28 June 1914: Uncovering the Sarajevo Assassination

One hundred years ago, the most consequential assassination in modern times occurred. It was the most famous too, since the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo set off a chain of events that led, a month later, to the start of the Great War, a catastrophe that took ten million lives and pretty much destroyed European civilization. The effects of that live on today, in many places: in Iraq, jihadists right now are tearing up the borders of their country that were drawn up by the victors of the Great War, from the corpse of the Ottoman Empire, which suffered its final defeat in 1918.

Despite its infamy, the Sarajevo assassination remains shrouded in some mystery, and that’s what I seek to cut through today. But first, the personal tragedy. It is easy to forget that, behind all the conspiracy and resulting diplomacy and war-making, there is a murdered married couple at the center of this event, gunned down in broad daylight. Three children, aged ten to twelve, were left orphaned. Franz Ferdinand possessed a hard edge with some gruffness, and a bloodlust that was confined to killing animals – he took a staggering 275,000 trophies in his very active hunting career – but he was touchingly devoted to his children and his wife, the former Sophie Chotek, the Duchess of Hohenlohe. As heir to the Habsburg throne, Franz Ferdinand was expected to marry only high nobility, and on matters of protocol his uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph, was a stickler. Inconveniently, the Archduke, who had been heir to the throne since 1889, when Crown Prince Rudolf, Franz Joseph’s troubled son, died in a bizarre murder-suicide pact with his teenaged mistress, fell deeply in love with a “mere” countess. The price of this match, concluded at the altar after several years of secret courtship,  was Sophie’s suffering countless indignities at court – they were forbidden from appearing together at most public events – and their children were not in line for the throne of Austria-Hungary. They died next to each other; Franz Ferdinand’s last words, seeing his wife too had been shot, were: “Sopherl – Don’t die, live for our children.”

They were murdered by a misguided teenager who really was no more interesting or compelling than young spree killers are today. Had Gavrilo Princip been blessed with the Internet, one suspects that he would left us semi-coherent screeds explaining that this was all necessary to validate himself to a cruel world that somehow had failed to misunderstand his cosmic importance. Princip, a Serb, was a maladjusted yet fanatic nineteen year-old from a poor, one-horse town in western Bosnia, which had been a province of Austria-Hungary since 1878. He was radicalized into hatred of the Habsburgs during high school, and he drifted into a circle of radical young Bosnians, mainly but not exclusively Serbs, devoted to overthrowing Austro-Hungarian rule in their country. Their ideology was an amalgam of anarchism and South Slav nationalism, mixed with adolescent angst and anger.

This youthful yet ardent gang was under the influence, and eventually direction, of Serbian military intelligence, whose chief,  Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević, colloquially known as Apis (The Bull), was a violent conspirator with impressive credentials even by high regional standards. He had played a key role in Belgrade’s 1903 palace coup, which saw the king and queen not merely murdered, but butchered with body parts cast onto the street below. Serbia thus earned a reputation as what would latterly be called a “rogue state,” and Apis was at the center of the secret cabal that actually ran things at the top of Serbia’s power structure. The members, mostly army officers, masked many of their activities through a front organization called the Black Hand. Dimitrijević ran extensive agent networks inside Habsburg territory, mainly Serbs – there were more Serbs living in Austria-Hungary in 1914 than actually in Serbia – who were used for espionage, subversion, and sometimes terrorism. Under Apis, Belgrade was waging its own version of Special War in Bosnia, which Serbian nationalists hoped to liberate from Habsburg rule.

To help bring that about, Princip and his motley gang received training and weapons from Apis’s men, including hand grenades and pistols direct from Serbian military stocks, bearing the stamp of the Kragujevac arsenal: there was little effort made to cover tracks. They infiltrated Bosnia in late May, crossing the Drina river with the help of the Serbian military, and made their way to Sarajevo, to assassinate Franz Ferdinand. Their target selection ranks as one of the worst failures of intelligence analysis in all history. Apis and his staff assessed that the Archduke was the head of the “war party” in Vienna that was itching to invade Serbia. The opposite was true. There indeed was such a group and its leader was General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, Austria-Hungary’s top general since 1906, a hothead who had repeatedly counseled war on Serbia (and Italy) as salve for the multinational monarchy’s many ills. Conrad’s main opponent here was Franz Ferdinand, a confirmed reactionary who detested war, which he saw as ruinous of the traditional European order. The heir viewed the Austro-Hungarian Army primarily as a bulwark of domestic stability, while Conrad wanted to make it ready for a general European war.

Austro-Hungarian intelligence was aware of the state of ferment in Bosnia, having arrested several of Apis’s agents in recent years, and knew that terrorism emanating from Belgrade was a possibility, but there was no real “actionable intelligence” to speak of when Franz Ferdinand and his retinue set out for Sarajevo. Besides, the reputation of Habsburg spies was at a low ebb since the exposure in May 1913 of Colonel Alfred Redl, the most promising intelligence officer of his generation on the powerful General Staff in Vienna, as a traitor who had been selling all the secrets he could get his hands on to Russia (and, it turned out, Italy and France too) for years. In such a climate of mistrust, it seems doubtful that warnings from the intelligencers would have made much difference anyway.

Franz Ferdinand went to Sarajevo at the end of June to show off Habsburg power in the restless former Ottoman province, which Vienna had formally annexed only in 1908. The trip was pushed hard by Oskar Potiorek, the top general in Sarajevo and the province’s governor, who had excellent ties at court and expected this high-profile royal visit to boost his career and end his Balkan exile. Vain and restless, Potiorek felt he was robbed when Conrad was made General Staff chief since 1906 – the men had been rivals for decades – and in the embarrassing Redl debacle, Potiorek saw his chance at last to bump his nemesis from the army’s top job and take his place. His aide and factotum, Lieutenant Colonel Erik von Merizzi, played down the need for extra security for the trip, claiming this would be an insult to loyal Bosnians, an astonishing claim given that Potiorek’s predecessor in Sarajevo, General Marijan Varešaninhad nearly been assassinated four years before by a Black Hand assassin. Such blindness seems mostly attributable to the fact that Potiorek and Merizzi, who were inseparable, lived in the Konak, their Sarajevo headquarters, seemingly disconnected from reality – one general compared the isolated governor to the Dalai Lama – and unwilling to listen to contrary views. The Archduke’s visit had to be a success for Potiorek’s career to relaunch, therefore it would be, facts be damned.

