The big menacing balloon, about 60 meters in height and an estimated couple thousand pounds, was not carrying extraterrestrials or some exquisite new covid viruses from Wahun, China. A spying monster, as Washington's Secretary of State, Antony Blinken insisted, deployed by Beijing to "attempt to surveil very sensitive military sites" (CNN, February 19, 2023).
The balloon, large as roughly three buses, went over several military installations," in some cases loitering", claimed Blinken on "ABC’s” “This week”.
,US President Joe Biden speculated that the balloon was likely used for weather or research purposes. Still, once it was shot down with a missile fired by a military fighter jet and divers fished remains of the balloon out of the ocean, the reality caught up with the politicians.
Blinken confirmed the Chinese flying object was capable of collecting signals intelligence and taking photos:” There is absolutely no doubt in our minds about what the balloon was attempting to do”- it was part of a Chinese surveillance program that had been observed in the skys of more than 40 nations. The question remains: China expedited a robot behind the dark side of the moon, Beijing has no need for balloons.
China controls spy satellites, which are as capable as Google photographing each inch of Earth. Possibly Beijing’s balloon was a test, an attempt to refine its spying quality, perhaps China used the balloon to irritate, and confuse the Americans, which, indeed, were confused and hesitated to shoot the balloon out of the sky.
But there is war, not just in Ukraine, but a dozen others on this globe; Yemen comes to mind, targeted by Saudi Arabia and Iran, both nations one day soon aiming nuclear weapons at each other. What starving, -armed North Korea can do, and get away with, the Croeusus’of oil certainly can pay and plan -- apocalypse with petrodollars, the armageddon to end it all?
Terror and tensions are part of our time, and they are exploding in brutality and human despair. We almost forgot tsunamis and earthquakes, which just buried 40 000 human beings in Syria and Turkey under their ruins., Adding to those killed by bombs and machine gun fire just some seconds of history ago.
A few days after the great white balloon, a shark in the skies was blown up, Washington was alert again- Russian planes were approaching the northern State of Alaska, just some bombers and two SU 35 fighters.
This time, the Pentagon reacted; two F-16 fighters, two KC stratotankers and an E-3 Sentry scrambled to intercept the enemy planes from next door, not known as the Soviet Union anymore, but the Russian Federation. Where did they start, if not in Siberia, the never-ending space of ice and tundra, what was the pilot’s mission? Tensionsi, including nuclear clouds, are almost visible these days, evoked in Moscow’s threats, whenever Russian leaders are frustrated about losses on the battlefield, economic disasters or Ukrainian courage.
The Russian planes, as observed five, six times a year in these distant skies, did not enter sovereign US air space, but reversed course and were soon embalmed by clouds above Siberia. Are we witnessing a new Cold War again, or to phrase it as the “ Carnegie Endowment for International Peace” did in its futuristic report” US-Russian Relations in 2030’( June 15, 2020), are US-Russian relations just “at the lowest point since the cold war?” Almost all dialogues between the two countries have been suspended”, believe the thinkers at Carnegie”. There are “no signs that the relationship will improve in the near future.”
The annexation of Crimea in 2014, the invasion of Ukraine 12 months ago, despite Russia’s public swearing that no attack was imminent , has certainly damaged, if not destroyed the confidence and trust in the Russian leadership. And that was before Russian troops moved into Ukraine to liberate Russian Russian-speaking minorities from alleged Ukraine Nazi hordes, as Moscow justified its destruction of schools , hospitals, and power stations, train stations, its cannons leveling housing of ordinary citizens into a landscape similar to the moon/mars surface. Europe, the US, Canada, and allies like Australia reacted with sanctions, excluding Russia from the football world cup, rejecting Russian planes flying into their airspace, and canceling musicians and opera singers. Russian banks, credit card providers are cut off, Russian tourists are persona non grata in London, Paris or New York, oligarchs are hiding on their yachts anchored in Turkey or they are frolicking in Dubai., and, likely, Moscow’s athletes are not marching at the opening of the Paris Olympics in 2024.
