Reviewed by Joseph Jamison
October 26, 2018
A few years ago the late Sen. John McCain called Russia, whose most important industry is oil and gas exports, “a gas station masquerading as a country.”
No greater friend of the US military-industrial complex sat in the US Senate than John McCain. If his contemptuous gibe expressed the dangerous hubris and ignorance of US officialdom—as it almost certainly did—Andrei Martyanov’s well-argued and fact-laden book Losing Military Supremacy, is a timely dose of realism.
Putin’s Russia remains at the center of US politics, though the Cold War (ca. 1945-91) with the socialist Soviet Union ended a generation ago. As this review is written, massive NATO war drills are underway in Norway, near the Russian border. A few days ago John Bolton, Trump’s ultra-hawkish, neocon National Security Adviser announced US withdrawal from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Force (INF) treaty. In much of the media there has been two years of the “Russia-gate” hysteria – Putin-demonization combined with endless accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections.
In politics and in war – and war is politics by non-peaceful means —there can hardly be a more important question than a correct assessment of the actual balance of forces, in this case between the
two main nuclear powers.
What the author of Losing Military Supremacy, Andrei Martyanov, sets out to show is how wrong US ruling circles are in assessing the balance of military power between Russia and the US. Washington completely overestimates own military power and underestimates Russia’s. And that false analysis is guiding US policy and causing the danger of miscalculation and the danger of war to rise exponentially.
Martyanov, now resident in the US, is a writer and blogger with direct experience of the Russian military world. He is a close student of American warfare. According to his publisher,
He was born in Baku, USSR in 1963. He graduated from the Kirov Naval Red Banner Academy and served as an officer on the ships and staff position of Soviet Coast Guard through 1990. He took part in the events in the Caucasus which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In mid-1990s he moved to the United States where he currently works as Laboratory Director in a commercial aerospace group. He is a frequent blogger on the US Naval Institute Blog.
An Internet search adds little to the biography offered by the publisher. It would have been interesting to know exactly what those “events in the Caucasus” were and why Martyanov moved to the US.
But it is easy enough to infer Martyanov’s current political outlook from his arguments. Though not uncritical of Communism, he does not evince any great hostility to the Communist era in Russia. He has a positive attitude toward the social gains in education and health care made in Soviet times. He takes a dim view of Soviet dissidents especially Alexander Solzhenitzyn, who defamed Russia in the West. Martyanov is offended by the denigration of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia and denounces “the whole Kremlinology and Sovietology industry in the US which continues to portray the life of Soviet people as one continuous unmitigated horror” ( p.109) He skewers the US neocons as the most warlike and most ill-informed influence on US foreign policy.
Martyanov suggests how military power should be measured. In a somewhat technical first chapter he points out that the US has been squandering its advanced manufacturing capabilities by offshoring them, and by generally neglecting manufacturing, the key to sophisticated weapons design and production. Moreover, he contends that US official estimates of the industrial strength of Russia are ridiculous. The Russian economy is as large as Germany’s (a country often referred to as “Europe’s industrial powerhouse”). In military production prowess, Russia is far superior to Germany.
Martyanov traces the origin of American military mythology to the Second World War, when by war’s end the US emerged on the winning side and as the main beneficiary of the war, though the Soviet Union by far had borne the main burden of defeating fascism.
Triumphalist mythology has such a hold in the US, he argues, because of the different historical experience of war of the US and Russian peoples. The US has not experienced foreign invasion of its central territories since the War of 1812. Invasion is recurrent in Russian history. This historical background conditions the Pentagon analysis of Russian military power, which is profoundly wrong. Contemporary Russia is far more formidable than the conventional wisdom in the US perceives it to be.
Martyanov sees the origins of present-day US-Russia conflict in the US-NATO attack on Serbia by the Clinton Administration in 1999 and Bush’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002. Prior to these two events many post-Soviet Russian leaders were pro-West. After these events, Russians began to conclude they would never be treated on the basis of equality and respect. Ignoring its solemn promises made to Russian leaders, under Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump, NATO has relentlessly expanded to the Russian border, thereby confirming these conclusions.
The dangerous narcissism that alarms Martyanov isn’t the narcissism of the current US President. It is the decades-long narcissism and hubris of US military policy-makers. Martyanov assails the notion prevailing in Washington of terminal Russian decline and irrelevance. A recovery from the catastrophic 1990s began in earnest almost 15 years ago.
He traces American delusions of its own greatness as far back as the 19th century, but the delusions are most in evidence since the emergence of the US as the dominant world power in 1945. In the middle chapters he discusses American elites’ inability to grasp the realities of war, their reliance on caricature and stereotypes of Russia, their resort to “threat inflation” and Washington’s complete failure to come to grips with the inevitable emergence of a multi-polar world.