Perhaps most seriously, the visit included observing  major military maneuvers by XV Corps outside Sarajevo on June 26-27, followed by a royal visit to the city on June 28. That stopover was chosen by Franz Ferdinand’s military chancery, not by Potiorek’s staff, a fateful choice given that it was St. Vitus Day (Vidovdan), the holiest day in the Serbian nationalist pantheon that celebrated Serbia’s defeat in Kosovo in 1389, though there is no evidence that anyone in Sarajevo pushed back against something that hardline Serbs would inevitably see as a Habsburg provocation.

The actual story of how the assassination unfolded is tragicomic and riddled with so many absurdities that, were it presented as fiction, it would hardly seem plausible. As it was a long weekend, with the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul falling the next day, much of the court as well as many General Staff officers in Vienna had headed to the Alps on holiday. There was no special intelligence effort to support the visit. It made no difference anyway, as due to lax security in Sarajevo the assassins had no trouble getting close to their quarry. Fresh from observing two days of military exercises, the royal entourage set out from the nearby spa town of Ilidža, where they were lodging, and headed into the city. Franz Ferdinand was in good spirits throughout his Bosnian sojourn, and even Conrad found his interactions with the archduke more pleasant than usual during the maneuvers. The General Staff chief had headed to Zagreb the previous evening, to prepare for a staff ride, and was not present for the fateful visit to Sarajevo.

Although there were six would-be killers in position downtown that morning, the first two failed to act when the three-car motorcade drove right past them at no great speed. The third young assassin, Nedeljko Čabrinović, managed to throw a grenade at Franz Ferdinand’s car, but it bounced off and exploded under the following vehicle, wounding twenty bystanders but in no way harming the archduke. Čabrinović equally failed with his suicide attempt, his cyanide pill inducing vomiting rather than death, and his jump into the Miljacka river proved anticlimactic as the stream was only a few inches deep in summer. He was beaten by the crowd and saved by the police, who promptly arrested him; embarrassingly, Čabrinović’s father was a Sarajevo police official.

Leaving the damaged car behind, the convoy sped up to reach City Hall, where the next event was planned. As the two cars drove past them, with Franz Ferdinand in plain sight, the three remaining assassins, including nineteen year-old Gavrilo Princip, failed to react. Yet Čabrinović’s grenade had impact, as among the wounded was Erik von Merizzi, who was riding in the damaged car and had been taken to the hospital with shrapnel injuries. While Potiorek advocated a quick run to the security of the Konak after the archduke’s speech at City Hall, Franz Ferdinand wished to check on the wounded adjutant and, without guidance from Merizzi – who was the action officer for the entourage – the heir to the throne’s driver took a wrong turn on the way to the hospital. Correcting his error, he placed Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, directly in front of Princip, who was despondent about missing his chance to make history. With his quarry suddenly before him, the terrified teenager closed his eyes and fired two shots with his Browning 9 mm pistol: both fatal, one felled Franz Ferdinand while the other killed Sophie. Oskar Potiorek, from the car’s front seat, watched it all, helplessly. Within minutes both victims were dead. Princip was grabbed by police immediately, while five of the six assassins were in custody within hours. It made no difference now.

Conrad, who was on a train when the assassination happened, was informed of the news upon his arrival around 2:00 pm when he reached Zagreb. His assessment was a common one in Habsburg power circles: “the murder in Sarajevo was the last link in a long chain. It was not the deed of an individual fanatic…it was the declaration of war of Serbia against Austria-Hungary.” Conrad accepted that war with a surprising degree of resignation, given the many times as General Staff chief that he had enthusiastically counseled war on Serbia. Only hours after the assassination, he confided his deepest thoughts, as was his custom, in a letter to his mistress. There can be little doubt that Conrad’s judgment had become increasingly clouded by this long-term affair, with a married woman half his age to whom he constantly wrote anguished letters. He was filled with pessimism, seeing Russia, together with Serbia and Romania, attacking Austria-Hungary now: “It will be a hopeless struggle, but it must be pursued, because so ancient a Monarchy and so glorious an Army cannot perish ingloriously,” he wrote to his beloved Gina.

And indeed it would be. The double murder resulted in the famous July Crisis, the end of which would see most of Europe engulfed in the bloodiest conflagration the world had ever seen. By the close of the first week of July, once Vienna had received its “blank check” from Berlin giving Germany’s support for Austria-Hungary’s attack on Serbia, which was sure to drag in Russia too, Europe was going to war. Even the cautious old Emperor Franz Joseph had had enough of the Serbs and was willing to fight, while virtually the whole military and diplomatic leadership of the Dual Monarchy wanted revenge on the “murder boys” in Belgrade. The lone skeptic, Hungarian Prime Minister István Tisza, relented once it was clear they had firm German backing.

However, it was not until July 23 that slow-moving Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia demanding a thorough  investigation of the roots of the assassination. Within two days of its receipt, Serbia rejected the ultimatum, as Vienna had anticipated, and Habsburg generals itching for war desperately hoped. There was never any chance that Belgrade, which understood some of its culpability in the assassination, would agree to all Vienna’s demands, especially the requirement that Habsburg investigators have a free hand to pursue leads in Serbia regarding the assassination plot.

Indeed, the question of who exactly stood behind the plot remains somewhat murky a century later. Little new has emerged in recent decades to flesh out the background to the Sarajevo assassination, mostly because relevant paperwork on the Serbian side, if it ever existed, was long ago destroyed. What is not in doubt is that Apis and his staffers were the drivers of the plot, making the assassination an unambiguous case of state-sponsored terrorism. Myths about alleged specific warnings given by Belgrade to Vienna, yet misplaced, have been debunked long ago, but significant questions remain about major aspects of the conspiracy.

While it has long been apparent that senior members of Serbia’s civilian government had foreknowledge of the plot, and the matter was discussed in some fashion en cabinet before Franz Ferdinand set out for Sarajevo, details are sparse, though it is evident that Prime Minister Nikola Pašić and Stojan Protić, his interior minister, were aware of Apis’s machinations by mid-June, yet they demurred from taking on the fierce colonel, who after all had overseen the brutal murder of Serbia’s king and queen a decade before. Civil-military relations in Serbia were marked by strong fears of mad colonels, and not wanting to know.