Vladimir Putin indeed never admitted his fears that in the shadow of Nato the virus of democracy could spread, destabilizing Putin’s noble nation, which suffers freedom of speech and the press, a superpower using manipulated judges jailing the opposition or death squads are murdering opponents in cold blood, in London or St Petersburg. nuclear substances here, a bullet there, a hard labor camp located on ice and snow for those Russian citizens, who dare to oppose oppression, the abuse of law.
Visions of Peter the Great
Democracy, no question, is not Moscow’s favorite model. Democracy is not perfect and questioned by younger, idealistic and critical generations,. Yet, democratic institutions survive through adjustment, compromise and renewal. In contrast, Moscow is dreaming of a renaissance of Great Russia, the Soviet Union, including East Germany, the former communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), as Ramsan Kadyrow, the President of the Russian Republic Chechnya, just confirmed ( TV channel Rossiya 1, February 14, 2023), Moscow should attempt “a breakthrough and conquer Poland”, and move to repossess the GDR, because “this is our land.”
The respected US Political Scientist James Goldgeier predicted in “Foreign Affairs”( April 6, 2021),” It’s hard to imagine that US- Russian relations would get much worse. Still, sadly, they are unlikely to get better anytime soon. Over the past two decades, Russian President Vladimir Putin has defined his country’s interests in ways incompatible with the interests of the United States and their European allies. The latter believe that democracy, the rule of law, and providing security to Eastern European countries enhance stability. Putin, meanwhile, considers the spread of democracy to be a threat to his regime…”Putin’s vision, it seems, is to turn himself into another Peter the Great, the monarch who, 300 years ago, conquered and led the third-largest empire in history. Its national anthem reflects Putin’s philosophy, demonstrated in Syria and Ukraine --“Let the Thunder of Victory Rumble”.
The capital of the empire, St.Petersburg, happens to be Putin’s hometown; the czarist grandeur ended with the Russian Revolution anno 1917. The lodging of the autocrat was imagined after a visit to Versailles; the Peterhof-Palace is splendor and a reflection of wealth and power. The emperorto-be has conquered no new territory unless the annexation of Abkhazia (Georgie), Transnistria (Moldova), or Crimea is seen as a fait accompli by the Russian autocrat. His land grabs are violations: under international law-the invasion of Ukraine is an illegal act, disregarding the UN charter, arguably one of the most important documents of international law ( Kieran O’Meara, March 13, 2022,”E-International Relations”).
Article 2(4) of the UN charter provides that all members of the UN “shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations. ”In a UN vote on a resolution condemning Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory 143 of the body’s 193 members voted in favor- the highest number of votes against Moscow since its invasion began- 35 abstained , while just five, Russia as well as its allies Belarus, North Korea ,Syria and Nicaragua -voted against.
Many countries remained on the fence, especially in Africa and Central Asia, revealing (“Time Magazine” October 13, 2022) that “Russia isn’t as isolated as the West may like to think. ” Or worse, the UN vote reveals “Russia has more allies than West thinks.” Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz and France’s President Emmanuel Macron, although supporting Kyiv with tanks and other sophisticated arms, are trying to keep in personal communication with Putin, whereas Washington has ceased regular contacts with Moscow but, as the Pentagon confirmed, retains several communication channels “to prevent miscalculations, military incidents and escalation. (Reuters, November, 29, 2022) The socalled “deconfliction line” is tested twice daily with calls conducted in Russian, a Russian speaker from the US -European Command initiates those calls out of Wiesbaden (Germany) the location of the Pentagon’s recent “Security Assistance Group-Ukraine (SAG U), which remotely supports the Kyiv government’s defense against Russian troops. Signs of a growing disenchantment between Washington and Moscow were visible on multiple fronts.
For example, Syria’s war, where the infamous Wagner Group, the Russian-sponsored mercenary group, risked entanglements with US troops. In 2015, the year after Russia annexes Crimea, Russia closed Nato’s supply corridor to Afghanistan, a vital route also for US units, which were allowed to pass Russian territory. (“Washington Times”, May 19, 2015). Russia, during that time, was ready to support the US war on terror and even agreed to provide logistic support and aid anti-terrorist operations. In 2017 the then Deputy Secretary of State, Antony Blinken (today boss of the State Department) declared on PBS, the “Public Broadcasting Service” ( July 24, 2017): “We cooperated about Afghanistan, where Russia played a positive role, particularly in letting our forces and our equipment transit into and out of Afghanistan.”
