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Amid the ongoing morass of the so-called "Global War On Terror" (the much-derided "GWOT"), the world awoke, in August of 2008, to a specter it was believed was dead and gone: Russian armor and artillery hammered holes for swarms of infantry in the little-known North Caucasus republic of Georgia. Unsurprisingly, Russian forces swiftly overran and secured their objectives against panicking Georgian troops...and then - rather uncharacteristically - stopped.

This was put down by most observers as anomaly. It didn't match the "normal" Russian pattern of military operations, and was thus not considered an issue. This perception was reinforced when no further aggressive action resulted; although many observers in the professional military community expressed a mixture of interest and concern over a number of aspects of the situation, tensions died down rapidly, and the press of world events continued apace.

Fast forward to 2014.

Amid spiraling violence around the world - concentrated in the Middle East, with the "Arab Spring", and the rise of ISIL - and with a Western power bloc rocked by over half a decade of economic upheaval, with a United States administration perceived around the world as ineffectual and incompetent, Russia suddenly and swiftly struck.

Beginning on February 20, Russian troops wearing unmarked uniforms and driving similarly anonymously-painted combat vehicles (in an apparent attempt to claim that they were actually local partisans), began moving quickly to secure parts of eastern and southern Ukraine, including the Crimean Peninsula.

What was surprising to observers was the speed and relative bloodlessness of the operations. The professionalism and restraint displayed by the invading Russian forces was also disturbing to observers, as it was worlds away from the frankly sloppy performance of Russian troops attempting to suppress Chechen rebels, both in the early 1990's, and later, at the turn of the millennium, which resulted in the disastrous bloodbath of the Battle of Grozny.

Surprise at seemingly new-found Russian professionalism began to shift to real alarm in September of 2015, as Russian forces launched a daring and innovative intervention into the maelstrom of the Syrian Civil War. This, for the first time in over twenty-five years, brought Russia to the brink of an armed confrontation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organizations (NATO), after a Russian Su-24M fighter-bomber was controversially shot down by an F-16 fighter of the air force of NATO member-state Turkey.

Once again, Russian forces performed exceptionally well, swiftly establishing themselves in-country, and significantly tipping the scales against ISIL and its fractious allies.

As tensions suddenly took on a flavor not seen since the mid-1980's, Russia began to flex its muscles in the Baltic Sea, with fighters actually intercepting NATO aircraft and ships.

This has now led directly to the ongoing "Anaconda-2016", as MilitaryGazette previously reported, the largest military exercise by NATO forces - at over 30,000 participating - since the end of the Cold War.

However, "Anaconda-2016" has been conclusively demonstrated to be weak sauce, by a perhaps unlikely source: the RAND Corporation.

The powerful and respected think tank has recently released a distressing report that details its internal wargame (conducted between the summer of 2014 to the spring of 2015) of a 'force majeure' assault on the newly-minted NATO member-states of the Baltic Republics. RAND's conclusions?

That the Russian military would rapidly overrun the three state's forces - including forward-deployed American light forces - in no more than 60 hours, mostly due to a lack of on-scene heavy armor units to counter their potential Russian opponents, which would almost uniformly be heavy armor units.

This would leave NATO with three terrifying options:

*Attempt a bloody counteroffensive to liberate the republics, a counteroffensive that would have to actually invade Russian territory, via the region around "Kaliningrad" (formerly "East Prussia", illegally annexed by the Soviet Union in 1945 and subsequently "ethnically cleansed"):

*Go "all in", with the threat of nuclear escalation

*Or, accept at least a temporary defeat -- an acceptance which could shatter the alliance

This last is perhaps the least enviable. Under Article V of the NATO Charter, any attack on one state would be treated as an attack on all states. Accepting the conquest of even one NATO member state destroys the entire foundation of, and reason for, the Alliance. The results on the world stage would be catastrophic, as it would destroy any pretense of a unified front against aggressive, conquest-minded states.

Additionally, following the logic that "No man is an island," this would directly encourage the People's Republic of China to launch a proactive campaign to seize the South China Sea sea lanes as its territorial waters. Similarly, there is the North Korean Question to consider: If the United States commits too many forces to the Baltic States, North Korea could view that as the time to engage in Leopoldo Galtieri-levels of stupidity...

...The initial reaction of most people watching this unfold via the nightly news would be one of incredulity -- surely, the United States would not allow such events to go along quietly.

Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, while the United States and the various Western allies did not completely disband their military establishments, they greatly reduced them. The remaining forces were, over time, re-engineered to fight an entirely different kind of enemy. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that enemy was perceived as low-level, Third World guerilla forces and terrorist groups. Increasingly, training for "main force" combat was deemphasized, as no realistic sequence of events could be seen wherein a major land confrontation, similar to World War 2, would or could occur. Indeed, there were plenty of voices (who should have known better) throughout the 1990's that pronounced the complete end of war as we knew it.

Those deficient attitudes have now come home to roost, with a vengeance.

After fifteen years of steady, grinding combat, United States forces are short of everything, from basic equipment to major end-items, like tanks. Ludicrous ideas and concepts have been allowed to infect the defense establishments of the world, including insanely overpriced aircraft that are patently unable to engage in mass combat.

Additionally, the numbers are not there: New budgets in the United States have reduced troops numbers to pre-World War 2 levels. If anything, other Western states are in worse shape.

At the height of the Cold War, a plan was in place and rehearsed regularly, to counter a Soviet attack in Western Europe: Operation REFORGER ("REturn of FORces to GERmany"). This involved the rapid mobilization and deployment of US forces into Western Europe before it could fall to a Soviet armored attack. The catch was that the United States needed to maintain active duty forces large enough to make such an operations viable.

The hard truth is that the United States no longer maintains those troop levels.

Worse, it is not entirely clear that the American people have the stomach for such a fight, if it comes.

That damning indictment can be laid squarely at the feet of the professional political class (both sides of it) in the United States, who neglected their actual governmental responsibilities for over forty years, in favor of playing utterly vapid and meaningless internal political power games.

To paraphrase the words of English writer and novelist HG Wells, this failure will be expressed in the numbers of dead of the non-political classes who will be sent in to clean up the mess that the former have made of the golden dream of peace that they were entrusted with.

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