Less defined and more sensational still is the matter of Russian involvement. While none have questioned that Apis had a close relationship with Colonel Viktor Artamonov, the Russian military attaché in Belgrade, accessible records do not explain what role, if any, Artamonov had in the plot. To make matters murkier still, just before his execution by his own government at Salonika in June 1917, after being accused of involvement in yet another plot, this time against his own leaders, Dimitrijević boasted in writing of his role behind the Sarajevo plot and admitted that Artamonov funded the terrorist operation, something that Yugoslavia’s Communists revealed in 1953 to discredit the royal regime that preceded them in power in Belgrade. As Artamonov died in exile in 1942 without fully explaining his role in the assassination, the matter is likely to remain unresolved in perpetuity, especially the tantalizing question of whether Artamonov’s support to the plot was his own initiative or something undertaken by direction from St. Petersburg.

Given that Russian radio intelligence was able to read Austro-Hungarian diplomatic ciphers before the war, it seems likely that St. Petersburg was aware of what Vienna’s probable reaction to the assassination would be and, as Sean McMeekin has recently observed, the Russians subsequently acted as if they have something to hide: “gaps in the record strongly suggest a good deal of purging took place after 1914,” to cover whatever tracks Artamonov left behind. The attaché conveniently managed to be out of Belgrade on the day of the assassination, yet it was well known in Serbian military circles that, in the weeks before the assassination, he and Apis saw each other almost daily. A Serbian colonel who was close to Apis conceded that Artamonov had encouraged the plot: “Just go ahead! If you are attacked you will not stand alone!” While the colonel later retracted his statement, it seems very likely that St. Petersburg knew more about the plot that it later proved politic to admit.

Given the sometimes discombobulated nature of the Imperial Russian system, with their penchant for obfuscation and provocation even inside their own government, it cannot be ruled out that spies and generals took it upon themselves to help their “brother Serbs” with financing the assassination plot without authorization from “the top.” Given the lack of evidence, there is room for speculation, but there is no serious doubt that Apis was behind the conspiracy and the Russians funded it. A century later, however, there is no reason to think the complete story will ever emerge.

Remembering the murders and their consequences remains freighted with historical baggage down to the present day. Gavrilo Princip died of tuberculosis in a Habsburg jail in Bohemia in April 1918. He did not get the death penalty, despite his obvious guilt, since “oppressive” Austria-Hungary that he so hated would not execute a teenager, the assassin having been a month shy of his twentieth birthday when he killed Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. The Habsburg Empire, whose destruction he sought, would outlive Princip by only half a year.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie lie buried together at Schloss Artstetten, about an hour west of Vienna, not with the rest of the Habsburgs in Vienna’s famous Capuchin Crypt. In Austria, they are remembered as the first victims of the Great War, while Vienna’s grand Military History Museum has a room devoted to the assassination, including the royal limousine (complete with bullet hole), Princip’s pistol, Franz Ferdinand’s torn and blood-stained tunic, plus the couch where he was pronounced dead (which Potiorek, whose reputation never recovered from the events of June 28, 1914, strangely kept as a prized possession until his own death in 1931).

In his native land, the memory of their murderer is deeply conflicted. There is no shared history of this event, nor practically any others in Bosnia’s recent past. To Bosnia’s Muslims and Croats, Princip is simply a terrorist who heralded war, chaos, and decades of Serbian hegemony. Yugoslav Communists long lauded him as a revolutionary icon, and the place where Princip stood as he fired the fatal shots was commemorated with two bronze footprints. In 1992, when Bosnia was again plunged into war, locals tore them out of the concrete. Today, there is a small museum located where the cafe was where Princip was waiting, despondently, until his moment appeared.

For many Serbs, however, the assassin remains a hero who sacrificed for Serbdom. His defenders cite regicide as legitimate; on the killing of Sophie they have less to say. “Gavrilo Princip’s shot was a shot for freedom,” explained a top Bosnian Serb politician for the unveiling of a statue of the killer, just in time for the hundredth anniversary. While poor and decrepit Bosnia has more serious problems than this one, the hailing of Princip as an icon cannot be regarded as a sign of political health in that sad country, which has been deeply troubled, to one degree or another, for a century now.

[This article is derived from my forthcoming book The Fall of the Double Eagle, which has full source citations. Read it if you want the full sordid story of how the Sarajevo assassinations led to World War — and Austria-Hungary’s demise.]

Why Germany Refuses to Play a Bigger Role in NATO

One of the stranger aspects of the slow-motion crisis over Ukraine caused by Russian provocations and aggression is the uneven response from NATO members. While Alliance states located closer to Russia, which experienced Moscow’s occupation during the Cold War, generally have taken the threat of aggressive Kremlin moves seriously – Poland and Estonia especially – the reaction of some NATO members has been lackluster. In particular, responses in Germany to the Ukraine crisis have been tepid, to use charitable language, and excessive sympathy for Moscow’s actions and attitudes is so commonplace that Germans have a word – Russlandversteher – for it.

Why Germany displays such misplaced sympathy for Russia, despite Kremlin misconduct in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, is a complex issue that is rooted deeply in German history, and cannot be divorced from the broader tendency to anti-Americanism that has become vocal in recent years. That said, Germany’s unwillingness to do much to deter Russian aggression may not matter significantly since, frankly, the German military is in such a dilapidated and unready state that there is little it could do at present to bolster NATO defenses in Eastern Europe, as I’ve advocated, even if Berlin wanted to. The sorry state of the Bundeswehr is now attracting the attention of American observers who ordinarily pay scant attention to such things, but in truth, Germany’s serious punching below its weight in the Atlantic Alliance in any military terms is hardly news, and has been NATO’s dirty little secret for years.

It is a shocking fact that the European Union’s economic and political powerhouse matters so little in defense. While the Bundeswehr is the fourth-largest military in the EU, with about 180,000 active duty personnel, that is smaller than the militaries of France, Italy, and Britain, all of which Germany dwarfs in both economy and population. Despite the strength of that economy, Germany spends only 1.35 percent of its GDP on defense, far below NATOs alleged requirement for two percent devoted to the military. As a result, the Bundeswehr is facing serious problems with outmoded equipment and low readiness.

Not to mention that young Germans don’t want to join the forces. Germany maintained the draft until 2011, but optimistic projections about recruitment after the suspension of conscription have not been met, resulting in a building manpower crisis. Under Ursula von der Leyen, the country’s first female defense minister, the Bundeswehr is embarking on a glossy five-year, 100 million Euro ad blitz, termed an “attractiveness offensive,” to encourage volunteers. But the ridiculous commercials, which portray life in uniform as a hipster paradise of cool dorms with flat screen TVs plus outstanding gender-neutral child care – anything resembling the actual military is notably absent – have been met with derision and laughter, and rightly so.

