" The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art. If you cannot master it, you inevitably get into war. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.' John Foster Dulles - 1956
Presidents Obama and Putin discuss deteriorating situation in Syria, as both sides stare into the abyss of an all-out Syrian civil war -
Not since the Cuban Missle Crisis has a Russian military vessel carrying offensive weapons been challenged on the high seas with the intention of ordering that ship to turn around.
A Russian ship, the MV Alaed, has been intercepted off the coast of Scotland by the British, and ordered to do just that.
In spite of the fact that Russia does not support EU sanctions against weapons shipments to Syria, Britain has joined the United States and other countries in pressing Russia to halt arms shipments to President Bashar Assad’s regime.
What was a war of words has now turned into drama on the high seas, according to British press reports. Britain’s Foreign Office confirmed it was aware that a ship carrying a consignment of refurbished Russian-made attack helicopters was heading to Syria. It said Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague had told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that all defense shipments to Syria must stop.
“We are working closely with international partners to ensure that we are doing all we can to stop the Syrian regime’s ability to slaughter civilians being reinforced through assistance from other countries,” the Foreign Office said in a statement.
The MV Alaed picked up its cargo of Mi25 helicopters – known as 'flying tanks' – from the Russian port of Kaliningrad, where they had been sent to the state-owned manufacturer Mil's 'Factory 150' for servicing and repairs.
They were originally sold to the Syrian government by Moscow, its major arms supplier, at the end of the Soviet era.
The ship headed south through the North Sea towards the English Channel on its way to the Mediterranean and, most likely, the Syrian port of Tartous, also home to a Russian naval base.
They said they were continuing to monitor the ship, which has been the subject of a fierce international row since US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week revealed it was adding to the arsenal of weaponry available for Mr Assad to use against rebellious Syrian towns.
It is difficult not to draw comparisons between the current drama and the Cuban Missle Crisis.
That crisis was initiated when the Soviets placed nuclear weapons on the Island of Cuba. Cuba lies within launching distance of the USA. This was arguably an act of brinkmanship on the part of the USSR, intimidating the USA with weapons within the Americas. The US responded to the presence of the weapons by blockading Cuba, and dramatically challenging soviet ships on the high seas. The Cuban blockade was also an act of brinkmanship since the USA, instead of succumbing to the pressure from the USSR, decided to see how the soviets would react to the USA stopping their vessels from entering Cuba.
By definition, brinkmanship, is an art of pushing a dangerous confrontation to the limit of safety to force a desired outcome, it is not a science, and carries with it enormous risks.
Timing is a crucial factor in any act of brinkmanship, and it should not be underestimated how important it was to wait until the Russian president was not only outside of Russia, but surrounded by the leaders of the G-20 who will discuss the deepening crisis in Syria as well, before playing this dangerous game.
The Russian leader will counter at some point in time, just to remind us that Russian presidents have awesome powers as well. One possible route is to continue Iranian arms shipments to Syria. Afterall, brinkmanship is as close to the concept of 'school yard rules' that exists in the world of international conflicts; and boys will be boys.
The use of the tactic of withdrawing the Russian ship's insurance by a British firm which comes under the umbrella of EU sanctions, gave the Russian's a reason to pull back, and prevented a direct confrontation between American and Russian naval forces.
Though not immediately obvious, this well crafted drama has increased the stature of the American Secretary of State, as a prelude possibly to her ascendancy to the number two spot, in what may be a very close presidential election this November.