The conflict raging on Earth
The phones were seldom ringing between Moscow and Washington over years and months, despite growing losses and devastating destructions and suggestions by Putin the war may continue for years to come. So rarely the world powers communicated directly with each other (whose combinednuclear-nuclear-armed arsenal counts an estimated 11000 weapons, 3232 missiles are armed with nuclear warheads and ready to be launched) that any confirmed phone call between National Security advisers or Secretary of Defense with their colleagues will be revealed by headlines in the media( AL Jazeera, October 22, 2022).
By the end of last year “Reuters” verified ( November 29, 2022) that Russia and US “have used their military hotline once so far during the Ukraine war”, and confirmed single calls by the CIA director Bill Burns and the White House National Security adviser Jake Sullivan with Russian authorities. Late February of 2023, a dramatic change brought the world to attention and the deconfliction line into high alert—Joe Biden surprised the world with a top--secret, long-time planned visit of Kyiv, the elder statesman braving air raid sirens on an outside walk with the Ukrainian President. A few hours beforearriving by train from Poland at the Ukrainian capital, Washington informed the enemy in Moscow about the visit of the President on Monday, February 20.
Almost on the same date Russia used the hotline connecting the two nations, reported CNN ( February 22, 2023)to announce an imminent Intercontinental ballistic missile test, the heavy SARMAT, also known as “the satan”.The demonstration of power, planned to make headlines during Biden’s visit in the war-torn nation failed- Putin did not mention the missile in his State of the Union address on february 21.
Washington though, did not consider the test as risk to the security of the United States, nor an escalation , as CNN corroborated.Nevertheless, the danger for the world was outlined in the Putin's speech. His nation will be suspending its participation in the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty with the United States, thus imperiling the last remaining pact that regulates the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals. Putin also professed he’ d instructed his military and civilian atomic energy agency to be prepared to test additional nuclear weapons-should the US carry out new tests first.
The newest escalation towards nuclear escalation affirms: Only 250 miles above the Earth, surrounded by stars and eternity, Russians and Americans are at peace, cosmonauts and astronauts attempting” to stay clear of the conflict that is raging back on earth”, as the “Guardian” ( September 21, 2022) has substantiated, “ especially when in orbit together.”
A collaboration among the US, Canada, Japan, the European Space Agency, and Russia, the International Space Station (ISS) , is split in two sections, an American and a Russian orbital section. At this time, notes the “Guardian”, the ISS depends on a Russian propulsion system to maintain its orbit, with the US being responsible for electricity and life support systems. Russians and Amerians , corroborated the “New York Times” ( July 15, 2022) “in orbit have sustained their close cooperation despite the fracturing of ties between the two countries after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine .”
Last summer, when Russia bombed civilian and military targets, missile strikes hit power stations, Chechen special forces tried to assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Russian troops captured a nuclear plant, and millions of civilians escaped from the battlefield, possibly forever uprooting, NASA and Moscow’s space agency Roscosmos announced an agreement that would give Russian astronauts seats on American built spacecraft in exchange for Nasa astronauts getting rides to orbit on Russian Soyuz rockets. “New York Times”- writers Kenneth Chang and Anton Trolanovski reported that Vladimir Putin even signed a degree dismissing Dmitry Rogozin, who , since 2016 had led Roscosmos, a staunch nationalist and Ukraine war propagandist, who in April admitted that he had submitted a proposal urging the Russian government to leave the space station and refuse to transport American astronauts back to Earth on a Russian spacecraft.