The two-decade decline of the Bundeswehr as a serious fighting force is remarkable and alarming. At the Cold War’s end, little more than twenty years ago, the German Army’s active strength included twelve divisions with thirty-six maneuver brigades, while today it possesses three divisional headquarters controlling eight maneuver brigades (one of which is half-French), most of which are not capable of deploying as fighting units. In the whole army there are only four battalions each of tanks and field artillery. This is not a force the Russians need to lose sleep over.

Moreover, the Bundeswehr‘s transition from its Cold War posture of armor-heavy divisions, manned by conscripts, intended to resist a Soviet invasion of the homeland, to its current emphasis on many fewer units manned by professionals and designed for foreign intervention, has been less than successful. The only major deployment overseas, maintaining a brigade-sized continent in Afghanistan’s north until late 2013, illustrated as many weaknesses as strengths. That was a relatively quiet sector, and it was an open secret in NATO that German troops weren’t exactly itching for battle, as evidenced by the fact that although over 100,000 Germans rotated through Afghanistan over a decade, only fifty-four Bundeswehr members were killed. U.S. and other NATO troops fretted about Germany’s highly restrictive rules of engagement, engineered by Berlin to keep casualties down in a war that the German public soured on fast. Additionally, there were embarrassing reports about combat unreadiness among the German contingent, as well as low morale, while later efforts to present that Afghan experience as a positive watershed for Germany’s civil-military relations seem optimistic and premature.

In a way that few outsiders fully grasp, the Bundeswehr is a deeply unwarlike fighting force. The Cold War emphasis on homeland defense, with a corresponding peacetime mentality, has not been overcome. What to make of an army whose motto is “To protect, help, moderate, and fight” – in that order? When German soldiers serving in Afghanistan performed deeds deserving a valor decoration, there was embarrassment in Berlin, as the Bundeswehr had none. Suggestions that the famous Iron Cross be resurrected were met with howls of indignation from a coalition of anti-militarists, leftists, and Jewish groups, notwithstanding the fact that the iconic medal was created not by Adolf Hitler, rather by Prussian patriots in 1813 during the war of liberation against Napoleon. The pronounced German tendency to self-flagellation won out and any talk of the Iron Cross died out amidst controversy. Such navel-gazing has led to exasperation with Berlin in many NATO countries, causing a rare public calling-out by Radek Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, in late 2011, who stated that Germany’s size and history bring a “special responsibility to preserve peace and democracy on the continent.” Sikorski memorably explained, “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.” Europe reached the ironic point where Warsaw demanded a more active, indeed slightly aggressive Germany.

It did no good. The German public remains as opposed to increased military spending and activity as ever, the crisis in Ukraine having generated too little seriousness about security matters in Berlin. The Germans remain prosperous, nervous, and gun-shy, which given their recent history is unsurprising. Although many NATO countries are deeply upset by this German passivity, and top U.S. officials are now publicly asking Berlin to bear its fair share of the Alliance’s defense burdens, there is little reason to be optimistic that anything substantial will change soon. Germany is a democracy, and the Germans don’t want a bigger or more active military, especially one that might be used in any American-led wars. This viewpoint leads to exasperation at the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom, but the salient fact here is that Germans are acting exactly how we wanted them to for decades.

Yes, we did this. After 1945, the Western Allies, especially the United States, demanded a tamed West Germany, so we went to considerable lengths to ensure that the Federal Republic was democratic, legalistic, and particularly pacifistic. When the Bundeswehr was established in 1955, to help counter the Soviet threat, it was born amidst NATO fears of reborn German militarism, so it was saddled with an ideology that valued the “citizen in uniform” concept above all, and emphasized the doctrine of Innere Führung (roughly “moral leadership”), to ensure no Hitler could misuse the German military again. By any standards, this succeeded better than anyone anticipated, with the result that the Bundeswehr is politically neutral, acting like civilian functionaries who watch the clock, and uninterested in war, while most Germans have little interest in the Bundeswehr.

Just as important, Western Allied efforts to pathologize all of German military history before 1955 worked exceedingly well. Unlike any other military on earth, the Bundeswehr has no history, rejecting of course not just the Wehrmacht but explicitly having no connection even to pre-Hitler military traditions. As anyone who has ever served in uniform knows, traditions and lineages matter to the troops, being vital to instilling morale and pride, and Germany’s novel experiment in having none of that has not worked out happily. American-implanted pathologies about all aspects of the country’s military past have led to many Germans taking perverse pleasure in pointing out how awful some of that history is. Things have now reached the point that the German Left continues to pressure the military to sever lineage even from heroes who were known to be reliably anti-Nazi. Given this terrible past, why would any decent person want to join the Bundeswehr anyway?

It is a strange fact that Communist East Germany (DDR) was far more comfortable with the country’s military traditions. While the DDR was solidly anti-Nazi, it embraced allegedly “progressive” aspects of Germany’s past, and its military, the National People Army (NVA), took on many Prussian military traditions with gusto, including impressive goose-stepping parades that would have pleased Scharnhorst with their spit, polish and discipline. NVA dress outfits were hardly more than Wehrmacht uniforms with the swastikas removed. (Thus leading to the Cold War joke that the Bundeswehr changed the Wehrmacht‘s uniforms but kept its generals, while the NVA did the opposite.) Even today, it’s not difficult to find NVA veterans who speak proudly of having served in a “real” German army, unlike the soft and Americanized Bundeswehr, which absorbed none of the NVA’s spirit when it disappeared with East Germany in 1990.

Germany’s present unwillingness to do more to defend NATO’s East against Russian aggression is deeply frustrating but represents the logical outcome of many decades of policy and propaganda forced on the Germans by the Western Allies, America particularly. Widespread anti-Americanism in Germany today cannot be ignored either. In recent years, this has become an inescapable fact of life among many Germans, and alarmingly, Left and Right versions of anti-Americanism have functionally fused into a common narrative that presents the United States as a lawless and warlike failed civilization, awash in crime, debt, and losing wars of choice. Revelations of U.S. espionage leaked by Edward Snowden have hardly helped America’s image in Germany, but the problems go a good deal deeper. German frustration with the presidency of George W. Bush grew serious, between Middle East invasions, extraordinary renditions, Guantanamo Bay detention, and killer drones, but things have not improved under Barack Obama.

