80s was grossly exaggerated by Western intelligence and military chiefs to ensure excess defense spending and the maintenance of large standing armies. Immense resources were squandered during the Cold War to meet a nonexistent threat. Now the Chechen war has exposed the sham and left the Western military with no perceivable potential enemy left to justify a continued defense build-up, the maintenance of sizable standing armies and the procurement of new weapons.

Last week I was in Sweden where the Russian Army's failed campaigns in Chechnya have put the Swedish armed forces and defense industry on the verge of oblivion.

In 1992 the Swedish parliament passed a five-year defense plan which provided for a numerical reduction of armed forces while simultaneously increasing combat-worthiness, preparedness, and procurement of new armaments, hence a 900 million krona ($128 million) increase in the annual defense budget. The Swedish armed forces were preparing to repulse a "strategic surprise attack" by a reduced but still mighty Russian army against the country's capital, Stockholm, and its environs. It was assumed that Russian paratroopers and marines would suddenly swoop in and capture king, government and parliament before Swedish reservists had time to assemble at their mobilization points.

The Swedish defense plan clearly envisaged a Grachev-style "one airborne regiment to do the job in two hours" offensive. But the battle of Grozny and other Russian military mishaps in Chechnya have rendered such assumptions totally ludicrous. So the Social Democratic government in Stockholm, struggling to narrow the budget deficit, decided recently to cut the defense budget 10 percent over a five-year period.

Swedish armed forces chief General Owe Wiktorin protested publicly. He argued that with inflation and the devaluation of the krona, the defense budget would end up being cut not by 10 percent but by 25 percent, and the Swedish army would disappear as an efficient fighting force. In a few years, Russia might again be a strong power, but Sweden would be defenseless. Still, given the disastrous Chechen war, such warnings do not impress the general public.

The Russian (Soviet) military threat has vanished, but the Western Sovietologists who thrived on Cold War paranoia have not. Now pundits are stressing that Russia is so weak that the West should pursue its defense agenda of expanding NATO's geographical area of security responsibility, and its mandate of "keeping the peace" in Europe, Asia and Africa, despite Russian objections.

Apparently the hope is that this will finally awaken the sleeping bear. The Russian army retreated peacefully from Eastern Europe. It went very reluctantly into Chechnya. But if NATO lines were several miles from St. Petersburg and encircled Kaliningrad, the Russians could still gear up for a new confrontation. Then numerous defense institutions worldwide would be happily back in business: The threat and the enemy would be back in place.

Pavel Felgenhauer is defense and national security editor for Segodnya.