The week after the European Space Agency formally pulled out of a collaboration with Russia nding a robotic rover to mars, Rogozin stated that Russian cosmonauts on th Space Station would stop built robotic arm build by the Europeans. Although the space program of the two countries was developed as part of their Cold war, reminded the “Space Policy Institute” at George Washington University in a study, “US-Russian Cooperation in Human Space Flight” ( February 2001), ”almost from the start there have been suggestions that the US and Russia should cooperate in space.” In his inaugural speech in 1961 John F. Kennedy, the newly elected President, suggested to the Soviet Union, “ together let us explore the stars.” Shortly before Kennedy was assassinated he ordered NASA administrator James Webb to work together with others in the government to “develop a program of substantive cooperation with the Soviet Union in the field of outer space”, including “cooperation in luna landing proposals.” On July 20 1969 the US reached the moon alone, a historic event, whichI , a very young White House correspondent, witnessed from the NASA Space Center in Houston on an oversized screen, following the touchdown of the “Apollo Lunar Module Eagle” at 20.17 “Converted Universal Time”(UTC) with NASA engineers and listening to the first human words ever uttered on the moon by astronaut Neil Armstrong:” One small step for man, one great leap for mankind.” Three years later Washington signed an agreement with the Russia to have an US Apollo spacecraft rendezvous and dock with a Russian Soyuz vehicle. In 1977 the US and the Soviet Union projected a plan , which was realized 25 years later-flying a US space shuttle to a Russian space statio and envisaging an International Space Station (ISS), which began to become reality in 1993. US president Bill Clinton convinced skeptical congressional leaders on a Russian participation with the argument that the Russian partnership was an historic opportunity “to beat swords into plowshares, or more literally to convert the deadly missiles of the Cold war into peaceful longhaul trucking for the orbital facility.”(George Washington University, John Longsdon, Appendix B, “The evolution of US-Russian Cooperation in Human Space Flight”, february 2001) The exchange between Russian cosmonauts and US astronauts had been agreed upon, and when the US decided to phase out its Space Shuttles in 2011, Russia’s Soyuz became the only means to reach the ISS. Roscosmos went so far to end its Space tourism project, giving NASA astronauts and its partners involved , as the European Space Agency and Japan, priority. The decision was not without rewards- Nasa paid roughly 80 million dollars for one seat on Soyuz.
In 2014 NASA renewed a contract to ferry US astronauts to the ISS on Soyuz rockets and spacecraft, including additional support at the Russian launch site. The price, reported by the “Washington Post”( April 18, 2014) : 457.9 million dollars. NASA administrator Bill Nelson told CNN (June 4, 2021) about the future of US-Russian cooperation on the ISS :”For decades ,upward now 45 years (we’ve cooperated with) Russia in space and I want this cooperation to continue. Your politics can be hitting heads on Earth, while you are cooperating in space.” Even prior to the invasion of Ukraine, Roscosmos indicated to NASA that Moscow would eventually be ready to establish its own orbital station, abandoning its cooperation in a few years. A decision NASA reacted to with two words, an “unfortunate development. ”Washington’s decision announcing sanctions on Moscow’s aerospace industry did not really help to change Russian minds.
The “Guardian “concluded (September 21, 2022): “ Tension in the space field have grown.“ Yet, despite occasional discords and remarkable in itself, while Ukrainian forces were retaking most of the Kharkin regions and its troops advanced in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions(“ Kyiv Post”, September 22, 2022) the “Le Monde”(AFP) reported at the same time (September 21, 2022) from the Russian Cosmodrome in Baikonur( Kazakhstan) that two cosmonauts and one astronaut flew to the International Space Station in a Soyuz spacecraft “in a rare instance of Moscow -Washington cooperation.” NASA’s Frank Rubio was the first US astronaut to travel to the ISS on a Russian rocket since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The three will spend six months on the ISS, three other Russian cosmonauts, three other US astronauts, and one Italian. On October 5 of last year, the Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina, wrote space history, noted “Space.com”, the first Russian to travel with the commercial “Space X” Dragon capsule, her ride being part of the crew swap agreement between Nasa and Roscosmos. More flights for cosmonauts on Elon Musk’s spacecraft have been booked.
The ISS , reported “space.com” is officially approved to operate through 2024, NASA though has signed up to 2030 and hopes that the other program partners will do the same; if that happens, war back on earth, or not, the Americans will seek to extend the seat swap agreement with Russia” Roscosmos. Moscow’s outpost in space isn’ t expected to be operational until 2028—hopefully, the war on earth, at least the major one, Ukraine, will have ended. And the balloons in space or below will not be made in China, but children’s birthday balloons, innocent kids, war-torn and mentally damaged, playing on the blooming wheat fields of Ukraine, no more mines, nor artillery, no missiles fired by its neighbors, just colorful balloons.
The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.