I have family and many friends in Germany, and I hear it all non-stop. The loathing of Obama by many Germans is sincere, marked and important. While they anticipated that Bush, a posturing American cowboy from the central casting of the European imagination, would act with violent irresponsibility, they expected better from Obama. After all, Barack Obama told them he would be different, right there in Berlin, even before he was elected president. Yet, now well into Obama’s second administration, not all that much has changed in terms of U.S. policies, and Germans are unhappy with America and particularly with its president, whom most Germans frankly see as an untrustworthy deceiver.

It is imperative for European security that Germany rise out of its long-term funk about its place in NATO and the world. Nothing would improve the Alliance more than Germany becoming more like Poland: serious about its military, funding it at a respectable level, while understanding the importance of deterrence in preventing aggression and war. Unfortunately, that necessary change is unlikely to happen soon, as Germany remains mired in navel-gazing – Nabelschau being a most Teutonic word – and not a little self-pity about its role as the engine of EU prosperity and stability, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis (which, Germans will happily tell you, was really all America’s fault anyway). The Western Allies, America especially, functionally created the modern German state and identity for the Germans, and now they must help Germany refocus to meet the needs of the 21st century. Germans have been engaged in a non-stop apology tour for almost seventy years regarding the country’s mistakes and misdeeds. It may be time for the United States to do some apologizing to Germany, it might have the transformative political effect that NATO needs right now.

[As always, the comments here are the author’s alone and not reflective of any of his employers, past or present.]

More Evidence Russian Intelligence is Waging Special War Against Ukraine

For months it has been obvious to those who wish to see that Russian intelligence stands behind the campaign of espionage, terrorism, propaganda, and covert action (including raising and arming rebel militias), which I have termed Special War, that is being waged by Vladimir Putin against Ukraine. I’ve written about this murky matter several times. After the recent election of Petro Poroshenko as Ukraine’s president, the Kremlin’s efforts to terrorize and coerce its neighbor have only increased, and evidence of Russian intelligence involvement has mounted by the day.

Recently, U.S. officials have confirmed widespread rumors that the shadowy paramilitary boss Igor Girkin (AKA Strelkov), who has been a major figure in the campaign to destabilize Ukraine and serves as the defense minister of the self-proclaimed (and Moscow-backed) “Donetsk People’s Republic” in southeast Ukraine, is actually a Russian military intelligence (GRU) colonel. GRU special operators have been deeply involved in the seizure of Crimea and continuing efforts to terrorize and destabilize eastern Ukraine.

Today, in an interview with the Kyiv newspaper Den, Valentyn Nalyvaychenko, the director of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU), elaborated just how large a role Russian intelligence, particularly the powerful Federal Security Service (FSB), is playing in Putin’s effort to destabilize and intimidate Kyiv into submission. Nalyvaychenko explained that the FSB stands behind Russia’s entire anti-Ukraine campaign, choosing the Kremlin’s strategy and operations, and the SBU has detained several Russian intelligence operatives in eastern Ukraine recently, including over ninety “terrorists and saboteurs,” among them thirteen Russian nationals – “mercenaries and professional intelligence officers, agents.” He said that the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s on-going Special War operations in eastern Ukraine were planned long before this spring, with the full collaboration of Ukraine’s previous government.

Although it has been widely known that, during the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, the SBU was deeply penetrated by the FSB, with Russian officers actually holding positions inside Ukrainian intelligence, Nalyvaychenko stated that even he did not realize how bad the situation was until recently. There is a major hunt afoot now for pro-Kremlin agents inside the SBU since, the director explained, “from December 2013 until the end of February 2014, three groups of high-ranking FSB officers worked in the SBU. During these months, all modern arms, files, archives, everything that forms a basis for a professional intelligence service, were transferred to Simferopol” in Crimea. 

The SBU has severed all ties with Russian intelligence – under Yanukovych, Ukraine’s spies functioned as an extension of the FSB – but it will be some time before this massive penetration is undone; it is no longer mysterious why so many recent Ukrainian military operations to root out separatists in the Donetsk area have fallen short of expectations, since the pro-Russian paramilitaries know they are coming. The first task at hand must be detecting and neutralizing Russian spies and provocateurs inside Ukraine’s defense and security system, and that is now underway, though it will take years to get this problem under control, given the daunting extent of Kremlin penetration.

Kyiv, finally, is also fighting back on the propaganda front, where the Russians have been highly active, and today 5 Kanal TV (which is owned by Poroshenko) showed a video, provided by the SBU, of an interview with a “terrorist” recently captured near Slovyansk. Though his face was obscured, the prisoner, said to be named Mykola Viktorovych, explained that he was recruited by the FSB to fight as a mercenary for the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” After training, he was paid an advance of 200,000 rubles (about USD 5,000), and he said the volunteers were promised bonuses of USD 300 for every Ukrainian soldier they killed and USD 1,000 for each officer. He was then given a train ticket to Luhansk and sent to war. As he stated:

I was told that there were a lot of our Russian guys here, who had been sent here earlier. They told me not to be scared. But I do not believe in this war. I condemn the Putin regime for starting this war between our peoples. Please forgive me if you can.

This story is far from over, but it is encouraging that Kyiv at last is fighting back against the FSB and Putin’s Special War. If Ukraine expects to survive, there is no choice.

Exploring Al-Qa’ida’s Russian Connection

[Note: This is an unusually controversial piece, even for my blog, for reasons that will quickly become obvious. Linkages between Al-Qa’ida and Russian intelligence have been discussed in hushed tones among spies in many countries, for years, and this matter has been a “hobby file” of mine for some time. Here is a think-piece on it, in the hope of spurring additional discussion and research into this important yet murky matter. This is particularly necessary given rising tensions between Moscow and the West at present. Considering the subject, I have eschewed my usual hyperlinks in favor of proper end-notes.]

There are two histories: The official history, mendacious, which is given to us; and the secret history, where you find the real causes of events, a shameful history.”

– Honoré de Balzac

The history of al-Qa’ida has been extensively documented in many languages. Since the 9/11 attacks on the United States, massive research has been devoted to uncovering the origins of the global jihad movement, its strategies, concepts of operations, and ultimate aspirations.[1] Such works have been assisted by the willingness of al-Qa’ida to talk openly about some parts of its narrative. While many aspects of al-Qa’ida’s almost thirty-year history have been examined in impressive detail, other parts of the story remain shrouded in mystery. In some cases, gaps are caused by a lack of information available to analysts and researchers. However, other underreported stories in the development of the global jihad movement remain untold, or unexplained, by apparent design.