In Chapter 8 he catalogues the growing signs of US military weakness despite its reputation for strength. The US Navy, for example, depends on visually impressive giant aircraft carriers, which are increasingly vulnerable to cruise missiles that cannot be intercepted. He notes that US victories in war come less frequently. Consider the invasions of Afghanistan, (2002-present) and Iraq (2003-present). Both wars are still being fought. Consider 2008 in Georgia and the war in Syria (2011-present) where the US clients lost (p 199) The US has not fought a war with a “peer” adversary since 1945.
Most interesting is perhaps his final chapter “Epilogue: Putin’s Game-Changer: Peace Through Strength.” The New York Times treated this March 1, 2018 speech by Putin to the Russian Federal Assembly as if it were a con-job by Putin (“Mr. Putin may have been bluffing about these weapons”, wrote Timesmen Neil McFarquahar and David Sanger ). Martyanov’s assessment is the polar opposite. “The strategic ramifications of the latest weapons systems Putin presented are immense.” ( p 220)
In his speech Putin stated that, since the unilateral withdrawal by the US from the ABM Treaty, Russia had worked intensively on advanced equipment and arms. His speech announced breakthroughs in developing new models of strategic weapons. The Kinzhal missile, for example, puts US aircraft carrier battle groups at risk. Martyanov concludes, “The US Navy’s whole surface component becomes a complete hollow force, good only for parade and flag demonstrations…”
This book is not a Left analysis. Martyanov would appear to be a Russian patriot who is moderately conservative in his politics. The book rarely criticizes Putin. It is not unreasonable to suppose Martyanov’s views are more or less consistent with the thinking of the Putin leadership of contemporary capitalist Russia.
That fact alone would make the book important for peace activists and people on the Left to read. The US media seldom allow official Russian views to get a respectful hearing, with a few honorable exceptions such as film director Oliver Stone who interviewed Putin at length a few years ago.
Is there any hope of averting a clash between Russia and the US? Martyanov is convinced the great danger is the US can simply stumble into conflict with Russia. What must be done to avoid it? He writes,
Most importantly, however, is the need to remove the neoconservatives and other warmongering elements from power. This starts with the reassessment of the American role in the world and its relation to war. The whole militarism cult in the US is built on a consistent mythologizing of American military history and her weapons, based on a lack of serious knowledge among the American political and intellectual elites of precisely what real war is. Exposing this and educating the American public will have positive long term effect. ( p. 215)
“Removing the warmongers” will be no easy task. Neoconservative war-mongering is well represented in the present Administration, the top leadership of both major US parties, the senior civil servants, the leading editorial boards, the academy, not to speak of the whole apparatus of think tanks surrounding the making of US foreign policy.
He sees American elites as the only important decision makers. He despairs that their ignorance and myopia can be overcome quickly. But he makes no appeal over the heads of the elites to popular forces and the Left in the US. To this reviewer, his lack of confidence in them seems, unfortunately, partly justified. The US peace movement was demobilized in the Obama years and, even under Trump, is slow to muster an ability to put millions of people in the streets, as it did in 2003 in the run-up to Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
Martyanov’s solution, until realism wins out, is a defensive arms buildup by Russia and other rising states to counter US arrogance, miscalculation and desperation. He does not want the US to continue to be be powerful; he wants it to be less myopic about the inevitable downward arc of its power, so it won’t miscalculate and launch a war. In other words, all Russia can do is wage and win the new arms race that the US is imposing on Russia. If Martyanov is correct in his assessment of the new Russian weapons systems unveiled by Putin in his March 1 speech, Russia may be winning this round of the new arms race.
Martyanov’s writing style is accessible for an intelligent lay audience that pays some attention to international affairs. It is occasionally burdened with military jargon and acronyms. But his meaning is clear enough.
He displays occasional flashes of caustic wit. Commenting on US political institutions and political discourse (p. 209), he declares that they are “becoming a more expensive version of The Jerry Springer Show,” an observation that strikes a chord in the waning days of a seemingly never-ending 2018 midterm election.
This convincing and sobering plea for realism by a well-informed Russian military man ought to be read by US antiwar activists and the Left. In opposing war and the new arms race, it is part of our responsibility to acquaint the under-informed US public with just how destructive a war with a nuclear-armed “peer adversary” might be.
Losing Military Supremacy: The Myopia of American Strategic Planning by Andrei Martyanov
Clarity Press, Inc., 2018. 249pp. paperback. ISBN: 978-0-9986947-6-4