No greater example exists of this “blank page” in the al-Qa’ida story than its connections to foreign intelligence services. While it is generally known that bin Laden’s legionaries have fostered ties, at times, with secret services as varied as the Saudi, Pakistani, Sudanese, Iranian, Iraqi, and Bosnian, few details have emerged, thanks to the desire on all sides to keep the saga out of the media spotlight.[2] The murkiest of these relations, however, has been the connection between al-Qa’ida and Russian intelligence. While the outlines of the story have been known for years, and even admitted by Moscow and the mujahidin, details remain elusive. Moreover, asking important questions about this relationship seems to be an issue few appear interested in probing deeply, even in the United States.

That Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s right-hand man and the leader of the global jihad movement since bin Laden’s death in May 2011, spent almost a half-year in the mid-1990s in the custody of Russian intelligence is admitted by both sides and is a matter of public record.[3] Just as significant, Zawahiri’s Russian sojourn occurred at a pivotal point in the development of al-Qa’ida; the shift in strategy, resulting in attacks on the “far enemy” (i.e. the United States), the road leading to 9/11, occurred after Zawahiri’s imprisonment by the Russians.

The outline of the story is clear.[4] At about 4 am on December 1, 1996, Zawahiri was detained in southern Russia while attempting to enter Chechnya, the breakaway province of Moscow recently roiled by war. Accompanying the doctor in the van were two other radicals from Egypt and a Chechen guide. The Egyptians, wanted men in their home country and several others, were traveling under aliases; Zawahiri was “Abdullah Imam Mohammed Amin,” according to the Sudanese passport he carried, which had stamps from many countries – among them Yemen, Malaysia, Singapore – he had visited in the 20 months before his arrest.

Zawahiri’s two Egyptian companions were veteran mujahidin from Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), the group Zawahiri had been associated with for years and had headed since 1993. Ahmad Salama Mabruk ran EIJ’s activities in Azerbaijan under the cover of a trading firm called Bavari-C, while Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi had extensive experience on jihad in parts of Asia.

The three Arabs were extensively interrogated by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), which noted the inmates’ religious fervor, and the surprising support they received from Islamic organizations around the Muslim world. Twenty-six imams signed an appeal for the release of the three “businessmen”; others denounced Russian authorities of doing “the devil’s work” by detaining the hard-praying Muslims.

The FSB had ample reason to doubt the Arabs’ cover story. Among the items confiscated from the trio included details about bank accounts in Hong Kong, mainland China, Malaysia, and the U.S. (specifically St. Louis), plus substantial cash in seven currencies. Their laptop computer was seized and subjected to forensic analysis by the FSB. “Mr. Amin,” whose Sudanese passport depicted a Western-dressed middle-aged man with a very short beard, arrived in Russia possessing two forged graduation certificates from Cairo University’s medical faculty, with differing dates. FSB investigation of Bavari-C, the EIJ front company in Baku, quickly determined that no such firm existed in Azerbaijan.

Radical Muslims in Russia, including one member of the Duma, pleaded for their release, explaining that the Arabs had come to Russia to “study the market for food trade.” Various activists from across the region likewise wrote letters on the men’s behalf, claiming they embodied “honesty and decency”; the advocates included leading Arab mujahidin, among them Tharwat Salah Shehata, later head of EIJ. When Shehata got permission to visit “Mr. Amin” in his prison cell, he was given an encrypted letter by the inmate; after the visit, the FSB claimed to have found $3,000 in the cell occupied by the Arabs.

When the case finally went to court in April 1997, “Mr. Amin” prayed hard and lied effectively, claiming that he had entered Russia “to find out the price for leather, medicine, and other goods.” Rejecting the prosecution’s request for a three-year sentence, the judge gave them six months each; almost immediately they were released, time served. The FSB returned the men their possessions, including the cash, communications gear, and the laptop. After their release, Zawahiri spent ten days clandestinely meeting with Islamists in Dagestan, which presumably had been the original purpose of his trip to the region. Shortly thereafter, he headed for Afghanistan to establish his fateful alliance with bin Laden, which was cemented in the mid-February 1998 announcement of a new partnership between the men and their organizations in a Global Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders. Thus was al-Qa’ida officially born and the path to 9/11 was established.

Zawahiri has been tight-lipped about his half-year in Russia; his numerous writings and pronouncements about his life barely mention the tale. “God blinded them to our identities,” he explained. The FSB agrees that they failed to identify the leading holy warrior. “In 1997, Russian special services were not aware of al-Zawahiri,” elaborated an FSB spokesman in 2003: “However, later, using various databases, we managed to identify this former detainee.”[5]

There are many reasons to doubt the official story told by both sides in the affair. In the first place, Zawahiri was one of the world’s most wanted terrorists in 1996, having played a leading role in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981; the doctor’s role in the subsequent public trial was televised in many countries. He was hardly a secret mujahid. Furthermore, it is difficult to believe that a security service as proficient and thorough as the FSB did not have its interest piqued by the appearance of three Arab mystery men, bearing multiple identities and cash, in the middle of a warzone. It is equally difficult to accept that the FSB was unable to uncover the mysteries contained in Zawahiri’s laptop – as the Americans would do after many such laptops belonging to al-Qa’ida leadership were captured in Afghanistan after 9/11 – had the Russians really wanted to. Last, it can be assumed that the FSB would have tortured the Arabs to obtain information, had that been deemed necessary; and Zawahiri’s breaking by the Egyptian security service through torture in the 1980s is a matter of public record, and a subject of some remorse by the al-Qa’ida leader.

What, then, is to be made of Dr. Zawahiri’s Russian sojourn? Few have bothered to ask the question in any detail.[6] While some conspiracy theorists have touched the issue, they have shed little light on the real story.[7] While the idea that Russian intelligence may have developed a relationship with Zawahiri sounds fantastic to most in the West, the notion is far from implausible, and is consistent with known Soviet/Russian espionage practices. During the Cold War, the KGB had robust ties with many terrorist groups, including several from the Middle East. Its links to the PLO, including arms and training for cadres, were substantial for decades, while Palestinian groups like PFLP-GC were, in effect, wholly owned subsidiaries of the KGB. It would be naïve to think such ties evaporated with the Soviet Union.

Moreover, anyone acquainted with the Russian practice of provokatsiya (provocation) as Moscow’s preferred counterterrorism technique, finds the idea of a Russian relationship with al-Qa’ida to be entirely plausible. Indeed, such is the easiest explanation for Zawahiri’s six months in Russian custody and sudden release back to wage jihad.

Hard evidence about what Zawahiri was doing in Russian custody has not been forthcoming. Dissident FSB Colonel Aleksandr Litvinenko made explosive claims. In a 2005 interview, Litvinenko asserted that Zawahiri actually underwent training by the FSB in Dagestan during his half-year in Russian custody, and that Russian intelligence then dispatched him to Afghanistan to become bin Laden’s right-hand man. “I worked in the same division [of the FSB],” he stated, “I have grounds to assert that al-Zawahiri is not the only link between the FSB and al-Qa’ida.”[8]

Litvinenko’s assertions are impossible to substantiate, though his assassination in London a little over a year after giving that interview, apparently at the hands of Russian intelligence, gives the claims perhaps more believability than they might otherwise warrant.[9] Just as important, it is known that Russian intelligence had ties to Islamist extremists in Chechnya long before Zawahiri entered the region. From the early 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian intelligence formed discreet ties with radical Islamists in the Caucasus, including men who would later become leading mujahidin.

In perhaps the best example, Shamil Basayev, the long-serving emir of the mujahidin in Chechnya, was an agent of Russian military intelligence (GRU) in the 1990s. In 1992-93, he and his brother Shirvani fought in Abkhazia against Georgian forces, leading fighters as surrogates for Moscow’s policies in the breakaway region.[10] Although Basayev was for many years Russia’s most wanted man and alleged to be behind dozens of terrorist attacks on Russian soil, his collaboration with Russian intelligence has long been something of an open secret. Not long before Basayev’s death in July 2006, apparently at the hands of the FSB, a GRU officer cryptically noted to the media, “We know everything about him.”[11]

Secular elements of the Chechen independence movement have long alleged collaboration between Moscow and the mujahidin, with the aim of discrediting the nationalist cause by tarring it with extremism and terrorism. Moderate imams in Chechnya have been reluctant to have ties to more radical Muslims, fearing them to be Russian agents provocateurs.[12] Collusion between radical Islamists and Russian special services in the Caucasus would be fully consistent with traditional Soviet/Russian counterterrorism techniques; it also adds a very different dimension to understanding the Chechen wars of the last fifteen years, and their links to the global jihad.

The mujahidin-led invasion of Dagestan in August 1999 in brigade strength that helped trigger the Second Chechen War was led by Shamil Basayev. Moscow publicly blamed “Al-Qa’ida-Wahhabite aggression” for that event, using it as justification to restart the war on terms more favorable to Moscow. But what, then, is to be made of Basayev, who has been memorably described as “a GRU staff member with a great deal of work experience?”[13] The other direct cause of the Second Chechen War, the bloody apartment bombings around Moscow in August 1999 that killed over 300 civilians, likewise remain shrouded in mystery. Basayev was blamed for those atrocities, too, but what really happened continues to be hotly controversial. The case for some FSB involvement in the bombings, always strong, has grown stronger over the past decade, yet remains a highly taboo topic in Russia.[14]

What, then, can we conclude about al-Qa’ida’s murky Russian connection? Unsurprisingly, Dr. Zawahiri has had little to say about his half-year adventure with the FSB. He has often criticized Russia and its policies, sometimes in vehement terms. Yet he speaks of Iran with equal venom, and al-Qa’ida’s discreet yet detectable relationship with Iranian intelligence goes back to at least 1996, and apparently continues to the present day.

His two Egyptian cellmates aren’t available to add details. Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi stayed in the Caucasus, was convicted in Egypt in 1998 on terrorism charges in absentia, receiving a ten year sentence, and was reportedly killed in action in Chechnya in 2005.[15] Ahmad Salama Mabruk was arrested in Azerbaijan in 1998 on terrorism charges, and was extradited to Egypt, where he was convicted on numerous charges and sent to prison.[16] The FSB, to no one’s surprise, has said nothing publicly about this case except for a brief press release in 2003.

It is fanciful to suggest that any formal alliance exists between Moscow and al-Qa’ida; bin Laden’s mujahidin have worked with several foreign security agencies in the service of the jihad, but have never been willing to put themselves fully at the disposal of any of them.[17] Nevertheless, it seems justified, based on the available evidence, to suggest that Dr. Zawahiri reached a quid pro quo with Moscow while he was in FSB custody. That he underwent FSB training appears plausible; that there may be some kind of relationship even today between Russia and al-Qa’ida exists within the realm of possibility. Russia, with its large, growing, and potentially restless Muslim minority, would have ample motivation to reach terms with al-Qa’ida, in the hope of stemming radicalism.

Might Moscow have suggested that it would look the other way about al-Qa’ida’s activities in Chechnya as long as bin Laden and Zawahiri left Russia alone otherwise? It surely appears significant that Zawahiri led bin Laden down the path of global jihad, and direct confrontation with the United States, after emerging from his half-year as a guest of the FSB. As President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly made clear, a unipolar, American-led global system is not in Russia’s interests. To this day, Russia has endured many attacks by Chechen militants, but no confirmed acts of terrorism perpetrated by al-Qa’ida Central. This vexing issue continues to offer more questions than answers, and needs additional research, particularly considering the state of relations between Moscow and the West.


[1] For a detailed example based on research of what al-Qa’ida thinks about these issues, see this author’s The Terrorist Perspectives Project: Strategic and Operational Views of al-Qa’ida (U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2008), co-authored with Mark Stout and Jessica Huckabey.

[2] The most information is available about the robust ties between al-Qa’ida and Bosnian intelligence, with Iranian assistance, in the 1990s; see this author’s Unholy Terror: Bosnia, al-Qa’ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad (Zenith Press, 2007).

[3] Agentsvo Voyennykh Novostey (Moscow), 23 Apr 2003.

[4] The most detailed account is an article by Andrew Higgins and Alan Cullison, “A Terrorist’s Odyssey,” The Wall Street Journal, 2 Jul 2002. For a Russian perspective see the article by Yuriy Tyssovskiy, “Bin Laden nomer 2 sdelalo vremya v nashykh tyur’makh,” in the weekly newspaper Vek (Moscow), Vol.22, 12 Jul 2002.

[5] Agentsvo Voyennykh Novostey (Moscow), 23 Apr 2003.

[6] An exception is Evgenii Novikov, “A Russian Agent at the Right Hand of bin Laden?” Terrorism Monitor (Jamestown Foundation), Vol.2, No.1, 15 Jan 2004, which provides more questions than answers.

[7] For examples see the articles by Michel Elbaz of Axis Information and Analysis (axisglobe.com), specifically “Russian Secret Services’ Links with Al-Qaeda” (18 Jul 2005), and “Russian Secrets of Al-Qaeda’s Number Two” (19 Jul 2005).

[8] Krystyna Kurczab-Redlich, “Drogi terroryzmu – Kto wspiera napastnicy?,” Rzeczpospolita (Warsaw), 16 Jul 2005.

[9] See Alex Goldfarb and Marina Litvinenko, Death of a Dissident: The Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the Return of the KGB (Free Press, 2007).

[10 Patrick Cockburn, “Russia ‘planned Chechen war before bombings’,” The Independent (London), 29 Jan 2000.

[11] Svetlana Meteleva, “Chechnya: my mozhem ubit’ Basayeva, no nikto ne dolzhen,” Moskovskiy Komsolmolets (Moscow), 21 Mar 2005.

[12] For a detailed examination of this viewpoint see the declaration of Chechenpress, 10 Jul 2009, available in both Russian and English at chechenpress.info.

[13] This murky relationship is explained well by Boris Kagarlitskiy, “My ne govorim, chtoby terroristy, no my pomoch’ im?” Novaya Gazeta (Moscow), 23 Jan 2000.

[14] The best case for the “FSB did it” hypothesis remains David Satter, Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (Yale Univ. Press, 2003), pp. 24-33. In September 2009, GQ magazine refused to run in its Russian edition an article by investigative journalist Scott Anderson entitled “Vladimir Putin’s Dark Rise to Power,” which added details to the FSB role in the 1999 apartment bombings, based on testimony by Mikhail Trepashin, a former KGB/FSB officer – see David Folkenflik, “Why GQ Doesn’t Want Russians to Read its Story,” National Public Radio (npr.org), 4 Sep 2009.

[15] “Death of Senior EIJ Member Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi Reported in the Caucasus,” 17 Apr 2005, at globalterroralert.com.

[16] “Razvedyvatel’naya sluzhba bor’by protiv Islamskovo dzhikhada,” Ekho (Baku), 13 Oct 2001.

[17] Efforts to depict such an “alliance” are overstated, e.g. Konstantin Preobazhensky, “Russia and Islam are not separate: Why Russia backs al-Qaeda,” Intel Analyses, 31 Aug 2007.

Defending NATO’s Eastern Frontier: A Modest Proposal

The Ukraine crisis and Russia’s theft of Crimea have forced NATO to ponder territorial defense seriously again after two decades of neglect. No longer does the Alliance have the luxury of thinking that counterinsurgency in Afghanistan constitutes its top priority. The Poles, who thanks to their long history with Moscow saw the malevolent winds blowing early, got here first, announcing a national security strategy last fall that put primacy on territorial defense. Now the rest of NATO, or at least its Eastern members who experienced coerced membership in the Warsaw Pact, are following suit.

NATO must support this important effort, together. As I’ve previously discussed, it’s evident that we are entering a soft “Cold War 2.0” confrontation with Putin’s Russia and, while that struggle will not be as heavily military as the Cold War confrontation with the USSR was – indeed, the ideological and political aspects wrapped up in Special War versus the Kremlin will be considerably more important on any day-to-day basis than overtly military measures – neither will the military component be absent either.

Moreover, it’s clear that Moscow’s itching for at least a provocation with NATO, as evidenced by numerous aggressive Russian-spurred incidents recently, including alarming confrontations with even U.S. forces. That said, the risk of hazardous miscalculation is greater than overt aggression as, in any strictly military sense, Russia is dwarfed by the might of America and NATO put together, as the Russians understand. But a message of strong deterrence must be sent, and soon, if NATO expects to avoid more serious trouble emanating from the Kremlin.

Today, during President Barack Obama’s visit to Poland, the staunchly Atlanticist Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski reiterated Warsaw’s desire to have a real U.S. military base in their country. Although NATO has responded to the security worries of its Eastern members engendered by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine with fighter patrols and more military exercises, this will not suffice. The time has come for permanent deployments, and I want to sketch what a modest, sustainable proposal to defend NATO’s vulnerable Eastern frontier would look like.

To be blunt, NATO forces stationed in Eastern frontier states will be a tripwire, an ineffable sign that the Alliance will not brook overt aggression against its members. Moscow must clearly understand that even limited military moves against Eastern NATO members will be met with a military response from the full Alliance: only with such assurances can Russian misconduct be comfortably deterred.

The actual military contribution required to underwrite this insurance policy is modest. We need two heavy (meaning armored/mechanized) brigade combat teams (BCTs) in Poland – one American, one composite from across NATO. With about 5,000 troops per BCT, that’s only 10,000 soldiers in toto – hardly a large basing requirement, though they should be garrisoned in Poland’s east, close but not too close to the border with Belarus and Ukraine, to make the message impossible for Moscow to miss. (One of the oddities is that, due to Poland’s lingering Cold War basing structure, most of their heavy ground forces are located in the west of the country, far from where they need to be now.)

Additionally, NATO must station a heavy BCT in the Baltics as well, divided among Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, given the Russian threat to those small countries, and one of its three to four battle groups should be American (or Canadian: Ottawa pulled its forces out of Europe a generation ago, and it would be good to see them return). Similarly, another heavy BCT is required in Romania, given Moscow’s open designs on neighboring Moldova, and America can and should provide that, although if European NATO members wish to contribute forces too, so much the better.

In all, that’s 20,000 ground troops, only half of them American, at most. Even allowing for necessary support troops and air cover, plus air defense forces, we’re talking about 30,000 troops at the outside. The U.S. defense budget is dropping, as is our Army’s combat strength, but adding two BCTs to the two that are already serving in Europe, far from the Eastern frontier, is hardly onerous, not to mention that it represents a tiny fraction of the size of U.S. Army Europe at the end of the Cold War. There already have been complaints from some NATO members about adding forces in the East, but if the Atlantic Alliance, with its twenty-eight countries – many of which on a per capita basis are among the wealthiest and most comfortable on earth – cannot find a few thousand troops for this vital mission, one must ask what NATO is for any longer.

Last but not least, this newly created NATO Eastern Frontier Command ought to have a European – make that an Eastern European – general officer commanding (though with an American deputy). We are an Alliance and we must show that we are strong together, and that American troops need not always serve under an American general to demonstrate that strength and resolve. The sooner we start creating a viable defense for NATO’s vulnerable East, the sooner Russia will start behaving. Waiting will only encourage more Kremlin misconduct.